War wounds cast a pall over Ethiopia’s Epiphany festival
GONDAR, Ethiopia: Growing up, Arega Tekeba’s fondest memories were of the feasts his father prepared for the Ethiopian Orthodox Timkat epiphany festival – the way he led his family by singing while roasting a freshly slaughtered sheep . But those memories are now extremely painful.
Arega’s father, an ethnic Amhara militiaman, was shot dead last year fighting ethnic Tigrayan rebels, joining thousands of others killed in the 14-month war that has ravaged the second most populous country in Africa.
Afraid of spending this year’s Timkat with grieving relatives, Arega instead celebrated alone on Wednesday in the northern city of Gondar, where residents said thoughts of the war dead darkened a generally joyous occasion .
A former seat of the royal empire in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, Gondar has long been the premier place to mark the Timkat, which commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.
Dressed in sparkling white tunics and robes, devotees parade each year in a raucous parade that culminates in an all-night prayer session, then jump the next morning into 17th-century stone baths filled with water blessed. This week, however, the festivities were stained with signs of the war’s toll: Gondar’s hospitals were overflowing with wounded combatants, while families like Arega’s faced the absence of the deceased.
“There are people who have lost more loved ones than me. I know of a house where six or seven people died,” said Arega, also a militia fighter.
“It’s the memories that make us sad, even more than the dead.”
The war in Ethiopia erupted in November 2020 after months of growing rancor between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the former ruling party in the northernmost region of Tigray, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
After several battlefield twists and turns, a government offensive again turned the tide, with the rebels retreating into Tigray.
Foreign powers are now hoping the two sides can reach a deal to end the fighting that has displaced millions and, according to UN estimates, is driving hundreds of thousands to the brink of starvation.
The United States sent its top African diplomat and regional special envoy to Addis Ababa this week in what it calls an “overture for peace.”
But any attempt to reconcile Abiy would be met with stiff resistance in Gondar, where fighters, politicians and ordinary residents celebrating Timkat told AFP that the TPLF, officially a terror group, must now be destroyed.
The mere idea of talks is “an insult to the Amhara people”, said Demoz Kassie Mekonnen, a senior member of the opposition Amhara National Movement.