Every morning for the past three weeks, Selam Gebremeskel calls her family in Tigray, Ethiopia.
But all she gets is a message telling her “the subscriber’s phone you’ve dialed” is switched off.
“I don’t know if they’re dead, I don’t know if they’re alive, we’re just waiting,” said Gebremeskel. “The unknown is killing us, we’re waiting.”
Gebremeskel has been waiting to hear back from her family since Nov. 4, when Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, ordered a military offensive against regional forces in Tigray.
“He has landlocked the whole Tigray,” said Gebremeskel. “Nobody can get in or out, there is no internet connection, there are no phone connections. He isolated Tigray from the whole world. We don’t know what’s going on.”
The conflict began after the government accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of attacking a federal military base. Tension between the TPLF and the government was already high after the national election was postponed by officials, who cited the pandemic as the reason. Tigray held its own election in response, which Ahmed recognized as illegal.
“You can’t hold an election in a pandemic, but you are OK with starting a war in a pandemic,” said Maron Dejene, an Islander who has family living in Tigray. “That’s just, it’s so ironic, you know?”
A report released on Nov. 12 by Amnesty International said civilians are being caught in the middle of the conflict. The investigation revealed that many civilians, likely hundreds, were killed in a massacre in the region, but Amnesty International noted it’s not clear which side is responsible.
“I am scared,” said Gebremeskel. “I don’t want to lose my family, I don’t want to lose those little kids. I don’t want to lose my sisters, my brothers, my cousins.”
The conflict has only escalated since it began. More than 40,000 Ethiopians have sought refuge in Sudan, according to the UN refugee agency, with the number continuing to rise.
On Sunday, the government issued a 72-hour ultimatum for the TPLF to surrender or face a new attack. Now, the UN is calling on both sides to spare civilians caught in the middle.
“We have seen an Ethiopian colonel come out and say there will be no mercy,” said Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “On the other side you have the TPLF leadership say they are ready to die.”
The 72-hour period ends on Wednesday and Islanders with family in Tigray are still in the dark about what’s happening and left wondering what tomorrow will bring.
“So many things run just run through my head, so many things,” said Dejene, tearing up. “Knowing now that my sister might be going through something like that, my cousins might be going through something like that, my aunt and my uncles are fighting there, it just breaks my heart.”
This conflict isn’t necessary, she said, adding that the capture of the TPLF is not worth putting so many lives at risk.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me,” Dejene said.