Ethiopia: The Defilement of Lalibela, and One Family’s Escape

TPLF: “If we are not the government of this country then the government will not be the government.”

by Jemal Countess with Jeff Pearce

Photo by Jemal Countess, used with permission.

“When the TPLF arrived in Lalibela they came in without a shot,” says Mekashaw Temesgen. “They claimed they were going to be respectful to us and the churches. Some of the older, higher ranking military leaders were very respectful of us but others were not. Those other officials were very rude and seemed to have a hatred for us as Amharas.”

Mekashaw, 39, is a priest in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and a resident of the town. This week, he recounted his family’s experiences when the TPLF took control of Lalibela on August 5, and the subsequent deterioration of the social conditions that led to his and his family’s desperate escape from the city.

After the TPLF moved in, “life in Lalibela became increasingly difficult as more soldiers arrived bringing with them heavy weapons. They tried to put mortars on the grounds of the churches, and the priest protested without regard for their own lives in order to protect the churches. The TPLF repositioned the mortars and other artillery to locations a short distance [away], but still close enough to cause damage to or destroy the churches if there were military strikes against those artillery positions.”

Mekashaw also saw boys as young as 13 to 15 carrying Kalashnikov rifles, cocky youths “who would demand your phone or whatever money you had, saying, ‘Whatever is in your pocket is mine.’ If you refused to give up your phone, they would threaten to shoot you. I started to leave my phone in the house whenever I went out because I did not want to lose it.”

Interestingly, the boys displayed a different attitude in unguarded moments. “But when the boys were more isolated they would say, ‘We don’t want to be here, they forced us to come.’ Actually, a lot of them would say this. There was even a priest from Tigray who said they were forced to carry guns, as they were forced into the war. I even saw the saddest thing, which was a pregnant woman, carrying a Kalashnikov. I was told that if you were a father and had children of age, if conscripted the children had to serve. If the parent tried to stop them, the parent would be killed, and the child forced to serve in the army.”

When word of the TPLF occupation of Lalibela first got out, it made headlines because of the risk to the exquisite, centuries-old churches hewn out of volcanic rock. Lalibela is a UNESCO World Heritage site. But the major Western media brands soon moved on.

Only a couple of days ago, the Amhara Professionals Union complained that UNESCO “has made no attempt to negotiate conditions to ensure there is no conflict in or around the church complex. To date, there has been no local or international institution that has sent their team to the ground to verify and ensure the churches’ safety.”

Between the child soldiers and the older armed regulars, says Temesegn, the TPLF looted everything — the banks, the local administration, food stores, community and infrastructure projects. All of the ambulances and other resources intended for the community were raided as well.

“And whatever government resources they did not take they burned or destroyed. There was even a Chinese road construction project near the city where the TPLF seized their construction headquarters and turned it into a military base. The TPLF said ‘If we are not the government of this country then the government will not be the government.’”

As the orgy of looting went on, he says, the remaining food went towards feeding the invaders, while inflation rocketed up the prices on what few goods were still available.

While Tigray continues to get the lion’s share of media attention, there’s reportedly no electricity or running water, and no critical medical services in Lalibela. Roads have been blocked for more than a month, the airport under the enemy’s control.

Mekashaw says the final straw that drove him and his family away was the TPLF placing heavy artillery right in the middle of his nearby village, among the private dwellings. They even fortified Asheton Mariam, the highest peak in the region.

“My village sits strategically on the edge of a cliff so you can see for miles the road and approach to the city,” he says. “They placed heavy artillery there as well as near the churches. We knew our homes would be destroyed when the fighting started, so we decided to leave. Also, they were more and more aggressive towards men and boys and began indiscriminate killing of the male adults and youth, which left us no choice. If I wanted to live and keep my family safe, we had to leave.”

Early on the morning of September 17, one of Ethiopia’s countless, put-putting covered motorcycles, a Bajaj, ferried away Mekashaw, his pregnant wife and his six-year-old daughter. After they managed to clear a TPLF checkpoint on the outskirts of the city, they made their way to a town called Dubko. They were far from “home free.” The family still had the arduous trip on foot for seven hours to Geregera.

Mekashaw’s wife was pregnant and needed to rest, but the family eventually made its way to Bahir Dar. He says most of the population of Lalibela and other towns attacked by the TPLF, like Sekota — especially the males — have now fled. They’re scattered in Bahir Dar and other communities in the Amhara region, reduced to the status of Internally Displaced Persons.

Even though homeless now, Mekashaw and his family seemed to be in reasonably good spirits for this interview, given the circumstances. They’re together. They’re safe. And his wife’s pregnancy is proceeding normally, mother and expected baby doing fine, thanks. But…

“For those of us from Lalibela we are very concerned about our home. We are ‘half here,’ because our hearts are in our homes, concerned about our loved ones, whoever stayed behind and the churches. We don’t know what the conditions of the churches are. We are concerned because the churches are our heritage that we need to keep and care for the future generations.”

Lalibela in a more stable time. Photo by Jemal Countess, used with permission.




Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.

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Jeff Pearce

Jeff Pearce

Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.

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