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Analysis: Emotions burst as Tigrayan families disconnected by blockade meet loved ones in Mekelle

Scenes from family reunions in Mekelle. Pictures: Screenshot collective/Tigray TV

Addis Abeba – Scenes of ululations, tight hugs and kisses, prayers, tears and gasps. These were emotions visibly displayed when civilian passengers on board Ethiopian Airlines’ first commercial flight in over two years landed in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray regional state, on Wednesday 28 December. The flight landed at the city’s Alula Aba Nega airport in the afternoon. Some were seen kissing the ground as they landed in their homeland, the scene of “world’s deadliest war.”

Ethiopian Airlines communication department told Addis Standard that most of the passengers who boarded the plane were residents who were traveling to be reunited with their family members.

The initial aircraft the Airlines planed to fly to Mekelle was Bombardier Q400 aircraft with the capacity of just 77 passengers. However, the aircraft was later upgraded to Boeing 737 aircraft with a capacity of boarding over 138 passengers due to high demands from customers.

“Currently we have started the operation with a single daily flight between Addis Abeba and Mekelle with our Bombardier Q400 aircraft and tickets are becoming sold out fast. Depending on the demand we plan to increase the frequency,” the communications department said.

“My younger sister is a diabetic patient. She lives in Mekelle that I fear whether she is alive”

Responding to price surge noticed since Tuesday, the communications department said it was in line with aviation industry culture, “not all tickets are sold with the same price. Passengers who purchase tickets at the earliest possible time tend to get the cheapest fares and as lowest fares get sold out the price goes up to the next cheapest fare thus, passengers who purchased their ticket at a later time get a price higher than those who purchased their ticket earlier.”

The patter is an indication of high demand because for a better part of the last two years, save for the brief period between 28 November 2020 and 28 June 2021, when the federal government installed an interim administration to run Tigray, families were torn apart as the federal government disconnected Tigray from all forms of basic services including air and ground commercial transport, telecom, banking and electricity. The UN called it a “de facto blockade,” and appeals by the international community for urgent restorations of these basic services were part of the diplomatic engagement to resolve Ethiopia’s brutal war.

Twenty eight years-old woman from Addis Abeba, who preferred to remain anonymous, is among passengers who has booked a one way flight from Addis Abeba to Mekelle for the flight which is scheduled today [Thursday]. She paid 4,650 Birr for the one way trip. “I am eager to [be] with my family in Mekelle and those who live outside of the capital as well,” she told Addis Standard.

But shrouded in her happiness is fear; she doesn’t know anything about her family. “My younger sister is a diabetic patient. She lives in Mekelle that I fear whether she is alive,” she said.

Kifle Hagos is another passenger eager to reunite with the love of his life. He was trying to book a flight through the Airlines’ online booking for his wife to fly from Mekelle to Addis Abeba but he must wait until the end of this week, because all seats are booked. “Ethiopian Airlines should add flights,” Kifle told Addis Standard.

“…the time I spent without [the woman] whom I spent 52 years in happiness and grief were extremely heavy and a time of distress”

The local Tigray TV featured mama Nigisti, a passenger who came to Addis Abeba in the summer of 2020 to take care of two of her daughters who were giving birth, a revered tradition for Ethiopian mothers. Nigist was forced to spend the last two years without her husband of 52 years and the rest of her family; and she didn’t tell anyone that she was arriving in Mekelle because there was no communication. The reunion was an emotional roller-coaster. The extended family was gathered together due to the annual religious holiday of St. Gabriel.

“I consider today as if I was born for the first time. I have faced many problems together with my people…but the time I spent without [the woman] whom I spent 52 years in happiness and grief were extremely heavy and a time of distress,” said her husband.

These are stories unimaginable just three days ago, until a high-level government delegation led by the Speaker of the House of People’s Representatives (HoPR), paid a surprise visit to Mekelle where the delegation met with and held discussions with the regional state authorities including the region’s leader Debretison Gebremichael.

The resumption of Ethiopian Airlines commercial flights was the first tangible announcement made in the wake of the visit towards the gradual lifting of the blockade, which is part of the permanent cessation of hostilities (CoHA) the two sides signed in Pretoria, South Africa, on 02 November, followed by two more negotiations held in Nairobi, Kenya.

The national Airlines is intent to keep the momentum, and says anyone who comes with the proper documents required for domestic travel is eligible for the flight and security checks will be following the international procedure.

On Wednesday, Ethio-Telecom also announced that it has started communications test trials in Mekelle and the Ethiopian Energy Authority (EEA), another government authority, said it has has granted 14 fuel distribution companies to transport and distribute fuel to fuel stations in Tigray regional state directly from the Djibouti port. The Authority said this was how 14 fuel distributors operated before the war broke out. AS

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