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Feature: A year after Pretoria peace agreement, challenges persist in rehabilitation of Tigray’s ex-fighters

Disabled ex- fighters from Tigray protest on the streets of Mekelle (Photo: Social Media)

By Mihret G/kristos @MercyG_kirstos

Addis Abeba – One year ago, the Pretoria Peace Agreement was signed, marking a significant milestone in the history of Ethiopia. This groundbreaking accord brought an end to the harrowing Tigray War, a two-year-long fighting that ravaged not only Tigray but also parts of the Amhara and Afar regions.

With the conclusion of this devastating war, many held onto the hopes that the country could finally exhale, no longer burdened by the financial strain of funding the war from both sides. Moreover, a sense of hope was rekindled as relative peace was restored to the affected population.

The Pretoria Peace Agreement was followed by another agreement between military leaders from the Federal Army and Tigrayan forces, who met in Nairobi, Kenya. They established a joint committee with the purpose of outlining the specific details and procedures necessary to carry out the comprehensive Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program. Unfortunately, the implementation of the DDR program has not progressed as anticipated, both at the federal and regional levels.

In July 2023, General Tadesse Werede, the Deputy President of the Tigray Interim Administration, announced that the initial phase of demobilization had seen over 50,000 former combatants successfully demobilized. According to him, most of these ex-combatants have now returned home after undergoing certification, except for those from the western, northwest, and other parts of the Tigray region that are still occupied by the Amhara region and Eritrean forces.

“We have provided them with certificates and some financial support for their livelihood until various rehabilitation programs commence,” General Tadesse stated.

However, the current situation on the ground reveals that not all ex-fighters have been demilitarized, as thousands are still awaiting their certificates. This includes disabled fighters who are receiving medical treatment in different military establishments, such as the Quiha Meles and Awash camps, which Addis Standard recently visited.

Ex-combatants testify

Freweyni Abrha (name changed for security reasons) is one of the disabled ex-fighters receiving medical treatment in a military camp located in Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region. Freweyni, a mother of two, joined the war front in the first year of the conflict, along with her 18-year-old son, after witnessing a horrific incident in her neighborhood.

“A heavy weapon was thrown into our neighborhood, killing five people, including a baby in its mother’s arms,” Freweyni recalls. “Armed groups were killing youths and sexually violating girls and women. This tragic incident forced me and my son to join the war.”

Addis Standard met Freweyni while she was at a military camp located in Mekelle, awaiting medical treatment for her leg, which had been shot twice. However, she claims to have not received adequate medical attention, with a bullet still lodged in her leg. The lack of medicine, professional surgeries, hygiene, and the food system worsens her situation.

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“I am giving up on treatments and hope for a veterinarian solution,” Freweyni expresses her frustration. “We need urgent assistance, especially regarding the medical issue.”

During the war, Freweyni fought on various fronts, and most of her friends lost their lives on the battlefield. She considers herself fortunate to have survived, but the loss of her friends deeply upsets her.

“I don’t regret my disability because I joined the war to fight for Tigray,” Freweyni emotionally expresses. “Our sacrifice, injuries, and deaths meant something. I am always proud of it.”

Freweyni also reveals that she is not only physically disabled but mentally ill as well, having experienced tragic and horrific incidents. She expresses the need for psychotherapy, stating, “I need to be heard. The stress has overwhelmed me, and I can’t sleep. The incidents at the war front haunt me at night, but I haven’t had access to therapy to heal my inner wounds.”

Prior to the outbreak of the war, Freweyni worked as a civil servant while having a part-time private business on the side. However, she left her comfort zone and joined the war, while her husband, a former member of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), was unlawfully arrested outside of Tigray after the conflict broke out.

According to observations by Addis Standard at both camps, numerous deficiencies have been highlighted. Immediate attention is needed for the hygiene conditions, especially in terms of toilets, showers, wardrooms, and the environmental dormitory. Additionally, the food system is inadequate for patients and lacks essential supplies.

Addis Standard also interviewed two nurses stationed at Awash camp, who shared similar experiences regarding the medical treatment received by ex-fighters. The number of medical professionals and nurses is insufficient to handle the high number of patients, resulting in inadequate treatment. This has led to additional health issues, including infections and other associated bacterial illnesses, due to poor hygiene practices.

Thousands of ex-fighters in Tigray are facing difficulties providing for their families due to limited resources and a lack of proper rehabilitation (Photo: Tigray TV)

The nurses highlighted the major issue of the medicine shortage. Ex-fighters at Awash camp suffer from severe injuries such as limb loss, facial injuries, and concussions. They require significant amounts of medicine and medical treatments; otherwise, their health conditions become critical.

Apart from disabled ex-fighters receiving medical treatment in various military camps across the region, many ex-fighters demobilized by the Tigray Interim Administration are facing difficulties providing for their families due to limited resources and a lack of proper rehabilitation. Since they received a small amount of money, some of them are unable to return to their normal lives.

One of them is Haftom Teklu, a resident of Mekelle. In February 2021, he joined the war in Tigray after completing basic military training. Haftom expressed his emotional motivation to join the military after witnessing tragic incidents, including mass killings, atrocities, and sexual violence against women and girls. He had to leave his children behind.

Haftom feels that the Interim Administration of Tigray has forgotten about demobilized ex-fighters despite the peace agreement signed in November 2022. He says there is a sense of unfairness among demobilized ex-fighters, as some individuals receive certificates through personal connections, while others who fulfilled their responsibilities and were willing to sacrifice their lives are denied certification and the subsequent rehabilitation program provided by the regional interim administration.

Haftom asserts his right to receive certification and rehabilitation, just like other ex-fighters, as he is responsible for his household and his children’s needs, which he cannot afford due to the absence of income.

Addis Standard also spoke to other ex-fighters in Mekelle who share the same concerns regarding receiving certification and rehabilitation. These ex-fighters staged a protest in late August on the streets of Mekelle. Despite their service in the army, some protesters were not provided with the certificates promised by the regional administration to over 50,000 demobilized fighters in July. These ex-fighters have also previously organized protests demanding essential resources such as food and medical care.

Due to inefficient reintegration interventions, significant security challenges are emerging in the region. During a visit to Mekelle, Addis Standard observed a rise in security issues, including incidents of robbery, pickpocketing, public hangings, and group fights. These issues were not prevalent in the Tigray region before the outbreak of the war. Residents now face difficulties moving around, particularly at night, due to safety concerns.

On August 25, 2023, a grenade attack occurred at an entertainment center in Mekelle City, resulting in the tragic loss of four lives and injuries to 20 others. The prime suspect, believed to be a former combatant, is currently at large. Five of the injured victims are receiving treatment for their severe injuries at Ayder referral hospital.

According to a 2008 study by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, ex-combatants in transitional societies face significant psychosocial challenges as they deal with the violence of their past. These challenges include anger, coping with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), relationship difficulties, mistrust, difficulties adjusting to family life, stress, and depression. If not successfully reintegrated, war-traumatized and highly militarized ex-combatants can pose a threat to their receiving communities, leading to violent attitudes and crime.

Many African countries continue to experience violence involving ex-combatants more than a decade after the implementation of DDR programs, according to the study. A significant challenge arises in specifying the timeframes for transitional periods.

Progress at the federal level

In Ethiopia, the National Rehabilitation Commission (NRC) was established in December 2022 at the federal level to manage the demobilization and rehabilitation of former combatants. Lulseged Belayneh, the Communication and International Relations Director for the NRC, stated that the commission has been actively working to urgently initiate the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program. This includes tasks such as establishing the organizational structure, preparing manuals and documents, and registering ex-combatants.

So far, the commission has registered 371,971 ex-combatants from eight regional states, with about 70% coming from the Tigray region, according to Lulseged. The program also includes women and children who have been affected by the war. However, Lulseged says the commission has faced delays in implementing the demobilization phase, which was originally scheduled for September, due to a lack of sufficient resources.

In May 2023, Ambassador Teshome Toga, the head of the commission, highlighted in an interview with Addis Standard, that the DDR program requires significant resources for efficient success.

Lulseged explains that the commission’s DDR program is divided into three phases, with each phase potentially taking up to three months. “Once the necessary finances are secured, the commission will move forward with the program.”

The commission estimates that $800 million is needed for the program, with 85% of the funding being covered by international organizations like the World Bank and the remaining portion by the federal government. Additionally, the commission has identified ten camps in the Tigray region to facilitate the rehabilitation program for ex-combatants. “Further details regarding the maintenance and logistical preparations of these camps will be disclosed soon,” Lulseged disclosed.

However, Lulseged emphasizes that the program previously implemented by the Tigray interim administration, which covered over 50,000 former combatants, cannot be considered proper rehabilitation. He states that ex-fighters who were demobilized by the regional government will benefit once the commission’s DDR program is initiated.

Yet, such news provides little comfort for ex-fighters like Freweyni and Haftom, who are currently facing difficulties due to limited resources and a lack of proper rehabilitation. Despite wishing to return home and resume a normal life with her family, Freweyni cannot do so until she receives certification and undergoes rehabilitation.

She asserts, “I want to be rehabilitated and live a normal life again. I don’t want to rely on others; I want to work and make a change.” AS

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