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Ethiopians abroad celebrate Christmas with hope and angst after November cease-fire in Tigray

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(LONDON) — On the eve of Ethiopian Christmas, the family of Sarah Kidane, 26, gathered at their home in North London as per family tradition; starting traditional food preparations, sharing laughter and doing their best to keep the festive spirit alive. But this year, everything was different.

Ethiopian Christmas, or Ganna, is celebrated on Jan. 7 by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and is a special time for Ethiopians at home and in the diaspora, many of whom are devout Christians.

“Ganna is usually such a great time,” Kidane told ABC over the phone. “The celebrations are a really meaningful special time for us … But I can’t even begin to describe the angst and distress my family is feeling this year as we continue to await news on the fate of my older brother.”

“We still don’t know what happened to him, or if he is alive,” Kidane said.

This year marks the second Ganna since the war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region began in November 2020, leaving the Horn of Africa nation — and the lives of Ethiopians in the diaspora — transformed.

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Ethiopian federal government and allied forces have been engaged in a deadly conflict with Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, forces in Northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands or civilians and displacing millions, the U.N. Refugee Agency said.

According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the conflict has left a trail of massacres, rapes and sexual violence — with Tigrayan Forces accused of committing war crimes and “serious human rights violations,” and the Ethiopian Federal Government accused of committing “crimes against humanity.”

With a long-running humanitarian aid blockade, “world’s longest uninterrupted internet shutdown” and cut-off from banking and essential services, Tigray’s nearly six million inhabitants were cut off from the world. The U.N. reported about 400,000 were living in famine-like conditions.

“The situation in Ethiopia is spiralling out of control. Violence and destruction have reached alarming levels,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in October. “Hostilities in the Tigray region must end now … civilians are paying a horrific price.”

Melat Habtu, activist and advocate at the Tigray Youth Network, recounted having to research atrocities committed in Tigray, knowing she may find members of her family among the casualties.

“At the start of the war in December there was a massacre that killed over 1,000 people literally a couple weeks before Christmas,” she told ABC News via video interview. “And whilst researching and collecting data the fears that was going through my mind was my family.”

Among victims Habtu was looking for names she knew, knowing that finding those names or faces in her research would be “very difficult.”

“I will always, always remember Christmas as being a day of massacre,” she said. “I have family that we have still not heard from: In the beginning they were able to reach out through NGOs, and sometimes they would talk to a very dangerous area to try get connection to call and say ‘we’re okay, we’re still alive’ — that’s it. A lot of people have only heard from their family that way and the call will last maybe a minute or so, then it would be six months or a year and you still haven’t heard from them.”

On Nov. 2, 2022, warring parties signed a cessation of hostilities which was announced by Olusegun Obasanjo, African Union representative for the Horn of Africa, and the High-Level Ethiopian Peace Process panel following the successful completion of peace talks in Pretoria, South Africa.

“The agreement marks an important step in efforts to silence the guns,” said the African Union in a statement.

The deal has led to basic services beginning to be restored in Tigray, including the return of limited banking services and arrival of humanitarian and medical aid, raising hope for some that peace may soon be restored to the Tigray region. But connection abroad still remains fragile, with some phone calls still not going through.

In the closing minutes of a Geneva COVID-19 press briefing in December, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tearfully announced his uncle had been murdered in the conflict by Eritrean forces.

“I hope that this agreement will hold and this madness will stop but it’s a very difficult moment for me,” he told reporters.

“We [still] have almost no view what happens in Western Tigray and the areas occupied by Eritrea,” Professor Jan Nyssen, senior professor at the Department of Geography at Ghent University, told ABC News.

The last conducted research by Nyssen and a team of researchers at Belgium’s Ghent University found that at least 383,000 to 600,000 civilian deaths have occurred in Tigray between November 2020 and August 2022.

For Ebenezer, a 24-year-old Ethiopian living in London who asked ABC News to not use his last name out of safety concerns, the restoration of phone lines has brought some relief for his family this Christmas.

“For the last 2 years I’ve dreaded picking up any calls from a +251 number because chances were that no good news would come from the voice on the other line as last year we lost three family members,” he said. “In December, however, we were able to reconnect with our relatives and heard from word of mouth that two of my family members had survived, fleeing to Sudan as refugees. This has brought so much relief for us this Christmas although they lost everything, which is heart-breaking for us.”

He added, “But still we thank God the remaining are alive to tell the story of all the atrocities that happened in the dark.”

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