'You can't even cry loudly': Counting Ethiopia's war dead

AP , Monday 15 Nov 2021

The man who counts the dead sees them everywhere. They're in the handwritten lists of names smuggled out of a region cut off from the world by war. They're in the images of people shot and tossed off a cliff, tortured and pushed into a river, left unburied for days.

Tigrayan activist Desta Haileselassie
Desta Haileselassie poses for a portrait in Stockholm, Sweden, on on Monday, Oct. 18, 2021. AP

He has been living with the dead for a year, since war erupted in Ethiopia's Tigray region. Tigrayans, a minority of some 6 million, were encircled as a falling-out with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, turned deadly. It became an ethnic clash when Amhara fighters from a neighboring region allied with Ethiopia's government poured in.

Many Tigrayans joined the fight. But in his Stockholm apartment, Desta Haileselassie decided to compile a list of Tigrayan victims, name by name.

It is slow, difficult work. Almost all communication with Tigray has been cut off, and foreign media is banned.

Desta issued pleas on social media for help. He made dozens of phone calls, then hundreds more.

'There are days when I end up crying the whole evening', Desta says softly. 'This is the least I can do to help my people'.

Now, a year on, he has confirmed 3,080 names of the dead. The Associated Press has verified 30 of them, speaking with families and friends.

Victim Number 2,171 was Gebretsadkan Teklu Gebreyesus, shot dead by soldiers in the presence of his two young sons. Victim 1,599, Zeray Asfaw, was a bridegroom pulled from his wedding party and killed. Victim Number 2,915 was Amdekiros Aregawi Gebru, an ambulance driver gunned down while driving a woman in labor to a clinic.

Desta's list does not include ethnic Amhara, some of the war's latest victims after Tigray forces started moving toward Ethiopia's capital.

A team of investigators with the Amhara Association of America has its own list of Amhara killed, which has reached 1,994.

Experts say the lists represent just a fraction of the dead.

Desta is certain that every Tigrayan has lost someone. But the thought of adding one name especially close to him is too much to bear. It brings him to tears every time she is mentioned.

He calls her Amlishaway.

She is his mother.

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