Ethiopians prepare for battle to 'save the nation', as men and women head to the front

·3-min read

We were taken up the stairs at a community centre in Addis Ababa and offered a seat at what appeared to be a boisterous rally.

There were women, draped in flags, dancing at the front of the hall and a hundred or so people hollering and clapping in time to the music.

There was something unusual about this lively scene for it has been replicated widely in the past few days in the Ethiopian capital but the smiles and the catchy music obscured its serious purpose.

We had been invited to a community send-off, an opportunity for residents in the district of Arada to thank and motivate 20 young men and women who were about to head to the front.

"I am going to serve my country, to avenge the blood of my brothers, to protect my country and my family," said a young man called Million Abraham, who worked on a building site in the city.

He will participate in a war that erupted last year, when tensions between the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, and the leaders of the region of Tigray, the TPLF (Tigray People's Liberation Front), reached boiling point.

Abiy sent troops into the region in November 2020, in response to TPLF attacks on a number of army camps. The prime minister called it a 'policing operation' and promised a swift victory, but TPLF fighters have pushed Ethiopian troops back.

Forming an alliance with other insurgent groups, the TPLF have moved into neighbouring regions and now threaten the capital itself, recently taking a town just 220 kilometres (136 miles) northeast of the capital.

The realities of this conflict have made themselves known in Arada and we listened to the leader of a local mosque who said he was prepared to go and fight.

Then, a member of the local government warned the audience of spies and saboteurs.

"You shouldn't trust your own shadow at a time like this," she said softly.

There is a widespread view in Addis Ababa that the international community is siding with the TPLF and we heard western countries being angrily denounced on multiple occasions.

"We Ethiopians do not compromise. Forget America and other hostile countries. They will face the same fate. We will drag their dead bodies from our land, just like the Italians," said a man with a reference to the defeat of Mussolini's troops, who were repulsed from Ethiopia in 1941.

Million Abraham, the builder, told us he was not worried, despite the fact he had only received a few days of training.

"I am not afraid. We will get more training when we get to the front. I am not afraid of going there. Before we join up with them we will be trained. I am not afraid of going and even if I die, it's not a problem. It's for my country."

"Is this country in a dangerous position?" I asked.

"I think the war will wrap up very soon," he replied confidently, despite the fact the government is struggling to halt the TPLF's advance.

In what is seen by some as a symbol of distress or desperation, Abiy Ahmed has informed the nation via social media that he will relocate to the front, where he will personally lead the army.

The prime minister has asked Ethiopians to join him in what he calls a battle to "save the nation".

Mr Abraham seemed happy to do his bit and told me he was prepared to pay the ultimate price.

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