Foreign nationals rush to leave Ethiopia as war intensifies

 Bole International Airport

A plane on the runway at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia.

Photo credit: AFP

As fighting in Ethiopia’s civil war moves closer to the capital Addis Ababa, foreign nationals are scrambling to leave the country as soon as possible.  

The large “danger” symbol and unequivocal warning on the website of the French embassy in Ethiopia say it all: “In light of the situation in Ethiopia, French nationals are formally called upon to leave the country without delay.”

Paris fears for the safety of the more than 1,000 French people living in Ethiopia, as the conflict between government forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) moves closer and closer towards Addis Ababa. 

France has been calling on its citizens since November 23 to leave Ethiopia without delay; the French foreign ministry has booked and paid for seats on flights to Paris until the end of the week.

The UK has also urged its citizens to leave: “I am urging all British Nationals – whatever their circumstance – to leave immediately, while commercial flights are readily available and Addis Ababa Bole International Airport remains open,” UK Minister for Africa Vicky Ford said in a statement on November 24. UN employees have also been strongly advised to leave Ethiopia as soon as possible.

French expatriates

Bruno, a 29-year-old French business executive who moved to Ethiopia two years ago to work for a French media company in Addis Ababa, landed in Paris early on Thursday morning. “If someone said to me a month ago that I’d have to go back to France like this, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Bruno said. At that stage he doubted the conflict would spill over from the north of the country.

But on Monday, before the French embassy urged him to leave, he departed from Ethiopia along with the majority of French expatriates. “So far as I’m aware, only embassy workers, journalists and teachers are left – and the teachers should be leaving soon, as well,” Bruno said.

It was a similar feeling for Alexandre, another young French expatriate: “All our friends are gone,” he said.

 Rushed exodus

The rushed exodus of Westerners from Ethiopia was triggered by the rebel forces’ rapid surge toward the capital over recent days. The secessionist troops have reportedly approached the Debre Sina pass, some 190 kilometres north of Addis Ababa. 

“The situation has rapidly deteriorated since the end of October,” said Bruno, who intended to settle permanently in Addis Ababa after the end of his contract next month. He is temporarily staying with his sister in Paris and has to find a new job in France.

But Bruno has not given up on the idea of returning to Ethiopia as soon as the security situation improves. “I’ll wait and see how the situation evolves,” he said. “I think there are plenty of things left to discover in this country, which I’ve really fallen in love with.”

In the meantime, Bruno hopes that nothing bad will happen to his Tigrayan ex-colleagues. “Almost all of the Ethiopians at the company I worked for knew someone arrested in a roundup or taken God knows where. As a white man in Ethiopia, I wasn’t really afraid for myself – but I am afraid for Tigrayans.”

For its part, the Ethiopian government continues to claim that reports of the TPLF’s progress are exaggerated – denouncing what it sees as sensationalist media coverage and alarmist security warnings by foreign embassies.

Addis Ababa even sanctioned the Irish embassy on Wednesday by expelling four of its six diplomats posted in Ethiopia in response to Dublin’s stance on the conflict. Ireland had joined in the UN Security Council’s calls for a ceasefire and dialogue between the parties in the country’s civil war.

Bruno had a wry take on the current situation from his sister’s sofa, where he was about to spend his first night since returning to Paris: “We feel rather helpless – there’s nothing we expats can do about the situation. In Ethiopia, there’s a feeling that the war is a huge waste, coupled with a fear of raids. Here, we don’t know what’ll happen, but obviously we can afford to be a bit fatalistic.”