Teshager Tsigab

Lawyer Teshager Tsigab. 

| Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

My lucky escape from Tigray to Kenya

Since the war in Ethiopia's Tigray region started in early November last year, most rebellious Tigrayan leaders, be it in the military, government, academia or civil society, have either been killed or arrested. A number of them are in hiding, while very few have managed to leave the country alive.

Mr Teshager Tsigab, a vocal lawyer and distinguished civil society leader, boarded a Nairobi-bound flight in Addis Ababa, and he doesn’t intend to return to Ethiopia soon.

Mr Tsigab is seeking asylum in Kenya, joining a growing list of perceived dissidents like Uganda's Stella Nyanzi and Tanzania’s opposition leader Tundu Lissu fleeing political persecution by governments in neighbouring nations. 

'Lucky to be alive' 

Towards the end of January, Mr Tsigab narrowly slipped through Ethiopia’s watchful security apparatus and boarded a Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi, in what he describes as an “escape from hell”.

“It is by luck that I am alive,” he tells nation.Africa, in his first media interview.
Mr Tsigab is the first high profile escapee from Tigray to speak about his ordeal and the agony back home, in the aftermath of a war that started when Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in November ordered a military offensive, after an army base was taken over by forces loyal to the regional government of Tigray.

“Since the start of the military responses, people like me are either in hiding, are behind bars or have been killed, says Mr Tsigab.

Teshager Tsigab

Lawyer Teshager Tsigab. 

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

Seated pensively in the office of his Kenyan lawyer, Prof Wajackoyah Luchiri, who specialises in immigration matters, Mr Tsigab appears shaken.

He fears for his family as he has not been able to get in touch with most of them since he fled.

Prof Wajackoyah Luchiri

Prof Wajackoyah Luchiri. 

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

As the interview continues, his other lawyer, Ms Zahra Omar, comes bearing good news -- his sister is on the line and wants to speak to him. He grabs the mobile phone and holds it tightly, as if all his life energy is being channelled through it. 

He speaks rapidly in Tigrinya. It’s an intense conversation. The call ends, and wistfully, he returns the mobile phone to his lawyer. His contemplative demeanour returns. He looks at the ceiling, takes in one long breath, his chest heaves, his shoulders fall, he sighs as he lets out the breath. He is a tired man. 

Airport hitch

Getting to Kenya was no mean feat. Mr Tsigab was stopped at the airport in Addis Ababa. Tigrayans are not allowed to leave the country. He recalls that he was ready for anything at the airport.

"I could have been harmed, arrested or even killed. But at least I would have died trying to seek freedom,” he says.

"At the airport, because my name suggested that I am Tigrayan and the birthplace on my passport is Maghala, the National Security Service held my passport for so long,” Mr Tsigab recalls, further claiming he was lucky a communication glitch distracted the security agents. 

“They made frantic efforts to communicate with their colleagues, but because the radio communication appeared to be down, they finally allowed me to pass through the airport. That is how I escaped," he narrates. 

A communication hitch, thus saved him, and he slipped into Kenya. He had wisely booked a Kenya Airways flight and not an Ethiopian Airways one, as he believed the latter could be grounded any time by the government, should they realise his name was on the wanted list.

Dressed in a black polo shirt, a pair of jeans and black canvas shoes, the activist gives a witness account of things back home -- a home he has now left behind and might not see in a long time.

"There is a genocide going on right now in Tigray and the world does not know about it because there is an information blackout there," he says.  

'Being Tigrayan is a crime' 

The United Nations describes the situation in Tigray as extremely alarming, while Amnesty International this month confirmed reports of a "massacre" of civilians in the region.

"Being a Tigrayan is now a crime in Ethiopia. We are being targeted for being Tigrayan. I cannot believe this is happening. What is happening in Tigray is a massive genocide that no one is talking about, says the lawyer.

Besides being from the “wrong” tribe, Mr Tsigab says that his troubles were compounded when he refused to accept a government post in the provisional regional government in Tigray proposed by the Ethiopian federal government.

"They offered me the position of Attorney General and I said no. I declined because I could not stomach working with the same government hurting my own. They have cut electricity, internet and water supply. Banks are closed. We have numerous cases of rape, of looting of property, but no one seems to care," he laments.

When the federal Ethiopian army arrived in Maghala -- his home town -- his family was among its first casualties.

"The army raided my home, looted almost everything and converted it into a military camp now being used by the Ethiopian Special Forces," he says, showing us videos of soldiers looting his house.

“I had to leave my own home for the soldiers and rent a house for my family.”

"I have seen corpses lying on the streets of Makelle, Maghala and several places in Tigray. Our women are being raped. Any elite family in Tigray is now being targeted. I know several friends who have died. This is a massacre. My colleagues in Axum University were killed. There are uncountable graves in Tigray, yet no one is talking about this. It is painful,” he laments. 

Getting to Addis

After moving his family, Mr Tsigab knew he had to leave Ethiopia. The first obstacle for him was how to get to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, located about 940 kilometres away. The journey from Tigray to Addis Ababa was, thankfully, uneventful, he recalls. 

However, the reception he got in Addis Ababa makes him say he no longer considers himself Ethiopian. 

"I thought my fellow Ethiopians would feel the same pain as the people of Tigray due to the ravages of war. Instead, they appeared happy and didn’t care. No one seemed to dare to expose what the government is doing,” he says.

Mr Tsigab is not pleased by the response of the international community either.
“The United Nations and the European Union are giving lip-service. In barely four months, civilians have been killed, and the fighting is going on right now in Maghala, where I live.” 

His claims cannot be substantiated, as the Ethiopian government has blocked the Press from accessing Tigray. 

With a media blockade, Tigrayans are finding it difficult to share their stories with the world.

Last month, the Tigrayan Emergency Coordination Centre announced that more than 4.5 million people in Tigray were facing hunger and needed urgent assistance.

"We are the few people alive and brave to tell our story. I will not be cowed into silence," Mr Tsigab says.

The activist is an executive member and the coordinator of the legal team of the Seb-Hidri Civil Society, which has been exposing the happenings in Tigray. Despite the blockade, we are trying to expose the atrocities being committed in Tigray, he says. 

For now, Mr Tsigab’s fate lies with his lawyers.

“As advocates of justice, we have to use the space we have to create a safe space for those who have been victims of human rights abuses,” says Ms Omar, pointing out that Kenya is a safe haven for those escaping political persecution. 

She cites the case of Tanzania’s opposition leader Tundu Lissu, who fled to Kenya seeking asylum and Uganda's firebrand activist, Dr Stella Nyanzi, who recently also fled her country saying her life was in danger.