Ethiopia’s Lalibela Town Struggles to Heal Wounds of War


Ethiopia’s Lalibela Town Struggles to Heal Wounds of War
Members of the Amhara Special Forces stand guard next to the Saint George rock-hewn church in the Lalibela town of the Amhara Region, Ethiopia, January 25, 2022. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

The bedframes where sleepy pilgrims used to rest at the Cliff Edge Hotel lie twisted under the sky, blood spatters the hotel kitchen and a lone picture of a priest hangs on a crumbling wall.

The 18-room hotel in the holy town of Lalibela, in the north of Ethiopia, used to welcome visitors pouring in to see its famous churches hewn from large chunks of rock.

The medieval rock churches, which became a World Heritage site in 1978, are important for Christians as places of pilgrimage and devotion.

But the town – and its shellshocked residents – are struggling to recover after it changed hands several times as fighters from Ethiopia’s northern Tigrayan region battled government forces and their allies.

“When you remember its past glory, the ambiance, the beauty and then see this rubble … it is not something I can describe it with words,” said hotel manager Melek Alebel. “The hotel is almost completely destroyed.”

His is not the only one. Deacon Addise Demise, the head of Lalibela’s Industry and Investment Bureau, said more than 20 hotels were looted and destroyed.

“They have taken all the 64 TV sets, 174 mattresses, bedsheets and cover, duvets, even they didn’t spare the curtains,” said Berihn Getu, the human resources manager of Roha Hotel.

War broke out in November 2020 between the rulers of the northern region of Tigray and Ethiopia’s government forces. Lalibela, which is in the neighbouring Amhara region, was first captured by Tigrayan forces on Aug. 5 as they pushed out of Tigray.

But the military and its allies retook the town on Dec. 1 as part of a broader offensive, only for Tigrayan forces to recapture it briefly on Dec. 12 before being pushed out for good.

The scars of war are everywhere – the once prosperous town lacks electricity and scores of looted and destroyed buildings dot the roads.

Families also carry wounds within them. Tirungo Ambaye said her daughter was raped and killed by a drunken Tigrayan fighter who burst into their house on the outskirts of Lalibela, on Dec. 13.

“He held a gun to my belly saying, look, our mothers and sisters are dying,” the 37-year-old shopkeeper said. When the man demanded sex, she told him she was HIV positive – so he took her daughter instead, she said.

Her parents said they rushed out to follow them, but found her body at the end of the road.

Police confirmed the couple had reported their daughter’s death.

Reuters was unable to reach Tigrayan forces for comment on the allegations.

Getachew Reda, spokesman for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the party that controls most of Tigray, has previously denied targeting civilians in areas under its control.

He has said before that rape allegations would be taken “very seriously” and that TPLF was “ready to conduct an independent investigation.”

Editing by Jane Merriman