This Christmas, my thoughts are with the people of Lalibela in Ethiopia, especially Adane Tadesse. I met Tadesse in September 2018 and have been in touch with him ever since. The flight from Addis Ababa takes barely an hour in a propeller plane. Tadesse was there to drive us from the airport to Lalibela, a small town at an elevation of a little more than 8,000 feet.
The road passes by fields of wheat and barley and a grain we do not recognise. Tadesse stops the car so we can take a close look at the teff, a gluten-free cereal and one of the earliest plants domesticated. It is from teff that injera – a flatbread – is made. He also points out flowering aloe vera plants.
We were not in Lalibela for Christmas but for Meskel. Meskel means “cross” in Amharic and the festival commemorates the discovery by Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, of the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. It is in Lalibela that I hoped to see a glimpse of Christianity as it was practiced before it became associated with colonialism. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is one of the few Christian churches in sub-Saharan Africa originating before the European colonisation of the continent: before religion was used as a weapon for imperialism.
Ethiopia was one of the earliest nations to adopt Christianity – in the first half of the fourth century – and its historical roots date back to the time of the Apostles. It was King Ezana of the medieval kingdom of Aksum who first adopted the faith in 330 AD. The road is not tarred and Tadesse tells us that it was being built by the Chinese and got washed away in the first rains. The angry residents destroyed equipment and a camp the construction company personnel were staying in.
The residents were also angry because the company brought its own (Chinese) employees from another construction site instead of employing local residents. This was our first glimpse into the new Cold War that was being fought in Africa and on that day when we arrived in Lalibela, we had no premonition how deadly it would become. We had come to see the 11 famous rock-hewn churches in Lalibela. Their construction is attributed to King Lalibela, who set out to build a “New Jerusalem” in the 12th century after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
King Lalibela’s real name was Gebre Meskel (1162-1221) and he was the Emperor of Ethiopia of the Zagwe dynasty. He was given the name “Lalibela”, meaning “the bees recognise his sovereignty” in Old Agaw, due to a swarm of bees said to have surrounded him at his birth. His mother took that as a sign of his future reign as Emperor of Ethiopia. He is venerated as a saint by the Orthodox Tewahedo churches.
Tadesse told us that the best and purest honey is available in Lalibela. Later in our hotel room when we asked for tea, we got an orange-flavoured tea with honey. Tadesse was right, it was delicious.
Lalibela is one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities and a centre of pilgrimage. The rock-hewn churches – dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries – and their religious significance is considered at par with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Vatican. As an Ethiopian writer points out: “Indeed, the churches are so sacred that when restoration work was last conducted, even the dust from the bricks had to be protected.”
The next day, Tadesse took us to the famous churches. My husband and our guide quickly clambered down to the churches. They said they would find a suitable path for me to climb down. I was sitting in my wheelchair looking down at the rocky path when Tadesse came.
It was he who got two youngsters to carry my wheelchair and then he took me by the hand and most lovingly encouraged me to climb down, step by step. I walked through the churches and the priests were silently praying but aware of my presence. They exuded warmth and consideration and I felt enveloped in an atmosphere that can only be described as the true spirit of Christian compassion.
Every year, Adane Tadesse sends me Christmas greetings. His emails are full of love and concern. He sends wishes for our families and friends and the words reflect his sincerity and genuineness.
This year too he has sent Christmas greetings, but his circumstances are very different. He was forced to escape from Lalibela which is in the grip of a deadly conflict between the forces of the Ethiopian government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for ending hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
But then came the attack by the Tigray armed group and perhaps Ahmed may have managed to handle the conflict, but Ethiopia is in the midst of a hybrid war, much like the one in Iraq and Syria. The West is supporting the Tigray forces as a part of their strategy to contain the influence of China.
China, Russia and India have politically supported Ethiopia against the United States at the United Nations. Ethiopia is gaining friends and influence, especially among the rising powers and the rest of the Global South. Its principled resistance to the American hybrid war on it has shown others that there is an alternative to capitulation.
But the cost of this war is being borne by ordinary people like Tadesse. On December 14, he wrote that the Tigray forces had occupied Lalibela and were using the rock churches as military bases. In his words: “In unprecedented terrifying conditions as they demolished and loot hospitals, schools, airport terminal, government offices, raped girls, took all our belongings while we were away from our homes, and as a result there are no school for children, no medicine for patients and no humanitarian aid neither from Red cross nor UN for over 4 months now.”
Tadesse escaped from Lalibela by walking for sixteen hours and on a donkey across the mountains to reach a town called Bahirdar, 300 km away. He stayed “with the farmers sometimes without eating anything as the local farmers has nothing as well since we are too many people almost the whole city of Lalibela and rebels used the rock churches and the town as military base”.
He goes on to say: “I came in search of access for Wi-fi internet to contact you, electric power, food and other basic things for survival, for the families that are now alive. However, sorry for the sad news dear, as my father-in-law and my nephew has passed away related to being displaced from place to place and with starvation.”
Millions of people have been displaced and Adane Tadesse is one of them. He has had to leave behind his family and abandon his dream of going to college. He is, in the language of the United Nations, “an internally displaced person.”
I do not know how to extend my solidarity to him in any meaningful way except to let his voice be heard and hope that someone will respond in the real spirit of Christmas and find a way to reach him and the people of Lalibela with just the basics – food and medicines. Maybe my atheist’s prayers will be answered for Adane Tadesse and the people of Lalibela who were so generous with their love and concern for me.
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and author, most recently, of The Flavours of Nationalism.