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Letter from MQXThe Roadside Portrait Gallery

Letter from MQX

The Roadside Portrait Gallery

 

By Jihon   May 25, 2020

 

Kibrom has always been around documenting; but not many seem to have noticed.

 

November is chilly. “It will soon be on its way out,” folks here try to calm me. They know I am a guest in (their) town. “And Timket is its last frontier.” They are the very young in the burgeoning coffee stalls in Mekele sitting on stools along pathways sharing friendship and swapping gossip. Well, Timket is a week behind me. I can still feel the wind piercing through my bones. Cold, in windy Mekele, is a fact. If you can stand that fact, January is the best month to be in town as Christmas and Epiphany are bound to spice up your travels. One more month around, then you could be treated to the anniversary of the birth of a revolution in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). This year, it was the 45th- grand, solemn and merry.

 

Not unusually, particularly in the last two years, even in this season, it has never been all that too merry here. You hear anger and frustration at the new faces in Addis Ababa who, in the eyes of the locals, have become too belligerent. This part of town, in the roadside cafes in Kebele 16, one of the city’s once calmest, now its nosiest quarter having coffee, I was getting my daily dose of community disappointment. Staying at Abraha Castle, one of Mekele’s historic and oldest hotels and just a stone’s throw away, made it possible for me to join, almost daily, the young people for a conversation that was very easy to strike. That way I had the one-way channel to absorbing their frustrations.

 

In a way, Mekele’s answer to Addis Ababa’s Taytu, the 1905 Abraha Castle has been around for a very long time. It has seen hands changing from the Imperial to the Military, to the Rebels, and the Rebels in Government. True to their name, the TPLF rebels liberated Tigray in the late 1980s and made Mekele their seat of government. And long before they marched further south, Meles- then two years as the head of the liberation movement- reportedly alerted Paul Henze and Haggai Erlich (two historians who extensively wrote about contemporary Ethiopia) to come and visit them. “No worries, after all we have the Abraha Castle.” Friends of their revolution had to fly to Khartoum and undertake the long trek along the border, mostly at night to evade aerial bombardments, to sneak into Tigray. A land locked region has always had a way out.

 

Just walking down the Castle, it is easy to be reminded that Mekele doesn’t run short of monuments. Most of them are built in memory of fallen martyrs in the 17 years war against the central government or just about the effects of the war. Across the driveway to the hotel that is perched on a tiny mound stands the Pen Monument. But, that monument could easily pass for an anti-aircraft warhead. Most Mekelites indeed assume it is one.

 

Why is it perceived so? Perhaps because this region has seen too many wars? The answer possibly lies in yet another monument a few blocks down the road.  

 

Markets usually happen in broad daylight. Markets are not meant to operate under the gaze of MIG 23s. But on 22 June 1988, with no chance of operating in the dark, the Hawzien market opened, as it usually does, early Hawzien morning and briefly operated under the gaze of fighter jets dancing in the Hawzien sky. In a few minutes of aerial bombardments, over 2,500 blameless civilians were unceremoniously shown the way to death. Hence, this monument.   

 

The Hawzien Monument clearly stands as a stark reminder of market-day loss, wanton butchery, and the end of whatever was left of sanity, as we knew it. Surviving this would have meant facing the architects of the carnage to task in just less than three years. Yet, not many did, survive.

 

At the foot of the Abraha Castle fence, and just a few meters from the Pen Monument, Kibrom dutifully displays his pictures (there are no hangers) that are largely pencil drawings, very few on acrylic, and almost the majority of them portraits. These are mainly the portraits of popular Tigrawot. I didn’t spot anything on the massacre at Hawzien; nor did I bother to ask. But judging from the mix of his artwork on display that included the aftereffects of wars, he must have visited that topic a few times. The Hawzien massacre lies in the timeline in between deaths, destructions and the rise of what some folks in Mekele have told me is a Tigraway spirit; the moral fiber of a nation that has evolved within Ethiopia while salvaging a chuck of its own identity in the process.  

 

Needless to say our young fellow is documenting the frustrations and hopes of the Kebele 16 young by other means.

 

One Sunday morning in November, I stopped by for a close up of his pictures, nearly 40 of them. Some of the pictures are very familiar photographs; and he makes great copies. With a broad smile and a faint display of eagerness to dispose a product for cash, he would say Selam, Kemey haderka? Good morning, that is. Kibrom, like most of the young guys across the square, is in his late twenties or early thirties. Often, one spots him either sitting under the shade next to his collection leafing over a sketchbook or simply looking into the distance. This time, wearing a green pullover, black jeans and black shoes, he was busy rearranging his products per the needs of the day.

 

Draped in the robes of valor, right around in the corner is Alula, the great African military strategist, a consummate commander, and a general to reckon with before titles of that sort came to be in the Ethiopian military lexicon. And who is Alula, really? Remember the Battle at Adwa, in 1896? “The battle was a done deal thing hours before Emperor Menelik’s troops showed up,” insists a historian, and a friend who is always aghast by Tigrayan demureness in telling their own stories; or tell the story their own way. “That is callous,” anther argues with visible bitterness at Ethiopian historiography. “This has to be told as it happened.” With a sense of urgency, the historian hopes to take up this herculean challenge at redefining the Battle at Adwa. Many Ethiopian friends from the geographic center refuse to acknowledge Alula’s and, by extension, the Tigrayan nobility’s definitive role in crushing the Italian army. That would mean moving the center of discourse from Shewa to the hills of Tigray.  

 

But I asked Kibrom what he knows about Alula. He tends to agree with my historian friend that he was the key architect of that decisive battle. No need to go further. That the airport in Mekele is named after him says it all.

 

The move to immortalize heroes in Tigray never seems to end. And that the airport in the western edge of Tigray, in Endaselassie-Shire, is named after another icon, Hayelom Araya, also says it all. For Andreas Eshete, that erudite gentleman and ardent student of Ethiopian resistance wars, Hayelom shines as the last great military strategist Ethiopia has ever had. I am paraphrasing here. Andreas said that back in 1996, at the 100th anniversary of the Battle at Adwa event organized at the Meskel Square in Addis Ababa. Some opulent young man whose source of extravagance has yet to be determined shot Hayelom at point blank range while in the company of Andreas. Coincidence has it that Hayelom was killed under dubious circumstances a month before this day that Ethiopia was celebrating the Battle of Adwa centenary. Hayelom figures prominently in Kibrom’s collection.

 

Of course, Meles, who it seems has never had any official photographer, was there in three portraits. We don’t therefore know who took the pictures- at least, I don’t- but here you have him as the young rebel looking much like Che, most likely arguing a case in a TPLF gathering. The other one is from somewhere in Europe, possibly in the Scandinavia or Russia, wearing a black overcoat, a newsboy or a flat cap, perhaps representing the continent in the climate change negotiations. A celebrated giant figure in Tigray and beyond, conspiracy theories abound surrounding his brief illness and death eight years ago.

 

But some centrists who hate Meles went on record unashamedly calling for the exhumation of his remains at the Trinity Cathedral and have it “shipped to his village” in Tigray. For them, he doesn’t belong, in Addis Ababa. Subscribing to that unpleasant declaration, albeit in a different form, is Aregawi Berhe, (also coming from Meles’ town), one of the founders of the TPLF. After miserably failing to stay at the helm of the TPLF, Aregawi asked to be relieved of his position and was made to peacefully leave the liberated areas per his decision when silencing him could have been the easiest thing to do. In 2012, unrivaled by any, he announced that he was “happy to hear the death of Meles.” He needed a Getachew Reda, the bohemian and one of the stalwarts of the TPLF, to put him on display as “the dinosaur from Holland;” out of touch, extinct and irrelevant. Aregawi lived in Holland for many years and collected his PhD with a sketchy lost-love history of the TPLF as the dissertation topic. In between, he reportedly sought financial assistance from the Dergue to destroy the TPLF with the former Mengistu’s lieutenant Fiseha Desta as the middleman. That went down as a pipedream. His second undoing came in 2018 when he was flown in to pick up a fight with the TPLF, an effort that seems to have reached a dead-end but nonetheless continued to this day. All the while, I didn’t ask Kibrom, why he doesn’t have Aregawi’s portrait. He would definitely be difficult to sell.  His last visit to Tigray ended up in a confrontation with an angry group of youngsters in Mekele. That was not a pleasant scene. The silent agreement over cowardice and desertion never seems to be ephemeral across Tigray.

 

Two outside of Tigray, but never alien, in the Kibrom collection are Haileselassie and Simegnew Bekele. I wanted to know why Emperor Haileselassie? “Because he is the founder of Ethiopia, the OAU, and he has been around early on,” he noted. I had nothing more to say. The three times I visited him, the emperor’s picture was still hanging unsold. 

 

But Simegnew, viewed here a hero, is another story. His portraits sell a lot, Kibrom told me with a tinge of sadness. And Kibrom does Simegnew because that is his own way of giving back. Simegnew Bekele, the director of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and its face inside Ethiopia was the embodiment of a dam doable, and one of Kibrom’s well-cherished characters. Only a couple of months into office, the new Prime Minister, Abiy literally thrashed the GERD calling it a project run by the corrupt with no hope of being completed “even in a decade.” Not long after that, Simegnew was “found” dead in his car with a bullet into his head in the early hours of one July morning of 2018 in Addis Ababa’s Meskel Square. In a press conference following the “investigations”, Zeyinu Jemal, then the Federal Police Commissioner branded it a suicide. Zeyinu soon went on to become State Minister of Peace and lately moved to Nairobi as a UN employee for a senior position. For many, it remains another mysterious death unsolved to this day; but a memory that could hardly melt. And the last stains of the crime scene will soon be gone as bulldozers from the city administration keep on turning Meskel Square upside down with the destruction of historic Addis going on in earnest; certainly doing away with the Simegnew spot in case the need arises to build a monument.

 

In the middle of the last rainy season, broad daylight killings segued into early evening coldblooded murders in the Ethiopian capital. Here is the background. General Adem Mohammed, a diminutive man in his fifties with no background in the trade, was heading the Ethiopian Intelligence Service. His predecessor, Getachew Asefa, call him what you want, had reconfigured this very institution that rivaled any in the continent before it started nose-diving soon after Abiy Ahmed Ali came to power. On 22 June 2019, General Sea’re Mekonnen (then the Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian Defense Forces), a soft- spoken, hierarchy-shy and a military giant who seamlessly married reason to bravery when putting boots on the ground, was killed by one of his guards. That night, Abiy came on national television and announced his killing was part of the “coup plot” in Bahir Dar; much akin to the Simegnew verdict coming from the executive; fast, unsubstantiated, almost tantamount to shelving a case. In under a week, Abiy, not even a bit shy in sourcing candidates, appoints Adem to replace Se’are, as the next Chief of Staff. Forget here that it is a boot too big to fill. The appointment comes, many here in Mekele believe, as part of a large scheme of a series of cover-ups. To this day, we don’t know who masterminded the killing. But note here the timeless irony: a soldier who should have been a witness has run the opposite direction. Another crime scene compromised.

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“I don’t see any Se’are portrait in your collection?”  I asked Kibrom. Still heart-broken months after the killings, he told me; “It is gone sold the moment I hang one.” Se’are is not a moneymaking portrait for our artist. He is an asset that adds to the memory bank of martyrs and martyrdom in Tigray.

 

Brutally killed along with Sea’re that fateful June evening was Maj. General Geza’e Abera, a long time Logistics Chief at the Ministry of Defense. It was only natural to see a Geza’e portrait- the architect of the logistics of the Ethio-Eritrean war of twenty years ago- there in the Kibrom collection.

 

In one evening two seasoned generals were gone. Again, case remains unsolved.  

 

I continued scanning his collections. I can see many heroes of the liberation struggle, landscapes, historic buildings (Bete Giorgis in Lalibela is one), daily-life stuff, etc. In a few pictures, the women we see doing what they normally do in a Tigrayan kitchen seem to come close to his heart.

Kibrom lives an unassuming life in Chome’a, the hill made famous by the 70 meter-high Cross overlooking Mekele produced by the steel guru in town. He actually lives at the bottom of it, renting a small room, with his wife who makes injera. A young family. No children.

Yet children figure in his collection in plenty. A mother carrying her child; many mothers doing same, a child doing something, a mother braiding her daughter, and on, are seen interspersed amidst various personalities that abound in the collection. But Abiy Ahmed is not one of them.

“Why?” I ask. It probably is a rhetorical question.

“No one loves him.”  Hence, not a sign of his presence.

Kibrom trained in one of the private art schools that mushroomed in the last thirty years, not far from the palace where the Prime Minister resides.  He doesn’t plan to return to the capital anytime soon.

I have crisscrossed Tigray, in October. And however hard I tried; I didn’t see any Abiy portrait or a billboard adorning public places. Many cities across the country seem to hoist fast fading versions of those boards. While Oromia’s young were busy burning his book Medemer in the riots that followed Jawar Mohammed’s Facebook message that the government security was surrounding his residence after one midnight in October, Tigray sat quite. There was no book to burn. It actually sat quite earlier when all the rest were in what seemed a massive trance-like PR move orchestrated by all the regional governments. Addis, of course was the first in line to sell his book with the author making what he tried to portray was an impromptu speech; which it wasn’t. In sum, all had copies of his book if they were to decide to burn it.  And, burn they did.

“Have you seen his book, Medemer”, I would ask anyone I know- strangers included- in Tigray. Only one of the many I asked in one go said, “Yes” followed by a quick “But….” Kibrom confessed to have seen that on TV. And TV, almost by unanimity, means Tigray Television or Dimtsi Woyane. Both covered the book launch and put the story in perspective. Not a single restaurant or hotel or private homes that I have been to turn on any other television but the two. This had to do with what many here believe is a reaction to an Abiy-led, organized media onslaught on Tigray that is full of lies and condemnation. One of my newly minted friends rationalizes it with several “didn’ts” from the south.  TV stations from Addis, primarily the state broadcaster ETV, didn’t cover the Hidar Tsion in Axum that reportedly attracted over 1.5 million. They didn’t cover the big conference of Federalist Forces held in Mekele, arguably set to pose the biggest challenge to the Abiy administration come next election. The list is long. “Nursed and watered by the state, the television stations ETV, WALTA and FANA have nothing else to do than turning a blind eye to big events in Tigray,” my new friend tells me.  

Killing a story may be the name of the game but willfully killing a person in a story is malignant. 

In a bizarre twist of media events on 13 December, the regional chief Dr. Debretsion Gebremichael was officially dead on Walta, a media institution that his party created and named after the nom de guerre of a fighter who died at 20 something in the early days of the TPLF revolution in the unforgiving Tigrayan hills. The news floated- enough to have a screen shot saved by many and circulated in real-time- before it was removed. That night Debretsion released a video from his office and was seen on the two TV stations visiting a factory the following day. “He is alive, thanks God!” a sigh of relief echoed through the entire region. Here in Mekele, Debretsion is the embodiment of all valor, the very guy with the torch to bear as the country moves into an uncharted territory. “Many people want to have his picture, and I keep on sketching that over and over again. I sell lots of him,” Kibrom is all smiles. Or as one Bajaj/tuktuk driver confided to me, “because of him, we have raised our heads; we can now speak.” As in freedom to speak one’s own mind.

 

In the few weeks I have been in town, I still kept on asking what people think of Abiy. Same story again. One shrugged off the very suggestion itself. “He doesn’t exist,” said another.

But to a group of Tigrayan business people, Abiy does exist. If hard facts spread as rumor are to be believed, he summoned some 50 of them, lectured them how the TPLF has betrayed him and sent them to “mediate.” He was visibly disturbed by his inability to overpower the TPLF and have it dissolved with his Prosperity Party at the helm. “Your business or your region,” was the key message. After meeting with the TPLF chief Debretsion, the businesspeople returned to a terribly disgruntled man in Arat Kilo.

He reportedly threw plenty of threats: that he can dwarf the region economically, that he can play with the utilities cutting off power, telecom, etc. “The point is that they have already cut lots of funding to the Tigray government. It’s not a threat; it is a reality! But all hidden from the internationals who are too busy working out how to wedge Tigray/TPLF politically so they can take control of the only region that knows its shit and will make them wealthy,” says an aid worker who hates to be called one but has lived in the region to know it well. He is like a belligerent child who doesn't get his way. And this is whom they call a transformative leader?” she muses. Indeed, it wasn’t just a threat. We have heard of budget cuts. And so many more cuts are expected to come if we are to consider the conversation Dr. Abraham Tekeste (Tigray deputy chief) has had with Norwejian scholar Kjetil Tronvoll recently. 

And the signs are there. Earlier, in October, a group of ambassadors who paid a visit to Tigray were reportedly told to cut their visit short. Most made it through. A Chinese delegation on the evening of 18 December was prevented from flying to Mekele at Bole Airport. Nobody said anything on this diplomatic blunder except for a State Minister at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (hailing from Sidama that overwhelmingly voted for statehood in a referendum) who confirmed that his institution knew nothing about the incident except that the delegation followed the right channel to fly to Mekele. He was dismissed soon afterwards.

It was clear Abiy would never make it to the Kibrom collection. That chance actually is going slimmer.

 

In a video message released on May 7 ostensibly targeting Tigray, which has vowed to hold the elections, Abiy threatened to take action if that were to happen.

How did we get here, in the first place? Here is the background.

In November 2018, Abiy invites Birtukan Mideksa, once a politician (no idea now) to head the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia. Soon after she assumed office, she started receiving criticism left and right for not doing her job. Indeed, in the first few months she seemed to be very busy having the former Government Communication Office building behind Meskel Square renovated as her new office. Birtukan then announces that election date was postponed to August; the first time this has happened in the country’s electoral history in the last 30 years. That meant the Election Board was dragging its feet before COVID-19 stepped in. Meanwhile, one foreign national working inside the Board building tests positive for Covid-19. Very quickly, the Board orders its staff to stay home and tells the media it has done so. On March 25, the Board members meet and puts together a letter to Parliament detailing why, with this virus around, they couldn’t conduct the elections.  Parliament decides to postpone the elections indefinitely.

Right from the beginning the TPLF has argued that elections must be conducted.

Well, in the video, Abiy alluded that a military action to stop any election move in Tigray might be followed by mothers crying. That night on his Facebook page Getachew Reda lambasted Abiy on how he mustered “the audacity to tell Ethiopians he is ready to use force against a Regional State planning to hold regional elections.” And quickly questioned his ability to live what he said; “whether he will make good on his threat is another matter altogether.”

And quickly, very quickly, I can see my newly acquired friends in Kebele 16 taking a good note of the threat.

Kibrom must be sketching pictures in his mind. This time around, surely not portraits of the dead; as there may be none at all.

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