Father Tsige Mezgebu was leading an afternoon prayer service in August when a column of haggard-looking rebels entered Lalibela, prompting worshippers to cry out “God save our city!”
He immediately feared the worst for the 11 mediaeval rock-hewn churches that make Lalibela, in northern Ethiopia’s Amhara region, a holy site for the country’s tens of millions of Orthodox Christians –- as well as a top tourist magnet.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) insurgents have a fearsome reputation, with officials and human rights groups accusing them of indiscriminate killings and mass rape during an offensive in Amhara that began in July.
Yet Father Tsige, administrator of the Lalibela monastery, urged his flock to keep calm and stay home.
“I believe in God, and I had faith that nothing would happen at this holy place,” he told AFP.
What followed were four months of deprivation and violence.
Rebels looted homes and health facilities, while residents lost touch with the outside world due to cuts in transportation, electricity, banking and communications.
Doctors became so desperate they used donkeys to smuggle in medicine from government-held territory.
The ordeal ended only last week when the army retook Lalibela as part of a lightning-fast counter-offensive –- the latest dramatic shift in Ethiopia’s unpredictable 13-month war.
AFP was the first independent media outlet to reach the city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where Father Tsige is now taking stock of the suffering while seeking solace in the fact that Lalibela’s storied churches appear to have survived unscathed.
- Praying and looting –
Ethiopia’s war was not supposed to last this long.
Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, promised a speedy victory when he sent troops into Ethiopia’s northernmost Tigray region to topple the TPLF in November 2020 — a decision he said came in response to rebel attacks on army camps.
By late June however, the TPLF had staged a shock comeback, reclaiming most of Tigray before moving into neighbouring Amhara and Afar.
Lalibela was one of many Amhara localities where government soldiers chose to flee instead of fight.
Local officials followed, leaving church leaders to administer the rebel-controlled city as best they could.
Their first act was to confront combatants who had placed heavy weapons near the churches.
The TPLF fighters, many of them Orthodox Christians themselves, responded positively, removing the weapons and vowing to respect the site.
They also began leaving their Kalashnikovs outside before descending to pray in the Church of Saint George, an iconic excavation shaped like a cross.
But in the city itself, the rebels were less accommodating, knocking on homes at all hours and demanding mobile phones and food, residents told AFP.
“You couldn’t ask to get anything back. There were guns, they said they would kill us,” said Belaynew Mengeshaw, a tour operator.
“One of them asked me, ‘Do you want Abiy to come save you?'”
Residents said the rebels looted government offices and banks and ransacked the airport, leaving behind a mess of downed power lines, shattered glass and boarding passes strewn across the floor.
- Drugs via donkey –
But it was the city’s hospital, which serves a population that pre-war was roughly 20,000, where the frightening humanitarian toll became increasingly clear.
As food reserves ran low, the medical facility received 290 malnourished children, 90 of them severely affected. Six died.
“We couldn’t treat them because the supplements had been looted by the TPLF,” said Temesgen Muche, a social worker at the hospital.
Doctors did their best to improvise and keep services running.
They arranged for donkeys to bring medicine from the town of Meket, 40 kilometres (25 miles) west.
At night, under cover of darkness to avoid detection, they administered the drugs to patients with chronic conditions like HIV and tuberculosis.
Yet despite these successful hacks, spirits at the hospital flagged in recent weeks.
Oxygen supplies were severely depleted, down to just enough for a single 30-minute procedure.
With banks non-functional, doctors could not access their salaries and became dependent on handouts of food and money collected by Orthodox leaders.
Some would return from overnight shifts to find their homes had been looted and their loved ones beaten by rebels.
- The fight continues –
The arrival of the army last week — along with members of the Amhara special forces and a militia known as Fano — brought immediate relief to many Lalibela residents.
“The people were suffering and humiliated, and they lived under a burden,” said Fano fighter Eshete Zewudru.
Once again, the city fell without any actual fighting, though soldiers described fierce clashes nearby, including on the road leading north to Lalibela from the town of Gashena.
TPLF leaders have dismissed the government’s claims of a big win, saying they are merely making tactical withdrawals.
At the hospital, meanwhile, there are plenty of reminders that it could have been much worse.
Patients are now streaming in from nearby towns and villages where retreating TPLF fighters are accused of shelling and opening fire on civilians.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented sexual violence and killings elsewhere in Amhara.
Father Tsige said the toughest part was living without basic services like banking and communications.
This gives him new sympathy for civilians in Tigray, who have endured a similar ordeal for much of the past year.
“They are also human beings,” he said.
“I feel sorry for them as a human being and as a religious person. We suffered like this within this short period, but for them it is long.”
Meanwhile, pro-government fighters, buoyed by recent gains, openly talk of advancing further, even all the way to Tigray’s capital Mekele.
“I felt very happy when I heard we had conquered Lalibela, even though I was injured,” said Aliyu Ahmed Eshete of the Amhara Special Forces, whose head was grazed by a TPLF sniper’s bullet.
“I want to deploy again and serve my people.”