EMERGENCIES - 17 August 2023

How foresight kept children and young people safe in the Tigray war

Nigus Hailu, programme director of the SOS Children’s Village in Mekelle, the capital city of Tigray in northern Ethiopia, had a bad feeling about the deteriorating political situation in the region. He stockpiled food and equipped the children, young people, and their caregivers with knowledge of what to do in case there was a conflict. The preparation paid off; everyone knew what to do when the civil war broke out in November 2020. The guns fell silent after two years of intense fighting, and all the 121 children, 141 young people and their 19 caregivers in Nigus’ care were safe.

As many as 600,000 people in Tigray may have lost their lives in that war and hundreds of thousands were left homeless. In this interview, Nigus remembers what he calls “the dark days”.

The safety of many children and young people depended on you during the civil war. Which measures did you take to protect them?

Before the war broke out, everyone was trained on what to do in case of a conflict. The staff members were trained on how to protect children. They learnt the procedures to follow if an air strike happened. The caregivers had to be strong during the conflict. They had to always stay at home with children and young people because there were no other safe places. During the war, I walked from house to house to make sure the children were there. The mothers were motivating children, young people and each other.

You are a father of three young children. Why did you decide to stay at the SOS Children’s Village instead of at home?

My wife was always on my side and I want to thank her for accepting my proposal to remain at the SOS Children’s Village. The argument was that these children are many and are here with the help of God and it is our responsibility to care for them. But my children have a mother and they are three. My wife agreed that I needed to be at the SOS Children’s Village.

On November 28th, I was at home and there was frequent artillery shelling in the city. I kissed my children and my wife goodbye. The children were crying and my wife was praying and wishing me all the best and to be safe on my way to the SOS Children’s Village. Five minutes after leaving my house, the shelling intensified close to me but I drove very fast thinking how I had left my family in tears. It was a very hard moment for me.

There was a time Mekelle was cut off from the outside world with no internet, banking, electricity, and other social services. How did you overcome this challenge?

We had a total blackout for the first month during the war and it felt like we had been taken 200 years back. After that month, I got a chance to contact the Red Cross Society and I phoned the national director to tell him we were still alive. That was all. We were not allowed to give more information. That was the first time we informed the national office that we were still alive. After that there were some platforms established by the United Nations that gave us internet access two hours a week.

It was difficult without banking services; not for days or weeks or months, but for two years. We mobilized resources from different partners and individuals. The SOS Children’s Villages name helped a lot in that when we went to the partners, they would say, "We know the work you do and all your children are our children". They gave us different resources without collateral - food items, flour, wheat grain, and even cash. Some of them gave us more than half a million birr, without any collateral. Then after a while the UN created an opportunity to bring in cash from Addis, Ethiopia’s capital city, to Mekelle.

Without electricity for weeks and months we cut the trees around the compound for firewood to cook. We had to sleep early at six, otherwise there was no lighting. We found solutions for every challenge we faced during that time.

The children and young people have not been to school for over two years. How did you keep them engaged and mentally healthy?

One of the challenges in our programme location is education. Children have been out of school for three years, starting in 2020 to 2023. It is only recently that our children returned to school. At that time the children and the young people were participating in different activities like gardening, sports, art, different creative activities. We organized a programme where older brothers and sisters tutored their younger siblings. We also recruited some teachers to teach them at home. We have nine-year-old children who have never been to school.

You have young people who live in youth homes in the community. How were you able to ensure their safety and survival?

We have 121 children in the SOS Children’s Village premises and we have 141 young people living independently and some others in youth care programmes in a girls and boys home setup. Asking them to come to the office at that time could have exposed them to risks like being forcefully recruited to join the armed groups. To reach them, we branded the cars heavily and went to them door to door paying their living allowance, sometimes 50 percent, sometimes 40 percent depending on how much we could afford. We advised them to stay at home and not to venture out at night or during the day.

They were approached to join the armed groups many times but we kept advising them that they were too young to join the fighting. One of our youth was taken by the armed groups and we went to them carrying his birth certificate and other credentials; we told them he was too young to join the war. They listened to us and released him.

How do emergencies make life more difficult for children who have lost parental care?

During emergencies, children who have lost parental care suffer a lot because everyone is struggling to save their own lives at that time. Here at SOS Children’s Villages, we have committed mothers to care for children who have lost parental care. But in the community, children separated from their relatives have ended up on the streets. I have witnessed the increase of street children in Mekelle. These children are malnourished, and they have no access to health care and medicines. They need support.

You work with 19 caregivers and they have their own families. How did you convince them to stay and work with you?

Being a leader, you have to be a role model. Our caregivers provided all the care services leaving their families behind. They were all here and no one asked for permission or annual leave or free time. The mothers are very committed. They also understood they could lose their lives if they were moving here and there. When possible, they got in touch with their relatives and got news about their loved ones.

What are some of the hardest moments that remain with you?

When the war intensified and a manager told me our resources were depleting. I was shocked because we had done our best to find the resources - the cash and the flour - and we had no mechanism to get any more.

There is also a personal experience. During those dark times there were frequent airstrikes, drone attacks and artillery shelling in the city. My wife was at home with our three children and other family members. I was here at the SOS Children’s Village and we were expecting our fourth child. Due to stress, trauma and fear, my wife developed health problems and lost the baby. That was the saddest moment of my life. On top of that, I have lost relatives during this war. Some of them joined the fighting and some did not get the medication they needed on time. All these are moments that I will never forget.

What kept you motivated?

The vision and the objective of the organization that has become part of my life. SOS Children’s Villages is there to save lives of children and young people and that motivates me. On top of that, there is all the encouragement from our community. When I met with the mothers, they were always saying "Keep going, we will be safe, do not worry, this time shall pass". These moved me forward. Also, there was recognition of the brand and appreciation of the work we do by partners and the individuals we reached out to for help.

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