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Ethiopian woman finds safety in Maine after fleeing civil war, but fears for those left behind

A woman sits on a stool, pouring coffee into a white mug.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Roman Ouhans pours coffee at her daughter's apartment in Portland. Ouhans says she feels safe in Maine, but fears for her family and friends still in Ethiopia.

As a civil war rages in Ethiopia, many Ethiopian immigrants in Maine have been cut off from loved ones back home. While one Portland resident was able to get her mother out of the country this fall, many others are struggling just to get in contact with family members in the war zone.

On a recent evening, Roman Ouhans settled onto a couch in her daughter’s apartment in downtown Portland, wearing a blue dress with a translucent white scarf draped gently over her head and shoulders.

Ouhans is a member of the Tigrayan ethnic group, from Ethiopia’s northern province of Tigray, where much of the fighting has taken place since a civil war broke out more than a year ago. Speaking her native language, Tigrinya, Ouhans described her life before the war. Her daughter, Senait Hayle, interpreted.

"We had a very good life," Ouhans said. "We were happy, we lived like normal people live."

Ouhans was living in the city of Axum with her teenage granddaughter when the war began between the federal government and Tigrayan regional forces last year. Soon, other groups joined the fighting, including the neighboring country of Eritrea, whose soldiers occupied Axum and massacred civilians in the city shortly before an orthodox Christian holiday.

"A lot of innocent people, they killed them in the road when they were trying to go to the church in the morning," Ouhans said.

According to Amnesty International, the death toll from the massacre was in the hundreds. The United Nations has found credible evidence that all sides have committed potential war crimes over the course of the conflict.

When the war began, nearly all communication to the Tigray region was cut off, meaning those in the diaspora, like Senait Hayle in Portland, couldn’t get through to their loved ones, even as they read news reports of the atrocities taking place.

"We [were] worried. It was like a nightmare," Hayle said. "Like we don’t know what’s happened to them."

While Hayle was desperately trying to get in touch with her relatives, her mother said the situation on the ground was deteriorating rapidly, with food and medical supplies running low.

About six months into the war, Ouhans said she and her granddaughter were able to flee to the capital city, Addis Ababa, where they moved in with family members.

After several months of tense waiting, Ouhans said she secured a visa and a passport, and in early September reunited with her daughter Hayle in Portland. The two have been living together since then.

"I’m so happy I’m here with her," Ouhans said. "It's very safe." 

Ouhans’ story of escaping the war is an outlier among Maine’s Tigrayan community, as many people are still struggling to even get in contact with family members back home.

Tigray2.jpg
Ari Snider
/
Hagos Tsadik at his house in Cape Elizabeth. Tsadik says he is constantly checking the news for updates on the war in Ethiopia.

"We do not know what’s going on, to be honest with you. You do not know if they are alive or not," said Hagos Tsadik, who lives in Cape Elizabeth with his family and works for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

Tsadik said the only contact he’s had with family members in Tigray for over a year is a short voice recording of one of his nieces, recorded and sent by an international aid worker in November.

The recording contains few details about other family members, but his niece does say she recently saw her father, Tsadik’s younger brother.

"Well at least there is  somebody alive," Tsadik said. "So, at least they can give us the story in the future."

Tsadik said he views his niece and his brother as historians, witnesses to the war they have been living through for over a year.