Stranded Lankans in embattled Tigray region to be repatriated soon | Sunday Observer

Stranded Lankans in embattled Tigray region to be repatriated soon

29 November, 2020
Sri Lankans with Lankan Ethiopian Embassy officials in Addis Ababa
Sri Lankans with Lankan Ethiopian Embassy officials in Addis Ababa

Thirty-eight Sri Lankans were stranded in the war-erupted Tigray region of Ethiopia when the Ethiopian government launched military operations on November 4, after Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked a federal army base. Sri Lankan Ambassador to Ethiopia Sugeeshwara Gunaratna had to work against time, amid an internet and telecommunication blackout to evacuate the Lankans from Tigray to safety in Addis Ababa.

More people have fled the Tigray’s capital city after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said he was launching the ‘final phase’ of his army’s offensive, as the deadline given to TPLF militia lapsed on Wednesday (25). He told the media the central government’s military is trying not to harm any civilians.

A series of events led to the civil war in Tigray that escalated on November 4. Internet and telecommunication lines were cut off, food was running out and fights between the military and TPLF continued, but the work continued as usual for some time.

Viraj Arachchige, 46, general manager of DBL Industries PCL (a garment factory) was in Church on November 8, when he heard a loud explosion. There have been two air strikes that day, one bomb hit the factory Viraj worked at in Mek’ele, the capital of Tigray region.

“Everyone who worked at the factory got scared after the attack. We quickly evacuated people from the factory and took them to our official residences. We had no way of asking for help. Telephones were not working and internet was cut off too,” Viraj said.

There were 103 of them. Two Sri Lankans and the rest Bangladeshis. Borders were closed and they had no way of escaping the region. Though they were able to reach out to the Red Cross and the United Nations, the two organizations could do very little till a request was made officially.

Viraj said their attempt to get help from the Bangladeshi embassy failed because it was a Sunday.

“But when we spoke to the Sri Lankan embassy, they went out of the way to facilitate our escape. Everything was arranged for us to leave the region safely. Even the Bangladeshis were impressed,” Viraj said.

Back in Addis Ababa, Ambassador Gunaratna had no way of reaching to the Sri Lankans who were employed in the war-torn area. Even though he was able to speak to the Ethiopian central government he was not able to talk to the TPLF. He needed a mediator.

“The UN worked as the mediator. We communicated with the UN resident coordinator to arrange their (Sri Lankans) transportation out of Tigray,” he said.

With everything in place Viraj and his colleagues started their journey from Mek’ele to Addis Ababa at around 5.00am on November 14.

It was a 1700km journey from Mek’ele to Addis Ababa, a journey typically of about two days. Viraj’s group made it in two days, but for 32-year-old Inoka Sanjeewani Weerapperuma and her friends, who left on November 20, it took four days. In her group there were 34 Sri Lankans, majority women.

“Even after the war started, we went to work for 2-3 days. We had no idea how bad it was outside the factory. Afterwards they asked us to stay in our hostel,” she said.

With no electricity, and oil running out, Inoka and fellow-Sri Lankans used wood to cook food. They were able to buy the daily rations but within days the prices of vegetables increased.

“At nights we heard the bombings. We were very scared. We couldn’t even speak to our families. It was very terrifying. We wanted to leave that place as soon as we could,” she said.

During their four-day journey they were stopped at four borders. They reached Addis Ababa on Tuesday.

Viraj said that they are grateful for Ambassador Gunaratna and his team who went out of the way to ensure that everyone was safe and settled comfortably in Addis Ababa till they get to come back home.

“If everything goes well, we are hoping to repatriate the Sri Lankans on December 1. We are waiting for some formalities to arrange their safe return,” Gunaratna said.

The Sri Lankan nationals, along with foreign nationals belonging to a number of countries, were evacuated by United Nations convoys from Tigray to the Afar region of Ethiopia and have been transported to the capital Addis Ababa. The Sri Lankan nationals, all employed in the garment industry in Ethiopia, are due to be repatriated back to Sri Lanka soon.