Mothers fight off debilitating memories of war in Ethiopia

Tuesday, May 21, 2024


Deeply wounded women affected by the two-year brutal civil war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia are fighting every day to put their lives back together and take care of their children. Emergency support from SOS Children’s Villages Ethiopia has brought some relief. 


Abriha and Gebra


In Samre, a quiet rural neighbourhood about 60 kilometres from Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region, Abriha, 30, sits in her small house staring at the wall.  


The single room has no furniture, and the family sleeps on a single mattress on the dirt floor. There are no photos on the white walls nor the usual comforts of home. Abriha has nowhere to go and nothing to do.  


The armed conflict in the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia, which killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions, is over - and Abriha says so is her life. 


Before the war, she earned a living making stools from dyed sisal and wood, earning 600 Ethiopian Birrs a week – a meagre living but enough to put food on the table. Now her two boys, Abay*, five and Genet*, three, are malnourished. 


“Look at my children… they used to be healthy, especially the small one, but now he is always sick, and I do not have money to take him to the hospital,” says Abriha, almost in a whisper. Genet looks weak and coughs often. Abriha wipes off the mucus on his nose. 


“My children loved eating rice and injera before the war, and I could feed them very well,” she adds. 


“Rice is food for the rich in Tigray, and I could afford it. I also fed them soup and porridge from the nutritious grain we call teff. My children were once healthy.” 


On top of losing her income, Abriha grieves the loss of her mobility. On the night she decided to flee the war, Abriha had a bad fall and hurt her leg. She lived in a camp for internally displaced people 40 kilometres from Samre for nine months without treatment for lack of money. 


When she finally sought treatment, the doctors said the injury had gone untreated for too long, and the damage was permanent. 


Abriha says starting life again, learning how to walk using a crutch and accepting that she is disabled for life is “so hard.”  


Down the road from Abriha’s house is Gebra’s home, a single mother to a nine-year-old boy. Gebre stayed in her house during the war and hoped she would be safe. Gebra says that on two occasions, soldiers came at night, beat her with sticks and abused her.  


“I did not want to tell anyone about it out of fear and shame,” she says, but her neighbour, an elderly woman, saw the men leaving her house the second time. Gebra, 30, says she has faced a lot of stigma and discrimination from the community, adding to her pain. 


“Women laughed at me,” she says. “They mocked and gossiped about me and stopped calling me to participate in community activities.” 


Supporting those affected


Since July 2023, SOS Children’s Villages in Ethiopia has supported families affected by the conflict. The project delivers education, food, cash grants, mental health and psychosocial support, child protection, and support to gender-based violence survivors.  


Abriha and Gebra each received financial aid to meet their basic needs, along with 154 other households facing extreme hardship. Abriha used the money to buy food and clothes for her children and paid a loan she had. Gebra bought food and paid off a loan. She is also receiving psychosocial support. 


Samson Reda, the SOS Children’s Villages Field Project Coordinator, says official figures show 238 women in Samre were assaulted during the fighting. But this number is expected to rise as the women become brave enough to report the assault.  


Gebra says her feelings are still “raw and painful,” and this is making parenting her son difficult. 


“I cannot take good care of my child because I am traumatized,” she says. “He says that I am angry. I go out of control when he asks for food, and I have no food in the house.  


“When I am in a good mood, we have a good conversation, and everything is normal in the house; we even laugh. I am a strong woman; I can survive this and thrive if I receive proper therapy and food support for me and my child. I can start life afresh.  


“The one-day counselling session I had with SOS Children’s Villages has kept me alive. It raised my hopes. I was thinking about suicide.”  


The counselling class has 30 women who have gone through the same experience. Some want to move elsewhere to start a life where no one knows them or their story. 


Samson says the stories of the lives of Abriha and Gebre speak volumes about the broader difficulties women and families are battling to get back on their feet. His team is doing the best they can. 


“Many families here were badly affected by the conflict, and they need mental health care,” he says.  


“To reach them, we are training village leaders, community leaders, and community volunteers because they play a great role in addressing social problems. They will also sensitize the community about gender-based violence to get rid of the ignorance that dehumanizes the survivors.” 


Food for the malnourished


While sitting at home in her usual spot, Abriha gets a message that SOS Children’s Villages will supply food to malnourished children. She locks up the house quickly and, with her two boys, hurries to the distribution point.  


Samson and his team, in partnership with the Ministry of Health, have identified 400 malnourished children under five.


Each child will receive 6.25 kg of flour and 0.5 kg of edible oil per month for three months. The nutritious flour is a premix of corn, soya, vitamins, and minerals—a healthy mix to help children recover.  


The mothers, some carrying babies on their backs and sheltering them from the sun and heat with umbrellas, collect their food packages. Then, they gather around the government Health Extension Officer, who demonstrates how to prepare the meal. 


The Samre community lives on subsistence farming and animal rearing. Three planting seasons were wasted due to the war, and many families lost the ability to feed themselves. 


“After this ration today, the mothers will be called back after a month to receive a second ration,” says Samson. “Then we will assess or evaluate the children to determine if they are improving. If there is no change, we will make a home visit to find out why.”  


It is the first time in a long time that Abriha has felt at ease about her children’s health. “I want to see my boys well and strong again.” And instead of occupying her mind with thoughts of food, she will think more about finding work. 


Gebra, meanwhile, is keen to return to petty trading but only after some therapy sessions to deal with her trauma from the war. “I am not in the right frame of mind to do anything productive right now. I must work on myself first.”  


*Names changed to protect privacy. 

Canadians wishing to help vulnerable children are encouraged to sponsor a child, sponsor an SOS Village or make a one-time donation. Your support will change the lives of orphaned, abandoned and other vulnerable children. Please help today.