Wounds of war cast pall on Ethiopia’s epiphany festival

Wounds of war cast pall on Ethiopia’s epiphany festival
An Ethiopian Orthodox child holds un umbrella during the celebration of the eve of Timkat, the Ethiopian Epiphany, in the city of Gondar, Ethiopia, on January 18, 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 19 January 2022

Wounds of war cast pall on Ethiopia’s epiphany festival

Wounds of war cast pall on Ethiopia’s epiphany festival
  • A former seat of the royal empire in Amhara region, Gondar has long been premier spot to mark Timkat

GONDAR, Ethiopia: Growing up, Arega Tekeba’s fondest memories involved the feasts his father would prepare for Ethiopia’s Orthodox epiphany festival Timkat — the way he would lead their family in song while roasting a freshly slaughtered sheep. But those memories are now acutely painful.

Arega’s father, an ethnic Amhara militiaman, was shot dead last year while battling ethnic Tigrayan rebels, joining thousands of others killed in the 14-month war ravaging Africa’s second-most populous country.

Wary of spending this year’s Timkat with grieving relatives, Arega instead celebrated alone on Wednesday in the northern city of Gondar, where residents said thoughts of the war dead cast a pall over a typically joyous occasion.

A former seat of the royal empire in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, Gondar has long been the premier spot to mark Timkat, which commemorates Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan.

Donning sparkling white tunics and dresses, worshippers march in a raucous parade each year that culminates in an all-night prayer session, then leap the next morning into 17th-century stone baths filled with holy water. This week, though, the festivities were stained with signs of the war’s toll: Gondar’s hospitals teemed with wounded combatants, while families like Arega’s confronted the absence of the deceased.

“There are people who lost more relatives than me. I know one house where six or seven people are dead,” Arega, also a militia fighter, said.

“It’s the memories that make us sad, even more than the deaths.”

Ethiopia’s war broke out in November 2020 following months of mounting rancor between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the former ruling party of the northernmost Tigray region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

After several twists and turns on the battlefield, a government offensive has turned the tide yet again, with the rebels retreating into Tigray.

Foreign powers now hope the two sides can reach a deal to end fighting that has displaced millions and, according to UN estimates, driven hundreds of thousands to the brink of starvation.

The US this week sent its top Africa diplomat and its regional special envoy to Addis Ababa, eyeing what it terms an “opening for peace.”

But any push by Abiy for reconciliation would encounter stiff resistance in Gondar, where combatants, politicians and ordinary residents celebrating Timkat told AFP that the TPLF, officially a terrorist group, must now be destroyed.

The mere idea of talks is “an insult for the Amhara people,” said Demoz Kassie Mekonnen, a senior official in the National Movement of Amhara, an opposition party.