US citizens trapped in Tigray, detained in Addis Ababa

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. PHOTO | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Leaked emails by US officials say that the Ethiopian government, citing national security grounds, insisted on holding and questioning US citizens from Tigray -- a stance, they say, that caused Washington to abort plans to airlift Americans from the region last year.

US citizens trapped in war-torn Tigray are being detained and interrogated by Ethiopian authorities while trying to leave the country, interviews with fleeing people and family members show.

Leaked emails by US officials say that the Ethiopian government, citing national security grounds, insisted on holding and questioning US citizens from Tigray -- a stance, they say, that caused Washington to abort plans to airlift Americans from the region last year.

The lucky few to escape the region, cut off from the outside world for two years as government forces battled Tigrayan rebels, told AFP they had been singled out and interrogated when attempting to leave.

Gebremedhn Gebrehiwot, an American citizen who made it out of Tigray earlier this year, said he was pulled aside and questioned at Addis Ababa's international airport while trying to board a flight home. 

"I had all the documents, there was no reason to stop me," the San Diego-based deacon told AFP. He believed his "typically Tigrayan" name was the reason he was detained.

After a 90-minute wait, he was finally allowed to leave.

"I just ran to the gate and barely made it."

Zenebu Negusse, 52, told AFP she too was targeted while attempting to board her US-bound flight.

The Colorado-based caregiver, who was in Tigray visiting her elderly mother when the war began in November 2020, managed to escape the region by road and took shelter with relatives in Addis Ababa.

She took care to hide her Tigrayan tribal markings, afraid of being detained like some of her friends, but her name aroused suspicion.

She said that after a harrowing interrogation last year during which she explicitly denied being Tigrayan, she was allowed to fly home.

Some who had been on her flight were intercepted and taken into custody, she said: "I was lucky. Many others were not." 

AFP spoke to eight Americans who shared their stories and spoke of the plight of friends and family -- US citizens or permanent residents -- still in Tigray.

Ethiopia does not recognise dual nationality, meaning officials there can treat US citizens of Ethiopian descent as Ethiopians, regardless of their passport.

Aborted evacuation

The US government drafted a plan to evacuate Americans trapped in Tigray as fighting spread toward Addis Ababa in November 2021.

But it was aborted at the last minute, with US officials blaming Ethiopia's demand that evacuees be subject to indefinite detention for vetting. 

"The Ethiopian government... pulled clearance the day of (travel) when the United States disagreed with the Ethiopian government's request to clear passengers and potentially detain them indefinitely before being cleared for further travel," read one email by an official at the US Senate seen by AFP.

Another email by an official at the US House of Representatives also blamed Addis Ababa's "security vetting requirements (for) preventing the U.S. embassy from moving forward with evacuation plans".

US and Ethiopian authorities did manage to "facilitate the departure of 217 U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, immigrant visa applicants, and guardians of minors from Mekelle (Tigray's capital) to Addis Ababa" in February, a US State Department spokesperson told AFP.

The State Department did not comment on whether any evacuees were detained in Addis Ababa or on the number who travelled onward to the United States.

It has no estimate of the number of Americans still stuck in Tigray, the spokesperson said.

Ethiopian government officials did not respond to repeated requests from AFP for comment.

Ethnic profiling

All the Americans interviewed by AFP said they had been ethnically profiled in Addis Ababa after leaving Tigray.

Yohannes, a 54-year-old Uber driver who asked AFP not to reveal his last name, said he was placed in solitary confinement at Addis Ababa airport while trying to leave with his family in December 2020.

"I said I was a US citizen, but they said they were not going to let me go."

The security officials eventually relented after he shelled out a hefty bribe, he said.

It was a price worth paying to save his severely diabetic teenage son, he added.

A peace deal was signed last month between Addis Ababa and Tigrayan rebels, but many Americans told AFP they were frightened their loved ones would be detained even if they were able to make it out of Tigray.

Maebel Gebremedhin told AFP that "around 50" family members were trapped in Tigray -- all US citizens and permanent residents.

"Almost my entire family is there," said the Brooklyn-based activist, who has had no news of her father in over a year.

"There is such fear within our community about (what) the Ethiopian government could do to our families."


The communications blackout has also affected US businessman Awet -- not his real name -- who told AFP he hadn't spoken to his wife in well over a year and has never held their baby girl.

The 30-year-old flew to Ethiopia last year to bring them home to Colorado, but wasn't allowed to travel to Tigray.

He has approached US officials repeatedly for help in getting his family out of Ethiopia, but to no avail.

"It's always the same answer -- we don't have an evacuation plan."

A handful of photos and videos are his only mementos of his two-year-old daughter. And even looking at them is too painful sometimes, he said.

In one video seen by AFP, that was shot a year ago and sent by someone with rare access to satellite internet in Tigray, the little girl was struggling to stand up or raise her spindly arms. 

"Her legs were too weak because of a lack of food," the distraught father said.

"It's strange to feel like you are a dad when you haven't even seen your daughter."

Saba Desta's parents retired to Tigray after two decades in Seattle and settled in Shire, which was heavily bombed in October before its capture by Ethiopian forces and their allies.

She has been frantic with worry for her 70-year-old father, who suffers from a debilitating neurological disorder, leaving him especially vulnerable in a region with crippling medicine shortages.

The 36-year-old had reached out to the State Department and the US Embassy in Addis Ababa to ask for help.

"Everyone gave me the run around," she told AFP, fighting back tears.

Even so, she added, life could be worse.

She knows several people detained in Addis Ababa, including a friend who was held for six months, and her own aunt who was in custody for around a week.

Her greatest fear, she said, was to get her elderly parents out of Tigray, only for them to be detained in Addis Ababa. 

"I am more scared of what might happen to them in Addis than in a war zone like Tigray."