MEKELE, Ethiopia—Exactly 20 years ago, when the world first woke up to television reports of Ethiopia’s catastrophic drought, Girmay Assefa was staggering along hundreds of kilometers of road in the country’s northern Tigray region searching for food with his mother, brother and two young sisters.
His first clear memory of the ordeal is of arriving at a Red Cross camp after a five-day march without food and going to collect water. When he returned, he found his entire family had disappeared.
“I just sat down and cried. That was an unforgettable feeling,” he recalled.
Later that day he was sitting on the ground when he saw a nurse, dressed in gleaming white, walking toward him.
“This is the clearest image in my mind. I was from the village, dirty and dusty. And I was amazed at the neatness of this lady. She was so clean,” Girmay added.
Girmay does not know his birthday but guesses he must have been between five and seven at the time.
He was one of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians forced to leave their homes when the rains failed.
Girmay’s memories of his long march are still hazy.
“I was traumatized. I got confused,” he said.
“Life was very cheap and a lot of people died all along the way. People were just flowing along like a river and everyone was walking with no energy. Everyone was so quiet. If you collapsed, nobody could stop to help,” he said.
Girmay’s family left their village and headed south toward the town of Maychew, the site of a sprawling Red Cross food camp.
As soon as they arrived, his mother sent him down to the nearby riverbed to collect water.
“When I came back, I couldn’t see my family.” It later turned out that they had been separated in the chaos of the huge camp.
It was another two months before he found them again. When he did, a neighboring family told him bluntly that his mother had died.
“No one knew how. By that time I did not cry. There was no energy for tears.”
One of his sisters was also nowhere to be found. To this day he does not know what happened to her.
Girmay was cared for in a children’s compound where he slowly regained his health. He still has fond memories of the staff there, particularly one young English nurse who he came to call Mama Claire.
“She held us and treated us without gloves, which was so kind because it was so easy to transmit diseases. She had a really open heart, a real Godsend.”
After two years in the camp, as the rains slowly returned to northern Ethiopia, Girmay was taken to an orphanage run by the Ethiopain Orthodox Church in Mekele, the region’s capital. There life was disrupted again by the civil war that was tearing through Ethiopia at the time.
After another two years, he was told to leave and fend for himself and his surviving sister. By this time, his brother had died, again of an unknown illness.
“It was tough for me because I wasn’t used to life in society. But I had to get on with it because that is the only way to face any challenge,” he said.
Girmay rented a room in Mekele while he and his sister continued their studies. Over time, he fell in love with the landlord’s daughter Mulu and married her.
Last year they had a son, Michael. Girmay also recently started a diploma course in computer science, supported by a British-based charity.
It is a rare and hard-fought happy ending to have come out of a famine that killed more than one million of his fellow Ethiopians.
Today, 20 years after Girmay first found shelter with the Red Cross in Maychew, there are fresh signs of drought emerging around Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia.
But Girmay remains optimistic. This time government plans are in place and the food aid promised to prevent the drought turning into another humanitarian disaster. And then there is his new family to focus on.
“Before, you didn’t have to care about education, you didn’t have to care about anything. The only important thing was to find food.”
“But now we are very healthy. We are going to a college and we have even produced a baby who has a bright future. A lot has changed,” he added.
By Andrew Heavens