Since the start of hostilities in Ethiopia last November, I’ve been swimming in a pool of emotions.

I’m a photojournalist. I lived in Ethiopia for several years between 2014 and 2019 and saw the end of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rule and the beginning of the Abiy Ahmed regime. I have seen the country in good times and bad times and have always believed in and seen the resolve that Ethiopians have in regards to seeking to solve their own problems with their own solutions. They effectively have a lot of practice at it, about 3000 years of experience, give or take a year.

The conflict the country is currently embroiled in began on November 3, 2020, when commandos and a regular cadre of the TPLF attacked several bases of the Ethiopian Northern Command. The ensuing chaos and slaughter have punctuated one of the most traumatic episodes in Ethiopia’s long history.

Mekele, Ethiopia at night. Photo by Jemal Countess.

The world is watching, seemingly unbothered, or responding with selective outrage to a war where brother fights brother, and woman and children bear the brunt of the suffering and loss. It is against this backdrop that I arrived in Mekele, the capital city of the Tigray region late on the morning of June 15, 2021. The capital of the Tigray region in Northern Ethiopia, Mekele, was the linchpin of my work on this third trip to Ethiopia to cover the ongoing conflict in the region.

My objectives as a journalist were simple—document the current situation in the capital as it was then occupied by the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, with the focus being on the rebuilding and humanitarian efforts in the Tigray region. But along with my work objectives came my personal ones. I had a cousin by marriage who lived in Mekele. Now a widower, my cousin Atsede lost her husband in the war. A supply truck driver, he was lost in combat in action a few hours north of Mekele near a town called Adigrat.

I hadn’t seen Atsede since I was last in Mekele in 2017.  She and her husband lived there at the time with her two children. She was a riot, very engaging and full of personality as she and my wife, her direct cousin, chatted and caught up.  I remember that Atsede made a dish called Tihlo.

The dish, ‘Tihlo.’ Photo by Jemal Countess.

Tihlo consists of barley rolled into bite-sized balls that are dipped in a mildly spicy beef stew. I felt embarrassed because I almost single-handedly inhaled a plate made for four to five people. It was my first time having Tihlo. I have not had it since.

The other treat, the standard deal maker and ice breaker in Ethiopian culture is, of course, coffee.

Coffee and conflict

So much has been said about coffee concerning Ethiopia. Now that I am Ethiopian through marriage, I take for granted what coffee means and symbolizes in the culture. At least I did until I started to cover this conflict and its sad and painful aftermath.

I arrived in Mekele after three years. The atmosphere was different—considering the war and that a large part of the TPLF fighting force had melted into the shadows, disguised in civilian dress throughout the region.

Being a journalist entering a place full of uncertainty where you have to work hard to discern between propaganda and truth is challenging. I’ve been to the region before and know the country and I felt grounded by the fact that I would be seeing Atsede again.

After getting settled after a late morning arrival on a Tuesday, I spent the following day documenting open schools and USAID food distribution sites in Mekele. Throughout the day I was ready to see Atsede. I was ready to see my niece and nephew, I was ready to see my family in law, from whom I had been separated by time, distance and war.

The following day some postponed appointments allowed me to plan to spend the entire day with my wife’s cousin. She arrived at my hotel for a late breakfast, she and my niece. We embraced through teary smiles, communicating with the few words of English and Amharic we both knew, my wife had helped to lay out the plans just minutes before our meeting by way of text and phone calls.

We made our way to my hotel’s dining room where I fed Atsede and her daughter. When finished her daughter went home, whereas Atsede and I went to an open-air marketplace just up the road to buy the foodstuffs she had been seriously lacking—her savings had run desperately low. Her husband’s death made for a cessation of income and paying for even the simplest of things became difficult.

We made our way through the market, picking up necessities in bulk, Atsede greeting her friends and familiar vendors as she went from stall to stall. Pasta, oil, sugar and other staples were crossed off the list when I realized, where is the coffee? I asked Atsede, “what about coffee?” She replied that she had a little at home but she pointed to the staples. I told her to get the coffee; in my mind, it was a staple and not a luxury. She downplayed this.

We went to a vendor in the middle of the market and purchased what amounted to a pound of green coffee beans. We gathered ourselves, boarded a mini-bus taxi and headed to her house. We approached her house and walked through a door in the tall, corrugated metal fence that hid her compound from the street as well as blocking noise from the outside world.

Her concrete yard was tidy, bordered on either side by pink-painted concrete walls, the proverbial mouse hunter, common in most Ethiopian homes, sleeping blissfully just off the walkway leading to Atsede’s home.

Atsede’s compound was comprised of the main home, and several unconnected rooms, one of which was being rented out by a young single mother with a three-year-old child.  As soon as we got to Atsede’s home, the child wandered into her open home and joined us. Atsede’s daughter was already hard at work cooking and preparing a simple meal of Shiro (mushed split peas) and lentils. I sat in the living room on a plush couch that on a day at home might have lulled me to sleep. But I was wide awake and focused on my cousin and her family’s well-being. Sundrenched, populated streets had marked our path. Few federal troops were in the streets, which seemed contradictory to the fact that this was an occupied wartime capital city, in a region still at war.

‘Atsede began to prepare coffee according to traditional methods. Roasting beans in a tin metal pot, constantly shaking and agitating.’ Photo by Jemal Countess.

Atsede began to prepare coffee according to traditional methods. Roasting beans in a tin metal pot, constantly shaking and agitating, breaking to let me smell the beans as they roasted, turning them from green to brown to black. The smoke and aroma filling the air. Once roasted them, she quickly ground the beans in an electronic grinder and put them into a jebena—a coffee pot—characteristic of those used in the Tigray region. Lacking a spout like jebenas commonly seen elsewhere in Ethiopia, the coffee is poured straight from the neck, the grounds strained by a small bit of what appeared to be straw or something similar.

Atsede fanned the flames of the burner as they licked the bottom of the jebena, the aroma of brewing coffee met by the smell of the incense that Atsede began to burn. It’s part of the tradition of coffee making to burn frankincense or some other mildly sweet-smelling incense when brewing coffee. I’m not aware of the symbolism of it, but I just know it’s the precursor to what’s usually a great culinary experience in Ethiopia, especially if your loved ones have anything to do with it.

The preparation now complete, I was anticipating my cousin’s epic creation when her daughter emerged from the kitchen with a plate or Shiro and Lentils served on a plate of Injera.

‘As hard as times were and with Atsede’s husband’s loss hanging over the household, the hospitality and love shown to me were deeply humbling.’ Photo by Jemal Countess.

As hard as times were and with Atsede’s husband’s loss hanging over the household, the hospitality and love shown to me were deeply humbling. I made short work of the plate, not refusing a second helping but quietly declining a third. I was concerned about the rations in the house even if Atsede was more concerned about welcoming a member of her family and making them feel at home.

The first of two cups of coffee arrived next. Those classic little cups are accompanied by little spoons and a little sugar jar, everything being an intricate part of the coffee experience. The climax of all this is the first sip.

My cousin watched anxiously to see my response to all of her hard work over the past hour.

“Ummmmm, konjo!” I said, which in Amharic means “beautiful.”

My cousin—being fluent in Amharic and Tigrayan—understood. She smiled, happy that I was happy as she then sipped her cup. We sat, barely speaking but smiling, enjoying her coffee. We communicated in broken Amharic and gestures as she poured her second cup. I glanced over at the TV stand as a group of photos caught my attention. Most prominent was a photo of Atsede and her husband. She saw me and looked at me, mentioning his name and then saying some words in Tigrayan before her demeanour changed. We then sat in a different kind of silence, now facing each other. Her head in her hands, looking towards the picture, eyes welling with tears. My niece and nephew came from the kitchen area to be present in our space and to comfort her. Her daughter rubbing her shoulder.

At that moment there was a knock at the compound door and the neighbour let in a short, stout woman, who walked into Atsede’s home. Atsede stood up to embrace her and looked at me and said “sister.” This was Atsede’s sister-in-law and this was only the second time since his death that they had seen each other. Their embrace was followed by weeping as the sister looked at his photo and took a seat on the couch next to Atsede. They both cried for several minutes, repeatedly wiping away tears. I sat quietly, feeling helpless and wanting to do something but unable to do anything other than express my sorrow.

Both women quieted, the daughter standing behind them wiping tears from her face while Atsede’s teenage son faced away from us and slowly walked back towards the kitchen. My niece turned to the kitchen and came back with a plate of Shiro for the guest. Atsede and her sister-in-law talked and I decided I needed to leave them in peace.

‘It seemed that one of the few sources of solace anyone on either side had was coffee.’ Photo by Jemal Countess.

Atsede’s daughter had taken up a position at the coffee station, fanning the flames under a second round of brewing coffee. With the coffee started I would break unspoken tradition if I left before having at least one more cup, so I stayed. The mood around this cup was solemn, for if grief and sorrow had a subtle flavour, I tasted it in that final cup.

I embraced my cousin and her daughter; I gave the son a “fist bump,” and bowed to Atsede’s sister-in-law.

I moved towards the door when Atsede told me to wait. Her son was going to escort me to my hotel. I declined but she insisted as the evening curfew was fast approaching with the setting sun. We walked briskly through the neighbourhood, reaching the main street and the road to my hotel. I told him to head back as I was in sight of my building.

As I walked, I passed a coffee house with outdoor seating, common in just about every part of Ethiopia. As I passed by, I made eye contact with several Ethiopian National Defense Forces as they sat and drank their coffee, presumably before beginning evening patrols. Mekele was still an occupied city, the soldiers had work to do and the there was an air of uncertainty throughout the region.

It seemed that one of the few sources of solace anyone on either side had was coffee.