She had just been crowned world champion, but Ethiopian marathon runner Gotytom Gebreslase broke down in tears when asked if her family was celebrating her win back home in war-torn Tigray.
“I haven't spoken to my parents in months,” she said, wiping her eyes as she spoke at a news conference during the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, in the northwestern US state of Oregon, in July.
“I wish my own father and mother could celebrate my achievement the way other Ethiopians are.”
Few have been spared the effects of a nearly two-year Internet and phone shutdown in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, which has been cut off since fighting erupted between Tigrayan rebels and government forces in November 2020.
The conflict resumed last month after a months-long humanitarian truce, dashing hopes for communications to be restored.
Even the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who hails from Tigray, said he had been unable to reach his relatives back home, or send them money.
“I don’t know even who is dead or who is alive,” Tedros told a recent news conference in London.
As fighting continues in Tigray and elsewhere in Ethiopia, the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed says shutdowns are needed to curb violence, but critics accuse authorities of using the Internet as a weapon of war.
“Access to communications and other basic services, and most importantly humanitarian assistance, is explicitly used as a bargaining chip by the Ethiopian government,” said Goitom Gebreluel, a political analyst specialising in Horn of Africa affairs.
“It is used as leverage against both Tigray and the international community.”
Satphones and printouts
Around the world, Internet shutdowns have become more sophisticated, lasting longer, harming people and the economy, and targeting vulnerable groups worldwide, according to digital rights group Access Now.
It recorded some 182 Internet shutdowns in 34 countries last year, up from 159 shutdowns in 29 nations the previous year.
In Ethiopia, sporadic Internet and phone blackouts have been used as “a weapon to control and censor information”, the group said, making it difficult for journalists and activists to document alleged rights crimes, and for aid to be delivered.
In Tigray’s regional capital, Mekelle, emergency workarounds such as satellite phones have become a vital tool for aid agency operations.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also maintains a satellite phone service for local residents – giving them a way to get a message to loved ones.
So far this year, the ICRC has facilitated some 116,000 phone calls and oral messages “between family members separated by conflict and violence”, said spokesperson Alyona Synenko.
With almost half of the region’s six million people in severe need of food, the shutdown as well as road blockades have hampered humanitarian aid deliveries, according to the UN World Food Programme.
The lack of mobile phone networks has also “crippled both the emergency and regular health monitoring systems”, a WHO spokesperson said in emailed remarks.
The only way to communicate is “via paper reports that need to be delivered by hand. All meetings have to be held in person”.
Government officials accuse the rebels of deliberately damaging telecoms networks, while representatives of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) say Abiy’s administration does not want to restore the services it cut.
A spokesperson for Abiy said there was not a “single on and off button or switch” for the Internet to be restored.
“The security and administrative arrangements within the Tigray region need to be cleared ... to facilitate technical repair work,” the spokesperson told reporters last month.
TPLF adviser Fesseha Tessema disputed that.
“The issue is political, as Addis Ababa doesn’t want to lift the siege and restore services,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
‘They leave it to God’
When popular singer and Oromo activist Hachalu Hundessa was killed in June 2020 in a suburb of the capital, Addis Ababa, the government pulled the plug on the entire country’s Internet as riots and killings spread across Oromia and in Addis Ababa.
A police crackdown left hundreds dead, and an Internet outage that lasted 23 days cost the economy more than US$100mil (RM464.90mil), according to NetBlocks, an Internet monitoring firm.
Frehiwot Tamiru, chief executive of the sole telecommunications provider – government-owned Ethio Telecom, said the nationwide shutdown was necessary to prevent the internet from being used by criminals to “kill and displace, create chaos and destroy the country”.
Human rights groups have also criticised the Ethiopian government for shutdowns of social media and messaging services including Facebook and WhatsApp in the past year.
Ethiopian authorities have not commented on these shutdowns, but said last year that they were developing a home-grown social media platform to “replace” Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.
Many ordinary Ethiopians lament the frequent disruptions to their day-to-day lives.
Like any 15-year-old, Tolessa liked to look up football scores online and message his friends on his phone, until frequent Internet outages in his hometown in Oromia made that nearly impossible.
As the war between Ethiopian forces and rebels of the Oromo Liberation Army intensified over 2019 and 2020, residents used their phones when they could to alert each other to approaching fighting – until broadband and mobile Internet shut down.
“Now it’s all a gamble – they leave it to God,” said Tolessa, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect his identity.
Fearing for his safety, Tolessa’s family sent him to live with relatives in Addis Ababa about 300 km (185 miles) away, where he now goes to school and hopes to be an engineer. It is a struggle to stay in touch.
“I can only reach some relatives by phone, most of them haven’t been online in months,” he said.
In Tigray, Mekelle resident Eyassu Gebreanenia, 24, said he was able to get online once or twice a month, using the WiFi at the office of an international nonprofit where his friend works.
The city used to be the bustling business hub of the region, but Gebreanenia said hospitals, hotels and restaurants are shut, and people who once owned flourishing businesses now struggle to feed their families.
“It’s like they turned the clock back 30 years,” he said. “People are suffering – but you might not know about it because we’re cut off from the world. It’s pretty depressing.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation