Mitiku’s story

Mitiku’s Story

We’ve been living here for over 20 months now and described some of our experiences. It’s now time to hear from an Ethiopian. Our closest Ethiopian friend here is Mitiku, and I’ve asked him if he would write his story. We were lucky enough to meet him on our second weekend in Mekelle, when he and another “Habasha” (Ethiopian), Rahel offered to help the new arrivals “Ferengis” – or foreigners, get to know the area and led a walk to a local waterfall.

It was a case of a misfortune turning out well. He is a great photographer, but unfortunately that day his lens crashed to the ground. It’s difficult to get good lenses here, so we got talking and that started things. Since then our lives have frequently overlapped. We were surprised and pleased when we moved to this house last year and found ourselves quite by chance living opposite him. So, he’s a frequent visitor, we do many things together and he also accompanied us on our trip south in January.

This is his story, in his own words….

A short autobiography

“I was born in 1980, in a small village called Adigudom about 45 kilometres south of Mekelle. I grew up in a family of 7. Adigudom was one of the villages seriously affected by the 1984-85 Ethiopian famine. Due to the death of my father, it was my mother and the older brothers who took care of me. My father, killed by the Dergu’s police in early 1981, left my mother, who was not able to balance life as a single mother. The agricultural fields were taken by the government and our family was not able to feed itself. The famine had also thrown our family life into a serious problems. 

When resettlement was proposed by the then government, there were very few people who accepted it on will. Soon, however, it was clear that the government started to take young people by force and settle them in western parts of Ethiopia and recruit them into the national army. My oldest brother was the first to be caught by the government and was taken to a place called Wellega (Oromiya region), in western Ethiopia.  With the idea to rescue our brother, Teshome, the second oldest boy followed him but ended up in a different place called Kaffa, south central Ethiopia. The news of the disappearance of her two boys shocked my mother and she wanted to join them but this was not possible as the famine had become worse and the militarization of the region meant it was not easy for people to move from place to place. 

Me and my family had to walk to Mekelle where we lived in the streets for few weeks. My mother joined the ICRC camp (International committee of Red Cross) for pregnant mothers where me and my little sister were also admitted as we were still small children. We were pulled out of the camp after a few days (2-3 not sure), and went into the streets again, where we were caught by the army and sent into another bigger camp near the airport where thousands and thousands of people were waiting to be transported to the settlements. We were there for months and were eventually airlifted to Addis Ababa.

Our journey continued. After three days on a bus from Addis towards the south-western parts of Ethiopia, we reached our destination – Gambella, where my life was to be changed forever. The social and environmental condition in Gambella was terrible. Many children and older people died of malaria and other diseases which were not known to our communities. It was only few people who succeeded to survive in Gambella. I started school and was able to finish primary and secondary school in Gambella. With the support and care of my brothers and mother, I become one of only two out of 300 students who sat for the Ethiopian School-Leaving Certificate in the Gambella region and I was admitted into one of Ethiopia’s new Universities. 

In University, I studied History and later went back Mekelle to teach history in Kallamino special High school, in fact, near our old camp. From there I started another degree in Law. When I finished this law degree, I moved to teach in another private school. I continued studying and was able to finish a Masters in Journalism and Mass communication from a combined Indian and Ethiopia University. While teaching at a private college I studied for another Masters, this time in medical anthropology at Mekelle University where I now teach Medical Anthropology. 

I could now describe myself as a lecturer, researcher, photographer, and have been a good friend of VSO in Mekelle in particular and Ethiopia in general since 2004.  While my mother has never gone back to Adigudom in nearly 30 years, my second oldest brother and I are living there or nearby, in Tigray. My mother, a brother and my sister, now married and running her business, are still living in the Gambella. Despite the long distance between Tigray and Gambella, I occasionally visit them.

Our family, which was forcefully disrupted and flown into three separate directions of the country almost 30 years ago, has not been able to re-unite and live together. I have helped my brother (married and a baby girl) to settle in Adigudom where our family story started. While the second oldest boy was able to find his family in Gambella after the fall of the Dergue in 1990, no one knows about the whereabouts of the oldest boy, who disappeared at the beginning of the story.”

Mitiku Gebrehiwot Mekelle 2013

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A few perspectives on the story, and things we’ve learnt from Mitiku at other times:

  •       Ethiopians rarely talk about the famine. As a nation, they prefer not to be defined by it. It didn’t affect everybody or all regions – for many it was a drought and is referred to as such. Ethiopians want to be known for other things as well.  
  •     Gambella, where the family were moved to. We’d like to visit, especially to meet Mituku’s mother, but cannot. VSO consider it dangerous, but we hope to go when we’ve finished the placement here.
  •       Many of the relocated people wanted to return to Tigray, so they tried to walk back, having no idea of distances, conditions or terrain. Some tried but most didn’t survive. Mitiku’s family also tried to return on foot but fortunately after some time his mother realised that it would be too challenging, so they returned to Gambella.
  •       Mituku’s mother is illiterate, but he says it was she who felt the best thing she could do for her children was to encourage them in education. All surviving children are successful.
  •       Anyone who has read the book “Moving Mountains” by Claire Bertschinger, the Red Cross nurse who worked at the feeding stations here, or seen her interviews with Michael Buerk on TV/YouTube, will learn how the selection for admission to the feeding camps was made.
  •       Mituku’s family were admitted to the feeding centre because his mother was pregnant; the baby later died.
  •       Claire’s book starts “Outside the feeding centre on the outskirts of Mekelle, the local Ethiopian staff had organised the starving men, women and children into orderly lines. The hundred or so who had been waiting …had quickly swelled to well over a thousand. I tried to count them… literally just a few rags hung from their skeletons…..” .
  •       Mitiku was interviewed for a BBC programme about “events which changed your life” and took part in a radio discussion with Claire B, about her role in his life. She had been haunted by the selection decisions she had to make, Mitiku was grateful and reassuring to her. We found It extremely moving to hear the recording of it on our first our Christmas Day here. Do they know etc.
  •       Quite a lot of Mitiku’s spare time is spent volunteering at the School for the Blind here.
  •       Names – all Ethiopian names have a meaning. Mitiku means “substitute”, the name chosen because his father died when his mother was pregnant with him. Subsequent children had a different father. He escaped the famine in a different way (and that’s a different story).
  •      Mitiku, like many Ethiopians, has great English. He is unlikely to ever visit England as getting a UK visa is virtually impossible for Ethiopians. Our loss.
  •      Our time in Mekelle would have been very different and much poorer without him. He leads us on walks in the hills behind the house, suggests places to visit, as well as places to eat, drink and party.

 Most of all we enjoy chatting with him. Our discussions with him and his knowledge, giving us a perspective on and an understanding of Ethiopian life are great.  At present he is helping me with the Gender project I’m working on – getting girls into Higher Education. He’s my translator and advisor and gets me to the right places to meet the right people at the University to see the project through.  Needless to say, we very much hope we’ll be able to continue our friendship when we leave Mekelle.  

Header photo  -by Mitiku, when he wandered into the Danakil Depression

The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of VSO.


Leave a comment


  1. Wonderful and moving story and the additional background is also enlightening – thanks for this post!

  2. Lesley Jones

     /  19/06/2013

    So glad I have caught up with what you are doing and also the story of this amazing friend Mitiku. What a story and doesn’t it show the human desire to survive even in almost impossible situations. Hope to catch up with you when you return next to the UK.


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