Addis Ababa – Ethiopia’s athletics chief on Thursday urged the federal government to ease access to the war-torn region of Tigray, which is home to several medallists from the recently concluded World Athletics Championships.
The northern region has been largely cut off from the rest of the country due to a conflict between federal forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that erupted in November 2020.
Three of Ethiopia’s four gold medallists and one silver medallist from the championships held in the US city of Eugene earlier this month hail from Tigray, including the women’s marathon winner Gotytom Gebreslase.
“Tigrayan athletes have still not had the opportunity to see their families. I hope that our president and our government will solve this issue,” said Derartu Tulu, who heads the Ethiopian Athletics Federation.
The Olympic long-distance gold medallist added that some athletes remained stuck in Tigray and were unable to participate in the championships, which saw Ethiopia come second in the medals table behind the United States, winning a total of 10 medals.
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“For these athletes, opening the roads, and other essential things that the government is aware of, we want those things to be done for us, and we sincerely ask our government,” she said, speaking at a ceremony to honour the winners.
Ethiopia’s President Sahle-Work Zewde, who holds a largely ceremonial role, also spoke about the conflicts roiling Ethiopia at Thursday’s event.
“The athlete who burst into tears saying ‘I wish my father and mother watched and celebrated’ touched many of our hearts when she wiped her tears with our national flag with a mixed feeling of happiness and sorrow,” Saleh-Work said, referring to Gebreslase.
The conflict in northern Ethiopia has driven hundreds of thousands of people to the brink of famine, displaced more than two million and left more than nine million in need of food aid, according to the United Nations.
Fighting has eased since a humanitarian truce was declared at the end of March.
But Tigray continues to face crippling shortages of food and fuel while lacking access to essential services such as electricity and banking, according to aid agencies.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray in November 2020 in response to what he said were attacks by the region’s then ruling party, the TPLF, on federal army camps.
The rebels mounted a shock comeback in June last year, retaking Tigray before expanding into the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara.