Negasi Abreha can’t go home

While his home region of Tigray is in the midst of a civil war, Abreha trains in Italy, thinking of his family and his future.

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On the final weekend of February, the U23 elite Italian cycling season officially kicked off. On the start line was a hoard of riders, all waiting to test the effectiveness of their off-seasons. Pre-race nerves are always greater on this first start line than during the rest of the season, and likely to include trivial concerns of having over-indulged in nonna’s home-cooked food to more tangible woes on how to fund their upcoming season (new wheelset not included), the fear of moving up from the juniors, or the pressure of being in their final year as a U23. But there was one rider on the start line with a unique set of worries, one that involves civil war in his home region of Tigray, Ethiopia, where his family still resides. This rider, who might otherwise go unnoticed on the start line were it not for his Ethiopian National Champion jersey, ended up having an off-season unlike no other. 

Rewind to the 4th November 2020: promising 21-year-old Negasi Abreha was due to catch a flight from Bologna, Italy to his home city of Mek’ele in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. The journey is a long one; it involves a change in Rome, then Addis Ababa, the country’s capital, before Negasi would take an internal flight for the final 800 km back to his home city, after a season spent racing on the U23 circuit with NTT Pro Cycling Continental Team, now Team Qhubeka ASSOS’ continental and feeder team, Team Qhubeka.

Negasi made the same journey in June in the opposite direction. He’d landed in Lucca, settled in with his new team and set about learn the ropes of racing and living in Europe, in what would be a crazy season with limited racing opportunities thanks to COVID19. 2020 had, in short, been pretty hard for Negasi, but as he would soon be reminded, the stresses of a limited racing season diminish in comparison to real life and the increasingly aggressive situation back home in Ethiopia.

Most of Negasi’s teammates had already left Lucca for their off-seasons. He was one of the last to go. Team Qhubeka’s Manager, Kevin Campbell, had been following the situation in Ethiopia alongside Negasi, where tension was building between the Tigray region, located in the North of the country on the Eritrean border, and the Federal Ethiopian Government. Disputes over elections are cited as the reasoning for increased militarisation of the region, but these were just the latest issues in a long-running feud between the two camps. But Negasi was going home, he was looking forward to it, his family were waiting for him. Even when the region’s leader and leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) gave a statement on 2nd November to journalists that the Ethiopian Federal Government was about to attack the region, his flight plans remained the same.

Things changed quickly on the 4th. Negasi had made it to Rome and was waiting for his second flight. He was preoccupied and kept scrolling Twitter to see what the situation was in his region. The news was mixed. Armed conflict had broken out. The TPLF had made a pre-emptive attack on an outpost of the Federal Government, and civil war had started. At the same time, Kevin was glued to the news at the team’s Service Course in Lucca. He called Negasi in Rome, who had just received news that all flights from Addis-Ababa to Tigray were now cancelled. 

‘It was a moment of big stress for me. I did not know what to do, or what was happening. Almost immediately the phone networks and internet were cut off in Tigray so I could not contact my family,” Negasi says. “Kevin was optimistic that the flights might re-start in a week – I didn’t think so. He suggested I could pitch up in a hotel in Addis-Ababa, but as a Tigrayan I might get arrested. There was already a lot of hatred for Tigrayans in other parts of Ethiopia. We decided that I would come back to Lucca.” Negasi is at times hesitant with his choice of words, but speaking with a speed and passion that extenuates the emotions of his recollections. 

Negasi then proceeded to tell the airline that he was not taking the flight. He would have to sleep in the airport until the following morning when the Ethiopian Airlines ticket desk re-opened. At the same time, his team, who rallied around him from the outset, were planning on how or where Negasi could stay. 

Whilst all of these decisions and new travel logistics were being made, Negasi tried in vain to contact his family and tell them that, no, he would not be coming home just yet. There was no way to get through to them. The immediacy of the blackout was the starkest reminder for this young Tigrayan that the conflict was real, and the fear of not knowing about his family, or his family not knowing about him, was a burden they would all have to carry for the next 50 days.

As with anything taking place in the Tigray region, contact and information are extremely hard to come by. The Federal Government forces, who argue that their actions are in a policing sense to control the aggression of the TPLF, have cut the phone, power and data networks, as well as the Internet. In the last few weeks of February, phone networks were turned on sporadically, with no notice. At the same time, fighting is widely considered to be still taking place, despite affirmation from the Federal Government to the international community that the conflict has subsided. 

For Negasi, contacting his family became an impossibility that weighed heavy on him. Eventually current Trek-Segafredo rider Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier was able to help make contact. At home in Eritrea, he got the message over to Negasi’s family in Tigray that Negasi was safe, and was able to relay back to Negasi that his family was also alive and safe. It was still some time after that when Negasi got to speak in person with his family. 

“When I finally spoke to my mother she cried so much. All she said was: ‘you are alive, Negasi, you are alive.’ She really hadn’t known where I had been since I never arrived off the plane. No-one did. I felt the same, speaking to her. It was an emotional moment that I will not forget. She told me that I was safe in Italy and needed to stay there. That I should not ask her about the situation, but chat about other things, for her safety because we don’t know who might be listening, but also to save me stress. I was very relieved, but still very anxious for them,” Negasi recalls. 

That call lasted just 5 minutes. 

It is interesting to watch Negasi as he talks. He’s comfortable around us, open and warm, but there are moments of preoccupation. He wrings his hands when the topic gets hard. But then, almost as quickly, as the conversation changes to something more positive, his face lights up with a broad smile. At times he covers his face in the inside of his elbow to hide his youthful embarrassment as we joke with him. In a way, it mirrors Negasi’s current situation: joy at the opportunity he faces, yet out-and-out fear of the unknown, totally uncontrollable situation that is taking place in his home region. 

“It’s now been 125 days since conflict started in Tigray, and it has been a very stressful time,” he says. Negasi is sitting at the dining table in the team’s shared house, just back from an endurance ride. “I have to check social media to find out what is happening – Facebook or Twitter, always, but when I do this my stress levels get even higher, especially when I see news on the number of dead each day.”

He scrolls down his news feed – it’s all Tigray related. Negasi visibly bristles as his thumb hovers over photos of people drinking water from puddles, lines of refugees and wounded civilians wrapped in bandages. In the current age of social media and fake news, validity of posts is never clear-cut, but it’s undeniable that the media blackout is causing huge amounts of stress because of the unknown.

Currently both the United Nations and Red Cross are pushing for access into the Tigray region to overt a humanitarian crisis. Basic essentials for life have been cut off, including water, power and medical supplies. This is due to the ongoing conflict, which many believe currently sees the TPLF holding the majority of the region against the national forces, whilst at the same time the silent participation of Eritrea is further exacerbating the impact on civilians. Some experts predict war crimes similar to those seen during the Balkans conflict or even in Rwanda being discovered. 

We move off the news feed towards his profile, where he is looking for a photo of the day he won the Ethiopian National Title. He stops at his friends list, pointing out a former member of his local team. “He is dead, so I had to share something about him. The Eritrean army came into his house and…” Negasi gestures a gun going off with his hand. There’s a moment of silence.

He then finds the photo of him and his entire family celebrating his win, which went uncontested last year due to COVID-19. A 23-lap course in his home region – of course it would be held in Tigray, it’s Ethiopia’s heartland of cycling, he confirms – it was a race of attrition and he spent the final 6 laps making break after break until the penultimate lap when he stayed away. His brother was on the finish line, calling his mum each lap to update her.

“We’re not a rich family, nor a smart one. There are six of us kids living with our mother in the centre of the city,” he says. “My youngest brother and sister are 12 and 14 – I tell them they’ve got to study but right now there is no school so everyone is at home. One brother is a hairdresser but he can’t work. There is no food or money for anyone. My mum tells me that they’re doing fine, but I know her too well.”

While his family dealt with the abrupt end of daily life as they once knew it amidst the conflict, Negasi arrived back in Lucca. The team put him up in an apartment with two Eritrean teammates, who were stuck in Italy because the conflict had affected their flight from Addis Ababa to Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. As the lease ran out on that apartment and the two Eritreans got seats on a charter flight home, Negasi moved into Team Qhubeka ASSOS’ Head of Marketing Damian Murphy’s apartment in Lucca, who was home in South Africa for the off-season. 

We ask Negasi if there was any ill feeling between the Eritrean and Tigrayan contingents of the team and he replies with a broad smile: “Not at all. We are riders. We race bikes. This has nothing to do with politics. I’m here for my work.”

But when you’re wearing the National Champions jersey, politics can be hard to avoid. He posted photos of riding in and around Lucca in the winter – in social-media friendly conditions like snow, rain and other conditions he would not normally experience. “I got comments from Tigrayans questioning how I could ride in the Ethiopian National Champion’s jersey, after so much killing and death. My reply is the same: This is cycling. This is not politics. I can’t let it bother me. I feel Tigrayan first, then Ethiopian. I still remember with so much pride the day that I won the race, so I don’t feel it is the right place to make any political statements.” Negasi continues with resolve, demonstrating a deeper understanding of the situation and sport – an even thornier position given that the national federation are based outside of Tigray. 

Our questions go back to Negasi’s family and friends.

“I’m really happy that I’m here because it is an opportunity for me – not just for me, for my family too. At home my family can do nothing but survive,” he says. “Everything is closed, shops, schools, businesses. My old teammates cannot train. If you want, you can go outside between 7am and 4pm but after that it is forbidden, way too dangerous. People are desperate and will try to rob everyone – fortunately, my family is not rich. It is very hard. No-one really knows how many people die each day. I speak to my family when the network works, but I never know if it’ll work or not when I try to call. I have a special mobile VOIP that calls their network from Eritrea, on the occasion it is connected. I also have sent money home through a friend in Addis Ababa and with the help of Tsgabu Grmay, who rides for Team BikeExchange. He is my idol and friend. He is from Tigray, but now in Spain away from his wife and child who are stuck in Addis.”

But whilst all of this was happening around Negasi, the consummate professional has continued to train. For the past couple of weeks, he’s made a conscious effort to avoid social media before training, adopting a monastic routine of waking up, praying, eating breakfast, then riding. No screens before the bike. His biggest goal is getting a professional contract, which could come through the WorldTour partner of his current continental team.

He’s impressed the staff so far: “We would see Negasi every two days or so over the winter, when he would drop by the service course here to say hi,” Kevin Campbell, Team Qhubeka Manager, says. “It is something that I’ve encountered a lot with African athletes. They have this amazing ability to accept situations outside of their control. Negasi has been hugely strong, although we have had to guide him fairly strictly on what to wear whilst riding in bad weather.” He laughs, gently chiding Negasi, who’s grown to see the friendly South African as a father figure.

Daniele Nieri, Team Qhubeka’s Director Sportif interjects: “Can you imagine not speaking to your family for over 50 days? Not knowing what is happening to them? I think that any European would have gone crazy. Living alone, too. Just thinking about the situation and not knowing. It’s been amazing to see how strong and independent he has been. From a riding standpoint, he has trained well. You can certainly see a progression in his technical ability after getting through a winter on European roads.”

So, what lies ahead for Negasi? Heading into 2021, he is motivated and determined to start his season. There is still much to learn, but now that he is back in the team house and surrounded by his teammates, he will have more stimulus to take his mind off the situation at home. “Every time I speak with my mother, she tells me to focus, train hard, and respect other riders,” he says. “For her, the most important thing is that I’m here and that I make the most of this opportunity. I will help them where I can, but who knows when this will all end.”

That really is the biggest unknown about the current situation: when it will end. What will be the ultimate outcome for Tigray? How many will die? When will access be granted for humanitarian aid to enter the region? How desperate does the situation have to become in order for this to be realised?

More trivially, it leads us to wonder how this conflict may affect the future of cycling in Ethiopia. Tigray – because of the historical links to Italy through its proximity to Eritrea – is the bike racing homeland of the country. It’s the place where the top cyclists have always come from – and, until bike riding spreads further around the country – the talent will continue to come from Tigray, and only Tigray. 

For politicians, the warring factions and humanitarian aid providers, cycling isn’t important. And within cycling, the issues caused by this conflict are also largely unimportant – what’s the likelihood that anyone will consider Negasi’s situation while on the start line of that first race of the season?  It is only the hard results in races that determine a rider’s progression, success and development within the sport. For Negasi, an African rider attempting to break into a Europe-centric sport with such high barriers of entry for those from other continents, this is just another hurdle along the way to achieve his dream of getting a professional contract. 

Now, Negasi will continue his daily routine of waking up, praying, eating breakfast, not checking social media and then training. The talented athlete is committed to maximising this rare opportunity that he has been presented with and dreaming of when he will next see his family.