Gunfire crackled near the home of Abraha Kinfe Gebremariam. He hoped it drowned out the cries of his wife, curled up in pain, and the newborn twin daughters wailing beside her.
War had broken out in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region at the worst possible time for Abraha and his family. Their village of Mai Kadra was caught in the first known massacre of a grinding conflict that has killed thousands of ethnic Tigrayans like them.
Abraha pleaded with his wife, writhing from post-childbirth complications, to be silent, fearful any noise would bring gunmen to his door. His young sons watched in fear.
“I prayed and prayed,” Abraha said. “God didn’t help me.”
He was terrified his family wouldn’t survive.
This story was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Five months after it began, the war has turned into what witnesses describe as a campaign to destroy the Tigrayan minority. Thousands of families have been shattered.
Amid the heartbreak, the sight of the tall, silent man carrying a grimy pink bassinet slung around his neck with tiny twin girls would still bring out the kindness of strangers, even from the ethnicity targeting them.
The bloodshed began in November as Abraha’s wife, Letay, enjoyed the final stretch of a seemingly normal pregnancy. Hearing gunfire, she, her husband and their sons, 5-year-old Micheale and 11-year-old Daniel, hid in the grass outside.
They lay for hours under the hot sun. “Don’t worry, I’m OK,” Letay told her husband. That night, they crept indoors to sleep.
Letay went into labor the next day. She and Abraha decided to deliver at home. An elderly neighbor from the ethnic group fighting the Tigrayans, the Amhara, agreed to help.
Abraha had longed for a daughter. Soon, nestled beside his wife, he saw two. His joy was tempered by anxiety as war raged outside.
But he soon forgot about the babies. Something was badly wrong with his wife. Her afterbirth wasn’t coming out. In agony, she tried to breastfeed the twins, but couldn’t.
“I don’t know what wrong I did to my God for these troubles,” Abraha said.
Four days after Letay delivered, her afterbirth was expelled. But she wept day and night in pain.
By now, the family understood they were trapped in a massacre. Ethnicity had become deadly, with reports of both Amhara and Tigrayans in Mai Kadra being shot or slaughtered.
On the ninth day, Letay beckoned Abraha closer.
“Look after my babies,” she said. “I’m going to die. I don’t have hope. I’m very sorry.”
She was gone the next day.
The burial was short. There were no speeches. The churchyard likely was full of fresh graves, but Abraha didn’t notice his surroundings.
At home, the babies were waiting.
Washing the tiny, wriggling girls terrified him. Without diapers, he rinsed and reused pieces of cloth. And with two babies instead of one, everything ran short.
He wondered if he was failing.
For a measure of safety, an acquaintance from a different ethnic group, the Wolkait, got the ethnicity changed on Abraha’s identity card. On paper he became Wolkait, too.
It happened just in time. When Amhara militia members visited, Abraha showed the altered ID. He addressed them in Amharic, Ethiopia’s main language, not daring to speak a word of his native Tigrinya.
He also showed them his baby girls.
Any suspicions disappeared. The fighters tried to comfort him for his loss.
“They thought I was one of them,” Abraha said.
His family was safe, for now. But he knew they had to leave.
The family packed light, so the Amhara would not notice they were leaving. Abraha hid a small book of photos under the mattress of the pink bassinet. He couldn’t bear to leave it behind.
The family walked to the edge of town, accompanied by the Amhara neighbor. She chatted with fighters there. This family is Amhara, she said.
Sympathetic, the militia unknowingly helped the fleeing Tigrayan family. They stopped a car and arranged a ride, saving Abraha and his children a six-hour walk to the city of Humera.
There, Abraha’s family sought milk at the hospital. A fellow Tigrayan quietly suggested they go to Sudan, a four-hour walk away.
Abraha had heard that Amhara youth militia and soldiers from nearby Eritrea roamed the route.
“We were very afraid we would be killed,” he said.
The family started before dawn. They stayed off the roads, asking fellow Tigrayans they met for the safest way. Sudan came into sight, then the narrow Tekeze river.
Tigrayans jostled for places aboard boats to cross the border. But Abraha and the wailing babies were ushered to a boat of their own.
As the boat scraped free of his country, he felt a burden ease.
“I was 100% sure the babies would grow up, that things would change from that moment,” he said.
The twins were quiet. They had fallen asleep.
Months after arriving in Sudan, the twins lay under tiny mosquito nets on metal-frame beds, gnawing a fist or smiling at the besotted men who have become experts in infant care.
But for Abraha, a painful task remained. He had finally reached his relatives inside Tigray by phone for the first time since the war began.
His family, excited, clamored for details of his wife.
“Did she give birth?” they asked.
“Yes, twins,” Abraha replied. Joyful, his family pressed for more.
“Boys or girls?”
“Who looks like whom?”
Finally, Abraha calmed them, and continued.
“But,” he said, “I couldn’t save her life.”
His family began to cry. He joined them. He worried about what awful things might have happened to his sister and others that they were hiding from him even now.
That evening, Abraha returned to what the family called home. He picked up the baby girls and again searched their faces for traces of their mother.
In the fear and despair following their birth, the twins were left unnamed. Finally, Abraha’s young son Micheale christened them himself.
One of the girls was named Aden, or “paradise.”
The other was named Turfu, or “left behind.”
To see the full photo essay of Abraha and his family, visit the AP Images site.
Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.