Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – For nearly nine months, thousands of Ethiopian parents have been living in agony over the fate of their children who remain stranded in various universities across the conflict-hit Tigray region.
Several universities in the northern region warned in late July of facing challenges to feed the students and guarantee their safety, putting pressure on the federal and regional governments, as well as the United Nations, to act.
“My daughter is in medical school in Adigrat and was set to graduate in just a year,” her mother, Bertukan Tadesse, told Al Jazeera. “I have not heard from her and I am in pain,” said the 54-year-old.
“The constant worry of her safety is becoming overwhelming and her father has become bed-ridden with depression and anxiety.”
The region of some six million people currently has no functioning banks and no electricity, while internet and phone communication have been cut off. There has been frequent suspension of services, as well as road and airport closures, since fighting between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) began in early November last year.
The deteriorating conflict has seen both sides trade accusations of serious abuses, including massacres, with neither showing any desire for compromise.
According to the United Nations, more than 90 percent of Tigray’s population is in need of emergency food, with hundreds of thousands suffering from famine conditions. This week, UNICEF warned that more than 100,000 children in the region could face acute malnutrition this year.
In February, a bus carrying 41 students from Mekelle University with their new degrees to Addis Ababa was attacked by unknown gunmen in Tigray’s Adi Mesino. Seven young people were reportedly killed in the attack, highlighting the complexity of the situation and the dangerous conditions in the region.
Last week, an estimated 2,000 parents and relatives held a peaceful protest in front of the compound of the UN and the Ethiopian Ministry of Science and Higher Education in Addis Ababa, blocking roads and demanding the safe and immediate evacuation of their children.
Families met ministry officials and were assured by the government that action would be taken, according to those present at the meeting.
Al Jazeera reached out to the ministry and the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Ethiopia, Catherine Sozi, but it did not receive a reply by the time of publication.
Some parents reportedly also travelled to Afar on their own hoping to enter Tigray and bring their children back, but were unable to do so due to an escalation in fighting.
Despite the danger, Helen Getachew has also often thought about heading to Tigray to find her only daughter.
She has not heard from the medical student for more than a month, ever since telecommunications went down as the TPLF retook several cities in Tigray and the federal troops withdrew.
Getachew worries when – and if – her daughter will ever come back home.
“The last time I saw her was just before the conflict started when she flew back to Addis Ababa,” Getachew told Al Jazeera.
“I begged her not to go back, worried for her safety, but she insisted on heading back and finishing her degree and find the professional fulfilment she saw in others and be the first in our family to earn a degree,” she said.
“I no longer have the luxury of looking forward to her graduation, but to see her come out alive and embrace her into my hands.”