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The Ethiopian Cycling Champ Who Can’t Go Home

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

Professional cyclists have had to overcome a number of roadblocks over the past year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has disrupted racing schedules and training. But Ethiopia’s national road race champion Negasi Haylu Abreha has been challenged by an obstacle that’s even more daunting than the epidemic: civil war.

The 20-year-old Abreha is in his second year with Team Qhubeka’s pro continental team, NTT Continental. According to a statement released by the team, Abreha was in Rome on November 4, after the 2020 cycling season ended, waiting to take his flight to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Unfortunately, fighting broke out that same day between the country’s armed forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

Luckily, team manager Kevin Campbell contacted Abreha before he boarded the flight and convinced him to remain in Italy. Another team staff member was able to get airport officials to have Abreha’s luggage unloaded from the plane – that’s how close he came to flying into a war.

Returning home would have been disastrous for Abreha since he comes from Mek’ele, the main town in the Tigray region, where the fighting is currently raging. All flights to the Tigray region had been canceled, and he would have been stuck in Addis Ababa and possibly in danger.

Abreha returned alone to the team’s house in Lucca and eventually moved in with team staff member Damian Murphy in that city, where he will continue to live until the team returns for the start of the cycling season later this month.

In the meantime, all Abreha can do is worry about the safety of his family.

“It’s very difficult [to stay in touch with my family] because all the network coverage in Tigray has been shut off,” he was quoted as saying in the team’s statement. “I am sometimes able to call my mom on a Sunday. We keep the calls very, very short.”

Abreha said he was frightened for his family and his friends back home. “I only see pictures of what might be on social media or what people send me. I know the places in the pictures from my home region, and I can see the death, destruction and poverty happening there now.”

About three million people live in the Tigray region and they are all in desperate need of assistance as the violence continues.

The needs of people affected by deadly fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region are “overwhelming”, the International Committee of the Red Cross has warned, according to the BBC.

“The people in Tigray… lost the harvest season,” the ICRC’s director of operations, Dominik Stillhart, said, adding that there were “serious issues with regards to access to medical care.” Thousands of people are reported to have been killed, and about two million have been displaced.

“There is no food or water,” Abreha said. “There are no shops and businesses open. My parents can do nothing. My brother is older than me, he is a hairdresser, but he cannot work now. I have three younger sisters, [and] normally they should be in school, but all the schools are closed. With the help of a friend I was able to send them some money last year. But for now they all do nothing. They just survive.”

And Negasi Haylu Abreha is effectively a refugee.

Unless the fighting ends and peace returns to Tigray, the promising young road racer will be starting the racing season homeless and carrying a psychological burden that might have kept even Eddy Merckx from standing up in the saddle.