The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, hewn and carved by hand into monolithic structures, are believed to have existed for almost 900 years. Last year, however, the UN expressed “serious concern” for their future as Lalibela became a battleground in Ethiopia’s civil war.
During the conflict, the city changed hands at least five times, between forces from the Tigray region and the federal government and allied militias.
Beyene Abate is the head receptionist of the Top 12 Hotel in Lalibela. He says the hotel was ransacked and used as a field hospital by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces during the occupation. They were able to reopen only two weeks ago, after cleaning.
“The main problem is hydroelectric power, water supply. Even the road wasn’t finished yet,” Abate said. “The contract was with the Chinese people. They take all the machines, the soldiers of the TPLF. Because of this, many tourists do not come here. Only a few tourists came by plane.
It could have been worse. The nearby hotel was hit by an Ethiopian government drone strike after TPLF forces occupied it, residents say.
Inside this hotel, windows have been blown out, shards of glass cover the floor, along with other debris.
The economy of the city is based on the pilgrimages of Ethiopians and international tourism which has developed around the churches. The combined effects of COVID-19 and the conflict mean that visitor numbers have plummeted over the past two years. The community is struggling to recover. There is no electricity and access to water has been severely compromised.
Dinku Fente, who sells souvenirs to tourists outside one of Lalibela’s churches, says earning a living under the TPLF was difficult.
Fente said that the war totally froze his business, explaining that during the conflict no one even dared to try to sell souvenirs and religious books in the market because they were too scared. “The TPLF soldiers would steal all the money you would earn anyway, so we chose to stay away,” he added.
Local tour guide Ayalew Abey said his business also closed during the dispute. Now he finds it almost impossible to recover.
Abey said: “Before this case happened, almost every two, three days there was the possibility of working as a tourist guide. But, in the last three years, nothing at all. All things are blocked or closed. No one works properly here.
Lazare Eloundou Assomo, an official with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said the agency planned to support the town of Lalibela.
Assomo said: “Our main concern is with the communities who live on the site, who care about the site, who care about this important World Heritage site, to manage the site and continue to use it as they have. used, as they have for many, many centuries.
According to Assomo, a UNESCO delegation is due to visit Lalibela at the end of the month to assess the type of support needed.