Families have embraced and wept in emotional reunions after the first commercial flight in 18 months between Ethiopia’s capital city and the war-torn Tigray region to the north.
Addis Ababa resumed flights to the Tigray capital of Mekelle on Wednesday as key services have also resumed in the northernmost regional state.
Services that have been restored include air transport, mobile services, humanitarian aid and banking after two years of conflict that has led to the deaths of more than half a million people, according to the UN.
It came a day after a federal government delegation led by the speaker of Ethiopia’s parliament visited Mekelle, paving the way for more engagement between the two sides that have fought a deadly war for two years in which hundreds of thousands of people have died.
The CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, Mesfin Tasew, confirmed the resumption of flights to the capital of rebel-held Tigray.
“We are ready to serve our passengers who are travelling on the route between Addis Ababa and Mekelle and play our part in the socioeconomic development of our country,” said Tasew.
The Commercial Bank of Ethiopia has restarted financial services in some Tigray towns, allowing residents to access cash after the government closed services one year ago.
‘I am finally going home’
The Tigray region had been largely cut off from the rest of the world during the two-year conflict, but communications are slowly resuming as phone lines start to be restored in parts of the region.
Ethiopia’s state-owned telecom provider, Ethio Telecom, also announced on Wednesday the resumption of its services to Mekelle.
According to the Ethiopian prime minister’s office, 28 towns, including Mekelle now have access to telecom services.
“Almost the entire Tigray region has been connected to national power grid,” the PM’s office added in a statement on Wednesday.
It also said that maintenance of some 1,800 kilometres of fibre optics line is under way, with around 981 kilometres so far completed.
Getachew Reda, a spokesperson for Tigray’s regional government, said on Twitter that an Ethiopian Airlines passenger jet had landed at Mekelle’s airport.
Tigrai TV, a rebel-affiliated network, aired footage of passengers dropping to their knees and kissing the tarmac upon arrival in Mekelle.
Kindeya Gebrehiwot, another Tigrayan official, hailed it as a “milestone” and said more services would soon return to the war-weary region.
Traveller, 65-year-old Nigsti Hailemariam, who arrived wrapped in a traditional white cloth, had planned to be in Addis Ababa for just two weeks to help her pregnant daughter give birth. She stayed for nearly two years.
“I am very happy that peace is returning and excited that I am finally going home,” she said.
“May God keep the peace.”
“When I heard of the news (of the flights), I fell to the ground and cried,” said 47-year-old Kahssay Hailu as she prepared to board a plane home to Tigray. She was travelling home with her brother, sister and 15-year-old daughter.
“I came here for my daughter’s examination and got stuck here suddenly,” she said, standing next to her luggage bursting with grains and cooking oil.
Two years of fighting between forces loyal to the government and those of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front or TPLF have left thousands dead and millions in desperate need of humanitarian aid in Ethiopia, the second-most populated country in Africa.
Peace talks between the government and Tigray rebels in November bore fruit as the two sides agreed to a new ceasefire deal.
There has been intense fighting in the northern region since a months-long truce was shattered in late August, with reports of mass casualties and rights violations.
A report released by UN rights experts in October blamed both sides of committing abuses that border on war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Estimates of casualties vary widely, with the United States saying that as many as half a million people have died, while the European Union says more than 100,000 people may have been killed.