Negasi Haylu Abreha: The rider who can’t go home

[EDITORIAL]: Every morning when the Ethiopian road race champion, Negasi Haylu Abreha, wakes up he has no idea whether his family are alive. He has no way of being able to call home or message them immediately to check.

WHY?

Negasi, who in 2021 will ride his second year with the Team Qhubeka Continental team, is from Mek’ele, the main town in the region of Tigray, Ethiopia. It’s a region that’s seen conflict arise between national government forces and the region’s ruling party, following an outbreak of hostilities in early November. It’s a situation that’s continued unabated, which at the time of writing has seen the United Nations declare its concern over a potential humanitarian crisis in the region.

This conflict arose on 4 November 2020, the exact same date that Negasi travelled from Bologna to Rome after the conclusion of racing for the season for the NTT Continental cycling team. He was returning home to his family after his first full season with the team having shown tremendous promise.

Once in Rome he was set to catch a flight to Addis Ababa and then an onward connection to Mek’ele. After arriving and waiting to board his flight he received a phone call from Team Manager Kevin Campbell, who had been at home scrolling through the news feed on his phone and taken note of the reported tensions arising in northern Ethiopia.

After further investigation and attempting to contact the Ethiopian embassy to get clarity on the current situation, it was clear that the people from the region of Tigray were to be cautious as all domestic flights to the region were cancelled immediately. If Negasi had boarded his flight he would have been stranded in Addis Ababa and there was major concern that his safety could be at great risk. It was agreed that it would be better to wait until there was more information regarding the situation, and only return home when safe to do so.

This decision created an immediate situation at the airport as Negasi’s luggage had already been loaded onto the Addis Ababa-bound flight and required one of our team’s staff members, Martina Alessandri, explaining the situation to airport officials over the phone. The youngster then opted to sleep in the airport, hoping to get onto the first flight back to Bologna; however, as the ticket office only opened after 6am he eventually was only able to return later that afternoon.

Negasi returned to the team house in Lucca, alone, as all of his teammates had already left for home, and stayed until the end of the month, at which point the rental agreement for the premises came to an end. With the situation over a return home to Ethiopia still unclear he moved indefinitely into the apartment of another staff member, Damian Murphy, until there was an option for him to be hopefully be reunited with his family.

That has never happened so he will wait now until early March when the team house is available again to join his Continental teammates for the start of their 2021 season. His hopes of a return home on hold, indefinitely.

 

IN HIS OWN WORDS

It is very difficult (to stay in touch with my family) because all the network coverage in Tigray has been shut off. I am sometimes able to call my mom on a Sunday. We keep the calls very, very short. It is usually “Hello Negasi, we are okay, everyone is fine and we love you. Ciao.” My mother told me to never ask more about the situation over the phone out of fear for their safety.  

I am very scared for my family and friends. 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. 

For sure it’s difficult (for me at the moment). I have stress for my family but also, I am very grateful and happy because I have people around me from the team that are helping me a lot. The team give me a place to stay, provide all my food and make sure I am always able to train. I am still motivated to train because I know If I can be successful, I can help my family more.

I am very happy to be in this team. They are like family to me now: Kevin, Martina, Oksana, Damian – everyone, they all help me a lot. The team has provided me with a big opportunity. 

If I wasn’t a bike rider I would be in Ethiopia now where it would be dangerous and a very difficult life. In my region and hometown many people are dying every day. Maybe it is between 500 – 700 people who are dying every day.

There is no food or water, they have closed everything. 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, 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.

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