Demonstrators gather in Congress Square Park on Wednesday to call for U.S. assistance in the embattled Tigray region of Ethiopia. Photo by Hagos Tsadik

Mainers with ties to the embattled Tigray region of Ethiopia are growing increasingly worried about family members they haven’t heard from in weeks and are calling for help from U.S. officials here and overseas.

They include the children of Zewdu Weldermariam, 62, a U.S. citizen who lived in Portland for 25 years before returning to her native country five years ago to care for her elderly mother. Reports of rampant of violence are growing and her children living in Lewiston and Massachusetts haven’t heard from her since mid-October.

Ethiopia’s prime minister declared Tuesday that a “final and crucial” military operation would launch in the coming days against the government of the country’s rebellious Tigray region, while the United Nations warned of a “full-scale humanitarian crisis” with refugees fleeing and people in Tigray starting to go hungry, The Associated Press reported.

In a warning to Americans still in the Tigray region, the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia said those who can’t leave safely “are advised to shelter in place.” It is believed that more than 1,000 citizens of various foreign countries may be trapped and unable to leave.

Yirgalem Maddie, Weldermariam’s daughter, a Portland High School graduate who is a social worker and lives in Massachusetts, said she has reached out to the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia, hoping for help in contacting her mother.

“We are worried sick,” Maddie said. “We need to know she is safe. We thank but continue to urge our elected officials to push the State Department to do more and intervene. Our family’s situation is the same as many more with loved ones in the region.”

Family members are worried about Zewdu Weldermariam, a former Portland resident now caring for her elderly mother in the embattled Tigray region of Ethiopia, seen here serving Ethiopian food from her stand at the 2013 Festival of Nations in Deering Oaks. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

There are about 500 Ethiopian immigrants and family members living in Maine, some of whom held a quickly organized demonstration Wednesday morning that attracted about 40 people to the plaza in front of Portland City Hall. They marched to Congress Square, and on the way delivered the following plea to the office of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine:

“We Americans originally from the northern part of Ethiopia, (the) Tigray regional state, are seriously concerned about the ongoing ethnically motivated, widely ranged war started against our Tigray people,” said the letter from Tigray Community Members in New England. “We are addressing the situation to the United States government officials to assert influence in order to end the unjustifiable war and both sides to come to the negotiation table.”

Collins said she supports a peaceful resolution to the conflict and providing humanitarian aid to the people of Ethiopia.

“I urge all sides in the current conflict to commit to an immediate ceasefire and take any necessary actions to protect civilians and ensure access to humanitarian assistance,” Collins said in an email issued by her office Wednesday night.

The demonstrators said Ethiopian federal forces led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, along with the Amhara Regional State Militia and the army of neighboring Eritrea, have attacked the Tigray region with heavy artillery from the air and on the ground.

Among the demonstrators were Hagos Tsadik, 60, a state social worker who lives in Cape Elizabeth, and his wife, Tsion Tesfay, 52, a certified nursing assistant at Maine Medical Center. U.S. citizens who were born in the Tigray region, they fear the worst for more than 100 family members in their native land.

“They are killing everywhere and there is nowhere to run,” Tsadik said. “We are very afraid because communication has been cut off and we haven’t heard from our loved ones since Nov. 3. We don’t know how they are.”

Tsion Tesfay and her husband, Hagos Tsadik, of Cape Elizabeth have more than 100 family members in the embattled Tigray region of Ethiopia. The couple participated in a demonstration in Portland on Wednesday calling for U.S. intervention. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Tsadik and his family visited Tigray in 2018, including his son, Amaniel Hagos, 19, who is majoring in secondary education and international studies at the University of Maine at Farmington.

“I met family members that I never knew,” Hagos said. “It was amazing. Now, I realize that if my parents had not come to this country, I could be in Ethiopia right now, being bombed by my own government.”

On Tuesday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that a three-day deadline given to the Tigray region’s leaders and special forces had expired. The federal government confirmed carrying out surgical airstrikes outside Mekele, the region’s capital city, but denied any civilians had been killed.

“We are marching to Mekele to capture those criminal elements,” Zadig Abraha, Ethiopia’s minister in charge of democratization, said in a phone interview with the AP. He said the move into Mekele would be a brief and final stage of the federal operation.

Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, continues to reject international pleas for dialogue and de-escalation in the two-week conflict in the Horn of Africa that has spilled into neighboring Eritrea and sent more than 27,000 Ethiopian refugees pouring into Sudan.

Tigray TV has shown what appeared to be a bombed-out residential area, with damaged roofs and craters in the ground. The region is largely cut off from the world, with communication lines shut down, roads and airports closed, and food, fuel and medical supplies running desperately low.

Alarmed African neighbors, including Uganda and Kenya, are calling for a peaceful resolution, but Abiy’s government regards the Tigray regional government as illegal after it defiantly held a local election in September. The Tigray regional government objects to the postponement of national elections until next year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and considers Abiy’s federal government illegal.

“The situation is worsening,” said Maddie, who last saw her mother when she visited the region of her birth in June 2019. Weldermariam fled violence in her native country and came to the United States in 1991. She was granted asylum and settled in Portland, where she became a community leader over more than two decades.

“Our mother has deep community ties to Portland, and we know our community has our back in rallying for Zewdu’s safety and peace in Ethiopia,” said Abraham Haile, one of Weldermariam’s two sons, a graduate of Deering High School who lives in Lewiston and is a registered nurse at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center. Her other son lives in Massachusetts.

Haile said when his mother lived in Portland, she was an active member of the Greek Orthodox Church, volunteered at the Root Cellar, took classes at Portland Adult Education and was widely known for her cooking, selling Ethiopian food each summer from her stall at the Festival of Nations in Deering Oaks.

“There are tens of thousands of other Ethiopian families like us living in the U.S. who are panicking,” Haile said. “We need action.”

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