For most people, one’s parents or children are just a walk, a short trip or a phone call away. However, not for Tafete T. from Ethiopia, whose father suddenly disappeared from his life without a trace, not just once, but twice. In a confusion of political conflicts, flight and captivity, the two have been trying to keep in touch with each other for over 20 years. The Red Cross Tracing Service was able to help them.
Tafete T., born almost 40 years ago in Ethiopia, now lives in a refugee shelter in Bavaria. He has a friendly face, his nose appears slightly crooked, as it was once broken. He's wearing a pendant with a cross around his neck. Until the age of 12 he lived together with his mother, father and sister in Ethiopia, making a living from vegetable cultivation. “I went to school. I remember my father always telling me to work hard at school,” Tafete T says.
But one evening the father didn't come home. He seemed to just vanish from the face of the earth. “No one knew anything. Not my mother, not me, and least of all my little sister. My father just wasn't there anymore. It hit my mother very hard. She was paralyzed without him. I wasn't as good at school after he left either.”
The father belonged to a political opposition group; the family was repeatedly questioned by people looking for the father. That he might have fled or gone into hiding did not seem unlikely.
Friends of the family reported that the father was alive, that he was in Sudan and reasonably safe. In the 1990s, many persecuted Ethiopians sought refuge in the neighbouring country.
“The whole time my feeling was that he's alive,” says Tafete T. “The children teased me at school that I didn't have a father. But I was sure I had a father, he was just not here.”
Tafete T. also began to get politically involved. As a tribe member, he stood for free elections and universal suffrage in the name of his tribe. When he was 24 years old, however, the situation became unbearable for him.
“One night strangers came into our house and, while I was in bed, hit me in the face with a rifle butt. That's when my escape began. I fled to Sudan, only when I was there could doctors take care of my badly damaged nose.”
Upon arrival in Sudan, he sought help from the Red Crescent, the sister society of the Red Cross in many countries around the world. When the employees found out that Tafete T. was looking for his father, they established contact for him with the Sudanese Red Crescent Tracing Service. The search turned out to be unusually easy: the father worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross, the staff recognized his name.
One of them accompanied Tafete T. to the neighbouring town where his father worked. Tafete T. finally - after 12 years of separation - met his father again at the UNHCR premises, where he had to extend his stay regularly as a refugee in Sudan. The twelve-year-old child was now a 24-year-old man.
“We recognized each other immediately and when he held me in his arms, he repeated all the time: “I am to blame. None of this was your fault.” “I never actually felt guilty that he had disappeared. And I did understand the reasons later. But I think he felt very guilty about the whole situation.”
Tafete T. was also able to find work in Sudan. As a tiler he lived together with his father in the capital Khartoum. In Sudan he also met his future wife.
A few years later, however, the father disappeared a second time, again all of a sudden. For Tafete T., there was no doubt that the disappearance was once again connected to his political commitment. Tafete T. was sure that he had to go into hiding again.
“To get to my father, they arrested me. The worst things were done to me in prison.”
Tafete T. tells that his wife was able to buy him out of prison. Then they left Sudan together. First via Libya and then across the Mediterranean, via Italy before the long journey led them to Germany in 2015.
In Germany, Tafete T. was told to turn again to the Red Cross and the Tracing Service in order to have any chance of getting back in touch with his father. In the refugee shelter a Tracing Service volunteer, Reiner Helm, took care of his case.
“We tried every way we could. At some point we came up with the idea of asking the parish, which the father often visited in Khartoum. The colleagues of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Khartoum posted a notice in this church at the request of the GRC Tracing Service.
And it worked! At the beginning of 2019, the Sudan Red Crescent Tracing Service provided the GRC Tracing Service with a telephone number. In the offices of the GRC, Tafete T. was able to call his father, who had gone missing again. This was also a special moment for Reiner Helm, who had supported him all the time in his search.
“The tears flowed, of course,” says Reiner Helm. “It was very moving for all of us.”
Tafete T. continues to live with his wife and their two children, who were born in Germany, in a refugee shelter. Whether they can stay is uncertain. His greatest wish? Not to have to leave - and to see his father again.