'Cycling has changed my life. My family’s, too' - The unyielding journey of Negasi Haylu Abreha

Negasi Haylu Abreha is a racer for the Q36.5 Pro Cycling Team, but none of the challenges of being a professional cyclist compare to the ordeal of seeing his family caught up in the war in his native Tigray, and being powerless to help them

This article was originally published in Rouleur 122: The Travel Issue.

Negasi Haylu Abreha will never forget November 4, 2020. “Of course not. How could I? It’s when it all started.”

The Ethiopian, then 20, was set to fly from Pisa in Italy to his home city of Mek’ele in the region of Tigray via the country’s capital Addis Ababa. He would be reunited with his family after five months living and racing in Italy with NTT Continental Cycling Team, a move that came about following a win in his national road race championships a year earlier.

Negasi Haylu woke early that day. “It was 2am and I checked my phone. The fighting had started.” Following years of increased hostilities, a civil war had begun between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian federal government, the latter backed by Eritrea and militants from the bordering region of Amhara. Negasi Haylu immediately knew his chances of arriving home in Tigray were slim.

“I told our manager Kevin [Campbell] that I could not go to my country because a war had started, but he said, ‘No, no, don’t worry, you can go, stay in Addis Ababa, and after a week when the war is finished, you can go to Tigray.’ I tried to explain to him that it wouldn’t be like this, but he was sure it would be fine.” Negasi Haylu listened to Campbell and boarded the first flight to Rome. “When I arrived in Rome, he called me and said, ‘Negasi, I am sorry, everything is cancelled. Please come back.’” Within a few hours, Negasi Haylu had returned to Lucca. It would be a long time before he returned.

It was in the Tuscan city where Negasi Haylu spent the winter constantly scrolling through his phone. All communication lines, including the internet, had been cut off in Tigray, and he was frantically searching for an answer to the most basic of questions: were his family alive and safe?

He had no idea that his then 15-year-old sister, Akberet, had gone to fight for TPLF, and the other, Mlat, had been sent to prison aged 17. His two brothers, Hayelon and Haben, and youngest sister, Helen, meanwhile, were all at home protecting their beloved mother, Medhane. The opposing army came regularly, searching their house ready to kill the brothers. Thousands of kilometres away in Italy, Negasi Haylu was trying his best to carry on as normal.

“I’d go training but after two or three hours I’d stop because I couldn’t ride any more. I wanted information about my family. Them to know about me, and me to know about them. That’s all. Just one time.” Flying to Ethiopia at that time would have constituted a death sentence. “If I went to Addis Ababa, I wouldn’t have been able to stay. They would have killed me or taken me to prison because they know me, I am from Tigray. A lot of people from Tigray died in Addis Ababa. If I went, I would already be dead.”

From the day the war started to now, an estimated 600,000 people have been killed as a result of the fighting, famine and dearth of humanitarian aid; millions more have fled. It is, by quite some way, the deadliest war of the 21st century, and senior figures from the United Nations have been unequivocal in labelling it a genocide while condeming atrocities from all sides.

When the war began, Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, imposed a blockade against the Tigray region that effectively cut off aid. “The enemy will be destroyed,” he told soldiers, as he implored civilians to take up arms. Hopes of a swift resolution soon gave way to a long-standing battle. Negasi Haylu is in no doubt about what he would have done if he was back in his homeland. “If I was in Tigray, I would have gone with the [TPLF] army. 100 per cent. If you stay at home, the army will kill you. They killed many young people. Why do they do this? I would have fought.”

After five agonising months, a friend sent him a voice note. “Your family are fine, everything is good, don’t worry,” they said. But the angst was not over. “Before the war my family knew about my flight so they were thinking ‘Negasi is in Addis Ababa,’ and they thought that if I had arrived, they would have killed me. They would have thought like this, especially our mother. ‘Where is our son, how is he?’”

*   *   *

Negasi Haylu Abreha was born on May 9, 2000. He was the third in a family of six and grew up in a spacious house with five rooms in Mek’ele, the regional capital of Tigray. There are 84 languages in Ethiopia, and Negasi Haylu speaks both Tigrinya and Amharic natively. His father left his mother Medhane when he was just nine months old. She is the family’s beating heart.

“My mother made really good, natural honey with her hands. We ate it with everything: breakfast was bread with honey, dinner was something with honey.” Medhane means medicine in Amharic. “She gave me everything. My mother is everything to me. Even if this dream to be a professional cyclist is my dream, it was my mother’s dream also.”

Tigray is Ethiopia’s cycling heartland. Mek’ele sits at an elevation of 2,250 metres and many surrounding mountains rise to more than 3,000 metres. The people are as beautiful as the place, he says. “They are always so happy!” But they are now at war. “When the war started, I was really stressed about my family, and in one single day 600 people died in a drone attack. One bomb fell 200 metres from my house. But when I watched the TV, they were all happy. People of Tigray are strong.”

In the current men’s professional peloton, four riders are from the region. They all grew up racing in the area’s thriving scene. “Every Sunday there was a race around my house and I really liked it. I said to my mother that I wanted to start. ‘No, no,’ she said, because she thought that it would end other plans.”

Eventually, in 2015, Negasi Haylu persuaded his mother to let him race. “The first race, I crashed,” He laughs loudly. “But I finished the race and a sports director of a team came to me. He told me he was the manager of a Tigray team and that from next season I could ride and stay with the team. ‘You can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with us, and you can sleep in a room in the team house too.’ It was big for me. Big. When I told my mother she started crying and said, ‘Breakfast, lunch, dinner!’”

His mother saw an opportunity; this was her son’s chance of escaping the region for a more prosperous life. “If you ride in Tigray, you cannot change your life. You have to try to be a professional cyclist.” Negasi Haylu’s dream became his mother’s. He was a relative novice and didn’t race mountain bikes – his team’s main discipline – but he agreed to join Guna Sport Club. “From morning to afternoon we went training, and then back to the team house. After dinner the riders went to a cafe, but I went home to be with my mother. Always. Every day.”

As a teenager, Negasi Haylu progressed well. “I am a climber, but in Tigray I could climb, sprint, ride the flat, everything.” He raced in various African countries and in 2019 he was sent to the UCI World Cycling Centre in Cape Town, South Africa. While there, he called his coach in Tigray in late June. “I told him I was coming back home because in four days it was the National Championships in Mek’ele. He said, ‘Don’t come. You will not win because you are in South Africa and not at altitude in Tigray.’” Negasi Haylu, however, ignored the pleas. “I was thinking, ‘I am 19, I have to get some results now, and maybe in 2020 I will get a team in Europe.’ At 21, 22, the chance is gone. You cannot get a European team. So I had to become champion then.

“The first day was the time trial and I crashed on a descent. I was crazy. All the Tigray Federation hated me. ‘Why did you come? Why?’ The coach was even more angry with me. No one was speaking with me because I had paid too much money to come.”

But two days later, he silenced them all in the road race. On his sixth attack, he finally distanced Tsgabu Grmay, then of Mitchelton-Scott, and became Ethiopian men’s champion. “My brothers were there and they cried and cried. My mother didn’t know about the championships, but my brother Hayelom had explained to her, ‘If he wins, for sure he will get a European team.’ When I won, my mother called me and said, ‘Come, come, come home.’ We went back and she had made lots of traditional food for the whole family.” The definition of Negasi is ‘to be crowned’; it seemed fitting that Saturday afternoon.

“I then went back to South Africa and the coach said, ‘I have a surprise for you. Next year you’ll go to Italy with the Dimension Data Continental team.’” Negasi Haylu’s smile grows even wider. “Woah! I cried. I cried!” Covid delayed his move to Italy, but finally in June 2020 he boarded his flight to properly begin his cycling career.

*   *   *

Five months into his adventure, however, his world came crashing down. Nothing made sense any more. “I was so angry. Mad.” The following year, 2021, was very difficult for him. He was still adapting to a new country, learning both Italian and English, and aside from that one voice note, he had no clue as to his family’s whereabouts or well-being. Understandably, his cycling suffered, but the team renewed his contract; if they hadn’t, he’d have become a refugee. “Team Qhubeka were like a family to me. My condition was very, very bad, I couldn’t train, but they understood and every year they gave me a contract.”

Primarily a domestique, Negasi Haylu raced various U23 stage races across Europe in 2021, including the Tour de l’Avenir, and he was present in breakaways at multiple races. Fourteen months into the war, his brother Hayelom risked his life to walk to the Tigray-Amhara border. There, he sent a 30-second voice note to Negasi Haylu.

“Hey Negasi, how are you?” Hayelom said. “All good for us, don’t worry about us. We heard you are in Italy so we are happy.”

In late March 2022, a ceasefire was announced that lasted five months. But communication between Negasi Haylu and his family remained limited. He was desperate to help, so he sent his family money on four separate occasions. Due to several middlemen being involved in the exchange between Europe and Ethiopia, however, each taking up to 30 per cent commission, Negasi Haylu’s family received barely a fraction of the original amount. “If you send €1,000, they receive about €400. But that’s good! Four months ago I made a big mistake. I sent €2,500 and they said my family would receive €1,250. After two days, my brother sent me the invoice. It was €350. I was mad.” Until the banks in Tigray reopen, Negasi Haylu has no better option.

On August 24, 2022, the same day Negasi Haylu was racing stage six of the Tour de l’Avenir, the war re-escalated. He felt helpless. “The first year of the war I was angry, the second year, ‘What can I do?’”

The second anniversary of the war in November 2022 brought with it a ceasefire to finally end the conflict. Brokered by the African Union, the truce agreed that both sides would sign up to disarmament and that critical aid could be restored. By then, Negasi Haylu had earned a two-year contract with the new second-tier team Q36.5 Pro Cycling. “I had a dream to be a professional cyclist, maybe to ride Le Tour, but now I just think how cycling has changed my life. My family’s, too. It’s not easy to get to Europe from Tigray. If I didn’t start cycling, I don’t know where I would be.”

At the team’s first training camp in October, Negasi Haylu told his new team-mates that he still didn’t know if his family were alive or not. They all broke into tears. A few weeks later, he had confirmation that his family were indeed safe and well. He was overcome with relief, but the war stories only just began to be relayed to him. “Many friends died. Including four cyclists, the same age as me. One guy was in the room with his family and the Eritrean army came inside the room and they killed him with a knife.” He swallows loudly, puts his hand to his neck and swipes from left to right. “That happened to many friends.

“My brother Haben said he didn’t leave the house for two years. Many times the army came to check if he was there, but he went under the bed or in the wardrobe. He hid like this because if they had seen him, they’d have taken him away or killed him.

“My brother hadn’t told me about my sister Mlat as he didn’t want to stress me. He said one day they had to go to Addis Ababa to buy food, but when they passed the Tigray border they arrested her and took her to prison. She’s been there for two years, and the first year was really bad. There was no food, she ate nothing. My mother was sick because of the situation. I tried to give some money to Addis Ababa to release her but it’s not possible. This January she called my mother for two minutes and she’s okay. I hope she will be home soon.” His family were lucky, all things considered. “God helped them.”

On January 7 this year, the Orthodox Christmas Day that is celebrated in Ethiopia, Negasi Haylu video-called his family, the first time he had seen their faces since the war’s outbreak. “My mother cried. She was surprised. She didn’t even want to see the video – if she saw me, she cried. I said, ‘Listen, my mother, I have signed for two years as a professional.’” What did she say? “Nothing! She doesn’t speak any more. She just cries. This was a dream of my mother. Pfff, it was crazy. She was so happy.”

What would it mean to see his mother? He laughs softly, and a tear forms at the edge of his eyes. He pauses for a few seconds and wipes the tear away. “Everything. Everything I do is for my mother.”

Negasi Haylu flew home to Tigray to see his family in May and saw his mother for the first time on Ethiopian Mother’s Day. 

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