Humanitarian situation worsens in Ethiopia's Tigray region

Published : August 28, 2021 19:09 IST

Hundreds of thousands of people in Ethiopia's Tigray region face deadly famine. Photo: AP

Aid workers inside Ethiopia have warned that hostilities will only aggravate the humanitarian situation in the Tigray region. Clashes have already driven hundreds of thousands of people into famine-like conditions.

Ongoing fighting in Ethiopia's Tigray region has helped bring hundreds of thousands of people to the brink of famine, with the UN warning of a major hunger crisis. The United States had already warned that food aid would run out this week for millions of hungry people under a blockade imposed by Ethiopia's government on the embattled region. Ethiopia is embroiled in a conflict that flared nearly 10 months ago in Tigray and that has spilled to other regions.

The government has also struggled to contain other outbreaks of ethnic and political violence over land and resources. As a result, up to 900,000 people in Tigray face famine conditions in what the UN has called the world's worst hunger crisis in a decade.

"The humanitarian situation in Tigray is now dire because the people there have not had access to the basic needs to survive for a long time," Saviano Abreu, spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told DW

According to OCHA, access inside Tigray is still minimal for humanitarian aid. Estimates indicate that at least 100 trucks of aid supplies are needed every day to meet the needs of the Tigrayan people caught up in this conflict.

"Since the end of June, we managed to get just about 320 trucks — and this, of course, has devastating consequences for the aid operations in the region," Abreu said.

"We have been working as United Nations in these kinds of crises and conflicts all around the world. And we have our own mechanisms to determine who needs assistance. We have no means of collaboration with any party to the conflict in northern Ethiopia," Abreu added.

Conflict spillover

Meanwhile, the conflict has spread into Ethiopia's Amhara and Afar regions, displacing hundreds of thousands of people in recent weeks. Mohammed Hussein, Afar regional state emergency protection and food security chief, told DW that TPLF fighters attacked their territory and that as a result, more than 12,000 people have been displaced.

"We need food, shelter and medical supplies. We also need military support. We have a free and safe passage for humanitarian supplies and commercial activities," Hussein said.

The head of communication at the International Red Cross in Ethiopia, Zewdu Ayalew, described the living conditions of the displaced people as extremely difficult.  According to him, some are sheltered in schools, and others are sleeping in open spaces.

"We are trying to help these people in the Amhara and Afar regions. For example, we recently distributed basic relief kits to about 24,000 IDPs in the Afar region," Ayalew told DW, adding that they had provided materials including blankets, rugs, sanitary ware, solar lamps and cooking utensils. "We are also supporting about 26,000 people in the Dessie and Debark areas."

Many people in Tigray are on the brink of starvation because of the conflict between government forces and TPLF fighters

Social media — a necessary evil?

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have aggravated the situation in Ethiopia, according to aid workers. OCHA's Abreu says the platforms are "very damaging and dangerous for us — because the main principles of humanitarian assistance are neutrality, impartiality and humanity."

"Our obligation is to assist everyone who needs assistance, no matter who they are or where they are," Abreu told DW. "We don't support any party to the conflict. Our obligation is to the people that need help.

Ethiopia's National Disaster Risk Management Commissioner Mitiku Kassa told local media that it is unacceptable for the people of Tigray to repeatedly criticize the government without ensuring that the food aid is delivered properly and without fulfilling their responsibilities. Mitiku also accused the TPLF of diverting aid meant for the people of Tigray for their own gain. "In the future, aid agencies will be required to report on the areas where they are engaged," he warned.

The Ethiopian government has deployed troops in the Tigray region to counter TPLF fighters that it has dubbed terrorists

"It is unacceptable to accuse the federal government of everything while lagging in ensuring that food aid is delivered to those in need," Mitiku told local media, including the state-owned Ethiopia Broadcasting Corporation.

But in a separate interview with DW, Mitiku said that the "access to the Tigray region on the Afar side for humanitarian aid has not been interrupted. On the contrary, it is improved now and going well."

Few sources to quote

DW's efforts to reach the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) spokesperson Getachew Reda to comment on the situation were futile. Several independent and international organizations also declined DW requests to speak even under conditions of anonymity, saying it would endanger the lives of their local staff.

"The humanitarian situation in Tigray essentially remains a black box because, in addition to the military standoff, there is an information war being fought," says Ludger Schadomsky, head of Deutsche Welle's Amharic Desk. "What we do know for sure is the situation is very dire indeed as people are being deprived of food and medical supplies. The situation is particularly bleak for girls and women," Schadomsky said.

Inflammatory rhetoric

The heated rhetoric on both sides has led to growing international calls for an immediate cease-fire. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned the Security Council on Thursday that the conflict in Ethiopia has spread beyond the northern Tigray region and "a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding before our eyes."

Guterres told the 15-member Council that ethnic profiling is tearing apart the social fabric of Ethiopia. "All parties must immediately end hostilities without preconditions and seize that opportunity to negotiate a lasting cease-fire." Guterres said more than 2 million people have been displaced in the conflict and millions more need aid, including food, water, shelter, and health care, adding: "At least 400,000 people are living in famine-like conditions."

The United States has also criticized the Ethiopian government for not responding positively to proposals for negotiations and instead publicly calling for the mobilization of militia. It equally condemned the TPLF for expanding its military campaign into the Afar and Amhara regions and neighboring Eritrean Defense Forces for reentering Tigray.

In a statement, Samantha Power, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and current administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said, "the TPLF's offensive into other regions will only prolong this conflict and the suffering of the Ethiopian people."

"The United States urges the TPLF to halt its offensive and withdraw its forces immediately from the Amhara and Afar regions. It also urges the Amhara regional government to withdraw its forces from western Tigray and the Eritrean government to withdraw its forces immediately and permanently from Ethiopia," Samantha Power said. Both the United States and European Union already raised the alarm over the recent deployment of troops from Eritrea to Ethiopia's Tigray region.

Despite Power's plea for all warring parties to end hostilities, authorities in Addis Ababa still accuse USAID and other international aid organizations of abetting the conflict and supporting the TPLF. In a tweet, USAID rejected the allegations, saying it "monitors food distributions to ensure we are supporting the neediest, not combatants."

Fraught negotiation

The leader of Tigray forces in Ethiopia, Debretsion Gebremichael, has expressed commitment to a "negotiated end" to the conflict.

In a letter to U.N. chief Antonio Guterres, Gebremichael said the Tigray side requires an impartial mediator, among other conditions. But he warned that the African Union, whose headquarters are in Ethiopia, "cannot provide any solution to the war". He accused the continental body of "endorsing" one side early in the fighting.

The prospect for talks between Ethiopia's government and the Tigray leadership, who dominated the national government for 27 years before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office, remains deeply challenging. Ethiopia's government earlier this year declared the TPLF a terrorist group.

What began as a political falling-out now threatens to destabilize Africa's second-most populous country. At the same time, all sides have committed abuses in the mix of armed groups that include those from neighboring Eritrea.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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