Starvation crisis looms as aid groups seek urgent Tigray access

Humanitarians sound alarm for millions of people in need of emergency assistance in Ethiopia’s conflict-hit northern region.

At least 50,000 people cross to neighbouring Sudan to flee the fighting in Tigray [File: Nariman El-Mofty/AP Photo]

Following his declaration of military victory against rebellious forces in Ethiopia’s Tigray nearly two months ago, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that the rebuilding process was to commence immediately.

The fierce battles that had begun in early November between the federal government troops and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the former governing party of the northern region, were fought under the cover of a communications shutdown. Phone and internet services to Tigray were severed and journalists and aid workers were barred from entry. The ensuing conflict killed thousands of people, with at least 50,000 people crossing to neighbouring Sudan to flee the fighting, including air raids and heavy artillery.

Phone connectivity returned in several towns and cities in the weeks that followed the government’s capture of the regional capital of Mekelle on November 28, but the majority of Tigrayan areas still cannot be reached by telephone and the entire region remains deprived of internet access.

Humanitarian aid, meanwhile, has started to reach those affected by the fighting, although it remains at a trickle as bureaucratic hurdles and continuing fighting hamper the stalled efforts to provide life-saving assistance to millions of people, including newly displaced people and refugees already sheltering in camps based in Tigray.

Al Jazeera has obtained a confidential copy of the minutes of a January 8 meeting between the Tigray Emergency Coordination Center, international aid groups and Ethiopian officials in Mekelle. Aid agencies’ representatives appear to criticise the government’s response to the crisis.

“Overall, commitment is very low and it should be addressed by internalizing the situation and acting timely,” the leaked document reads. “Humanitarian partners call for unhindered access to people in need.”

The document appears to further highlight the gravity of the crisis, as it quotes an Ethiopian regional administrator saying that hundreds of thousands are at risk of starvation if food assistance efforts are not ramped up.

“People are dying of starvation. In Adwa, people are dying while they are sleeping. [It’s] also the same in other zones in the region,” said Berhane Gebretsadik, according to the document.

Both the prime minister’s spokeswoman Billene Seyoum and Tigray’s interim Governor Mulu Nega are yet to respond to emailed queries seeking insight on the matter of humanitarian assistance reaching Tigray. The government has previously said it remained committed to protecting and supporting the civilian population, while Abiy has said no civilian lives have been lost in the government’s offensive.

While there is no official explanation for the hold-up, it coincides with a period of mounting allegations of abuses by government forces, an uptick in lawlessness and reports that soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea had intervened in the war, fighting TPLF forces alongside the Ethiopian army.

The communications shutdown has made it impossible to independently authenticate claims about the presence of Eritrean soldiers, who have reportedly been accused of atrocities, including extrajudicial killings.

Both Addis Ababa and Asmara have denied their involvement in the conflict, but an Ethiopian military commander said in a video posted on social media earlier this month that Eritrean soldiers had indeed participated in the fighting – a position later echoed by Mekelle’s interim mayor.

Mehari Taddele Maru, a professor at the European University Institute, alleged the refusal to allow unhindered access to the region was meant to keep news of starvation and abuses by state forces under the wraps.

“Deliberate obstruction of humanitarian access is a classic method of systematic starvation of people,” Mehari told Al Jazeera. “Ethiopian government and Eritrean troops continue to obstruct access to humanitarian aid. The blanket continues and thus first-hand information is almost impossible to get. The restriction of information is in itself a crime of the state to hide other crimes.”

The region is also facing a shortage of medical supplies and food, with hospitals destroyed and rampant looting reported. Banks in Mekelle were closed in the initial days of the war, leaving people empty-handed or with a perilously short supply of cash for basics, before reopening in late December.

“Things are becoming calm here,” said Ermias Tachene, a merchant who resides in Mekelle. “Shops have food once again and people are going back to work. Outside of the city, I’m not so sure as it’s dangerous to venture out there and the phone lines there are still disconnected.”

Food prices, which had skyrocketed as a result of war-induced shortages, have largely returned to earlier levels. Despite reports of rampant crime, including the rape of women in Mekelle, stability is gradually returning to the region’s largest city. Businesses are restarting operations and Tigray’s airspace has been reopened.

But outside of the capital, banks remain shut and fighting is continuing as Ethiopian troops and their allies hunt TPLF leaders believed to have retreated into rural Tigray. On Wednesday, the Ethiopian government said that Seyoum Mesfin, a notable TPLF official and Ethiopia’s former foreign minister, was killed in fighting alongside two other officers. TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael is believed to be at large, hiding in the region.

Experts feared the burgeoning humanitarian crisis may intensify local resistance.

“In past conflicts, mass starvation in parts of Tigray has stiffened local resistance and led to prolonged conflict,” said Murithi Mutiga, Horn of Africa project director for the International Crisis Group.

“If the government is to be taken at its word that its campaign is aimed only at ousting the TPLF and not at harming the Tigrayan people, they should swiftly accede to the demands of humanitarian agencies for access to Tigray and even to areas TPLF forces may still control to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe of the sort that would make it harder to find a path out of this devastating conflict.”

In mid-December, frustration with Ethiopia’s refusal to allow aid groups to enter Tigray led to the European Union to postpone delivery of almost 88 million euros in aid money destined for Addis Ababa. Ethiopia has since allowed some aid to reach the region – the Red Cross has brought in medicine among other “relief supplies” – but humanitarians have complained that the government continued to hinder efforts on the ground and that only a fraction of those in desperate need of assistance had been reached.

The UN’s emergency aid department, OCHA, in a report earlier in January, said up to a third of shipments and food deliveries have been rejected by authorities.

Last week, the EU affirmed that budget support for Ethiopia had been suspended indefinitely.

“We receive consistent reports of ethnic-targeted violence, killings, massive looting, rapes, forceful return of refugees and possible war crimes,” Josep Borrell, the bloc’s high representative for foreign affairs, said in a statement on Friday. “And while people are in dire need of aid, access to the affected region remains limited, which makes it very difficult to deliver humanitarian assistance.”

During the war, the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) lost control of the four refugee camps it operated in Tigray that were hosting Eritrean refugees. It recently regained access to two of them, but the other two which hosted a combined total of more than 35,000 people remain inaccessible.

Both camps were reportedly overrun and ransacked by Eritrean soldiers during the war, with reports citing satellite images suggesting that destruction at the camps took place as recently as January.

“We have had no access to the Shimelba and Hitsats refugee camps since November,” UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch told Al Jazeera. “We have been receiving a number of reports of significant damage to those camps, including recent reports of the camps being burned, and indications that many refugees have fled in search of safety and food.”

“We stand ready to return to the camps as soon as safe access is possible and stress the importance in the meantime of being able to assist those who have fled the camps.”

Source: Al Jazeera