'There's Very Little Left': People Go Hungry in Ethiopia's Tigray as Conflict Marches On

Trucks carrying food, fuel and medical supplies have been stuck outside the region’s borders since the conflict began two weeks ago ■ 30,000 Ethiopians have fled into Sudan, but many won't leave for fear of ethnic violence

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Ethiopian refugees fleeing fighting in Tigray province queue to receive supplies at the Um Rakuba camp in Sudan's eastern Gedaref province, on November 16, 2020.
Ethiopian refugees fleeing fighting in Tigray province queue to receive supplies at the Um Rakuba camp in Sudan's eastern Gedaref province, on November 16, 2020.Credit: Ebrahim Hamid / AFP

People are going hungry in Ethiopia’s rebellious northern Tigray region as roads are blocked, airports are closed and the federal government marches on its capital in a final push to win a two-week war. But residents are afraid to leave for fear of being killed, an internal assessment says.

Trucks laden with food, fuel and medical supplies have been stuck outside the region’s borders since the November 4 announcement by Ethiopia's Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that a military offensive had begun in response to an attack by Tigray regional forces on a military base.

Haaretz podcast: Will Trump's purged Pentagon let Israel attack Iran?

-- : --

“At this stage there is simply very little left, even if you have money,” according to the internal assessment by one humanitarian group, seen by The Associated Press. The assessment, based on a colleague who managed to get out, said people “will stay where they are, there is no place in Tigray where the situation is any different and they cannot cross over into the other regions of Ethiopia because of fear of what would be done to them.”

Banks in Tigray were closed for days, cutting off humanitarian cash transfers to some 1 million people, or one-sixth of the Tigray population. And even before the fighting, a locust outbreak was destroying crops.

Close to 30,000 Ethiopians have fled into neighboring Sudan, burdening villages that have been praised for their generosity, though they have little to give.

But many inside Tigray can’t or won’t leave, frightened by the threat of ethnic violence. Abiy’s office on Wednesday tried to ease those fears, saying its “law enforcement operation” against a Tigray regional leadership it regards as illegal is “primarily” targeting members of that ruling circle.

“The people of Tigray will be the first to benefit," the statement said, as senior government officials vow the fighting will end within days. Abiy’s government accuses the Tigray regional government of damaging bridges and digging up roads leading to its capital, Mekele, to slow the march of federal forces.

Hundreds of wounded people have been treated so far, the International Committee of the Red Cross said after visiting a handful of health centers in the Tigray and Amhara regions. More than 400 have been treated in one hospital in the Amhara city of Gondar, including “large numbers of critically injured."

“At the beginning, most of the wounded were fighters. As days went ahead, we started seeing more wounded civilians exiting” the Tigray region, the ICRC's Daniel O'Malley said in an interview, adding that combatants still make up the majority. As federal forces move eastward along the front line, more wounded are coming from there.

“For the whole country, this is something terrible,” he said.

There is “immense suffering,” the ICRC said. Electricity is out in the Tigray capital, and there is limited water. Hospital beds, supplies for diabetic care and dialysis, even blankets, are urgently needed.

Ethiopia’s federal government has been promising a rapid end to the fighting from nearly the start. Now humanitarian groups, experts and even the United States government are showing signs of desperation.

Ethiopian refugees who fled fighting in Tigray province lay in a hut at the Um Rakuba camp in Sudan's eastern Gedaref province, on November 16, 2020.Credit: Ebrahim Hamid / AFP

“We do not know if there will be additional United Nations-coordinated relocation efforts out of Tigray,” the U.S. Embassy said in a brief statement Tuesday after the UN said some 200 foreigners had been evacuated. “U.S. citizens who cannot depart Tigray safely are advised to shelter in place.”

Well over 1,000 citizens of the U.S. and other countries had been said to be trapped, along with the bulk of the Tigray region’s residents. The Tigray regional government says more than 100,000 civilians have been displaced and seeks urgent humanitarian assistance.

“Humanitarian workers should be given safe passage to provide assistance to vulnerable groups,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement overnight. “Communications services in the Tigray region should be restored immediately in part to allow independent reporting on the situation and to allow for communication with civilians."

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said in a separate statement, “I call for full access to reach people in need wherever they are.” Even before the conflict almost 1 million in the Tigray region needed humanitarian assistance, he said, along with millions more near its borders.

His office on Tuesday set aside $20 million for "anticipatory action to fight hunger in Ethiopia,” citing a long list of threats including "civil unrest, growing insecurity, locust infestations, and the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, which includes declining incomes and rising inflation.”

Even famine is a possibility in the Tigray region, researchers warn in a new article in The Conversation, a website for researchers. Some 80% of people are subsistence farmers and the fighting affects the upcoming harvest season, they wrote.

The locust outbreak, the region’s worst in decades, has “destroyed vast areas of cropped land and numerous swarms remain active in northeastern Ethiopia, where Tigray is located.”

The locust outbreak is so serious that even neighboring Eritrea, which has been almost silent on the conflict despite the Tigray forces firing rockets at its capital, speaks relatively openly about the insect invasion.

The split between Ethiopia’s federal government and Tigray's — each now regards the other as illegal — has led the federal government to divert funding from the regional government to local administrations, affecting early-warning systems for hunger, the researchers wrote.

This time of year was already the “hunger gap” for many, they said: “We fear that the grain baskets will remain empty because of the conflict.”

One of the researchers, Jan Nyssen, told the AP that “I know there are stores of the (UN World Food Program) inside Tigray, but they were there for a normal, quote unquote, disaster.”

Restocking such warehouses remains impossible, the UN said in an update.

Nyssen worries the locusts will pose the worse threat. As of November 3, the day before fighting erupted, swarms had reached as far as Mekele and were expected to move north, further into the region.

He also recalled the hunger that swept through Tigray in the 1980s as its leaders also fought the federal government. Back then, Ethiopia's regime tried to hide the suffering, he said. “Nowadays, you can’t hide it that long.”

Click the alert icon to follow topics: