After two and a half months of conflict, NGOs still have very limited access to the region, where food and healthcare are deeply lacking for the 6 million inhabitants.
Since the start of the conflict in Ethiopia between federal government troops and those from the dissident province of Tigray, ten weeks ago, humanitarian organizations have found it difficult to come to the aid of the displaced and wounded. The region of 6 million people, where the conventional war of November 2020 gradually gave way to guerrilla warfare in the countryside, is devastated by fighting and hunger.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), one of the few NGOs able to reach the center of Tigray, estimates that around 4 million people do not have access to health care. That is two thirds of Tigrayans. The few convoys that have been able to reach the region, like those of the Red Cross and the World Food Program (WFP), are more the exception than the rule.
“The situation is getting worse every day. The conflict began two and a half months ago and the majority of residents are still waiting for humanitarian aid,” warns Saviano Abreu, spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Hunger is at the center of concerns: it is gaining ground in a region already partially ravaged by the invasion of locusts in the fall and where war broke out a few days before the harvest.
Food supplies are deeply lacking and WFP’s 18 trucks are just a drop in the bucket in an ocean of shortages. “During our assessment, we noticed an increase in malnutrition in children under 5 years old,” says Saviano Abreu. A fear expressed bluntly by the interim administrator of the Central zone of Tigray, Berhane Gebretsadik: “People are dying of hunger. In Adwa, they even die of hunger in their sleep.”
EU mentions “possible war crimes”
Faced with this urgency, the international community is making a change of tone. The objective: to obtain absolutely independent access to Tigray as quickly as possible, which currently is refused by the Ethiopian authorities. The European Union (EU), after having suspended the payment of part of its financial assistance to Ethiopia, now evokes “possible war crimes” in the province. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, writes that “the situation goes well beyond a law enforcement operation.”
Beyond the alarming figure of 2 million internally displaced persons, Josep Borrell denounces human rights violations: “We continuously receive information concerning ethnic violence, massacres, large-scale looting, rape and forced return of refugees to Eritrea.” The Belgian organization Europe External Program with Africa (EEPA) reports a massacre in The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, in Aksum, which is said to have claimed the lives of around 750 people, a witness confirmed for La Monde Afrique.
Humanitarian sources returning from Tigray and wishing to testify anonymously abound in this direction. Thousands of women are said to be victims of sexual abuse. More surprisingly, a sharp increase in suicidal behavior has been observed, especially among individuals caught in the midst of violence, and forced to flee their villages and their families. Other sources describe looted hospitals and populations deprived of any medical equipment, left to fend for themselves until the arrival of aid workers.
Inaccessible refugee camps
The other great unknown is the fate of a good number of Eritreans, historically refugees in camps in Tigray usually administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Of these four camps, only two are accessible. The other two, Hitsats and Shimelba, are blocked by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces deployed in Tigray. A blockade in order deplored by the head of the UNHCR: Filippo Grandi is worried about “the persistent insecurity and allegations of serious human rights violations, including murders, targeted kidnappings and the forced return of refugees to Eritrea.” For him, “these are precise indications of major violations of international law”.
While the UNHCR was able to carry out a reconnaissance mission in early January, aid is slow to materialize. Another organization, the Norwegian Refugee Council, is also having a lot of difficulty getting to Tigray, where it employs 100 local workers. “What is being done today in terms of humanitarian aid is simply too little and too late”, assures its director, Jan Egeland, who says he is “extremely disappointed by the slowness of administrative procedures.”
In fact, in order to reach the province, NGOs must seek the approval of the Ethiopian Ministry of Peace, which is responsible for coordinating humanitarian aid. An NGO manager who wants to remain anonymous complains about the deadlines for validation of missions, “which are supposed to last forty-eight hours and which sometimes take ten days”. Contacted by Le Monde Afrique, the Ministry of Peace did not respond to our interview requests. If the UN complains about “bureaucratic delays”, Jan Egeland is frustrated by the authorities’ lack of cooperation: “In November, we were simply ignored. Today there is a dialogue but still no authorizations.
This article was first published on Le Monde Afrique in French.