Humanitarian situation in Tigray (17 May 2021)

Dear friends,

This digest of the humanitarian situation in Tigray includes (1) a sad city-trip to Mekelle, (2) the status of farmland preparation in 2021, (3) the power of geolocation to identify war crimes, (4) an overview of recent media articles and (5) opinion pieces.

While we know that several of you forward this digest to their friends, we like to remind that you may also continue to invite signatories for the Appeal by concerned scientists and development professionals for Tigray, and the related Avaaz petition.

  1. A walk through Mekelle in May 2021

Recently, a good friend in Mekelle walked me through the city and we did the following observations, after an absence of more than a year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Tigray War:

  • Wake-up in Mekelle has always been early. We were used to see a dynamic town, as soon as the daylight and the bird sounds were there. Shutters being opened, coffee being prepared, people getting ready to start working early. But now, curfew is imposed from dusk to dawn (6 AM); people seem afraid to step out of the door in the morning. The first bajaj (motor tricycle) appears around 6:30 only. A few people are walking to their work: head down, a rushed walk in straight line without making eye contact with anybody. Very reluctantly, the town wakes up around 6:45 AM and becomes alive by 8 AM.
  • Everywhere we see Ethiopian (ENDF) soldiers, patrolling at the back of Ural trucks and Toyota pick-ups moving in group. They are heavily armed, machine guns mounted and ready to shoot. Why do they all wear red berets and black sunglasses? Do they have something to hide? There are less street killings by the military than a few months ago, but stories of people being beaten up or abducted are frequent.
  • We talk with an old man who fled to Mekelle: “nobody is helping us”, “nobody is doing anything”. He had a farm in Imbaseneyti. The Eritreans burned it down – killed all his animals; with his wife, they came to Mekelle to seek assistance. The ‘able’ generation stayed behind, hiding in bushes and gorges. The old man starts crying and beating his own head as during a funeral ceremony. Other men start crying and mourning.
  • We see lots of cars of international NGOs and UN agencies, all of them with two big flags (one in front of the car, one in the back). The flag thing seems a new trend in Mekelle: even EthioTelecom, Mekelle University, and private companies are now “flagging” their cars. Many of the bigger compounds have been rented out to aid organizations, also with flags and all kind of stickers on the gates. It is good that they are there, but a year ago we did not need all that aid. Now they are there to try and cure what has been destroyed in this war.
  • The staff of many international NGOs present in Mekelle speak only Amharic – the communication with the local Tigrinya speakers is not easy. We wonder why knowledge of Tigrinya is not a criterion in the job announcements of INGOs.
  • A few bank agencies are open, some ATMs are working, but to take out your salary, you better plan for half a day queuing at the ATM
  • The Hawelti monument, memorial for “woyane” martyrs is still there, as is the large photo of Meles Zenawi. The compound itself – once the pride of Mekelle – is messy: lots of trash heaps and Ethiopian soldiers washing and drying their clothes.
  • All over the town, nobody is laughing, even not smiling. People telephone discreetly; there is much distrust. Text messaging to and from abroad is impossible. The lucky ones get short access to the internet, by begging from friends who work in administrations or NGOs. There is internet in some hotels where the international people come. 
  • Overall, the people in town look slim due to stress and hunger, many dirty clothes, desperate faces.
  • Managing the household has some challenges, because of the frequent power cuts. Make sure to have your grain grinded, bake your injeras -we say tayta in Tigrinya- whenever power comes in order to have some reserve, have charcoal and firewood at hand. The price of these products tripled, which is catastrophic for the poor. The water supply is less functional even than before the war, water needs to be purchased from private lorries; sometimes a Red Cross lorry distributes water for free.
  • Unlike Shire, the internally displaced people in Mekelle are under cover, mostly in school buildings – newly arrived IDPs stay outside until they find a place in a school. There is lack of toilets, and people often just “sit” outside. They did not receive any food aid. On Easter, together with the neighbourhood, we visit them, bring food and share the Easter meal with them.
  • Due to Covid and the war, children and youngsters have not been to school, since more than a year now! Many people are not wearing face protection masks – due to war the Covid threat seems minor to many people, yet there are daily funeral processions.
  • Unlike other towns, the two big hospitals in Mekelle (Ayder and General Hospital) have been relatively free from looting. Local youth protected the hospitals after the Tigray forces left Mekelle – reportedly the neighbourhood was alerted by someone who could use the speakers of the nearby mosque. Elsewhere, there are hardly any hospital services, women deliver at home, even in forests and caves while hiding for the war. Many people come from far to Mekelle to get treated in its’ hospitals, taking the risk of being shot.
  • We interrupt our walk through Mekelle and take a coffee – soldiers pass and the owner of the coffee house is happy that they move on. She hides her beauty with careless clothes and a scarf.
  • Numerous women have been raped. The victims hide themselves and do not speak, but nurses cannot hold their tears, and the whole town knows the top-three of rapists: 1. (and by far) Eritrean soldiers, 2. Ethiopian soldiers, 3. Civilian perpetrators.
  • Lawlessness has increased. Criminals take smartphones and money in the day time. People do not react for fear of reprisals. I’m warned: it’s better to move with empty pockets and just a cheap mobile! – A few years ago, some guests from South Africa were surprised that we could freely walk in Mekelle without fear day and night – and now Mekelle is in that same lawless situation!
  • We visit the Bureau of Agriculture. Before, it was a lively place from where the small miracle of Tigray’s agri development over three decades was guided. Now, staff are distressed, have no data on the status of land preparation, and “we cannot help our farmers; they are trying to sustain their survival in one or another way”. (see section 2)
  • We talk with government employees: “we don’t know what we will eat next month. We are hopeless”.
  • Every religious leader confirms that war rages on in many areas and that the humanitarian situation is getting worse. Eritreans are blocking access to many areas and preventing farmers from ploughing. “We Tigrayans are not living any more, merely surviving from day to day”. They cannot hold back their tears when describing the situation in Tigray. There is lots of bitterness about the relationship with the religious leaders in Addis Ababa – “they even tried to silence and continuously harass Abune Mathias”.
  • Evening, after six: you can’t go anywhere to try from time to time to have a relaxing moment with your friends – there is curfew. But in the nearby town Kwiha all bars are open – for the soldiers…
  • When the night comes, houses are locked firmly, every slit along shutters blocked with curtains and other textile, no light should filter out, “do not attract their attention”… No  singing in the churches overnight… The dogs stay silent for a short time, but soon hyenas enter the town, whoop and giggle – the dogs respond through the night.
  1. Cropping in Tigray in 2021

Over the last weeks, the UGent geographers’ team has been busy analysing the state of the art of ploughing in Tigray in 2021. We interpreted photographs, conducted interviews, worked with Sentinel satellite imagery. Farmers are afraid for being killed by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers while ploughing, Eritreans even have forbidden to till the land. There is lack of seeds, fertiliser. And yet, people are trying. The draft article can be consulted on ResearchGate – comments and suggestions are welcome!

Analysis of irrigated cropping is underway, but we can already say that several irrigation areas have been cropped with cereals (which demand less presence in the fields) rather than labour intensive cash crops – every man seen working in farmlands is a target for the military! In Western Tigray, many lands are unploughed and lack of irrigation made whole banana plantations to die (unpublished results!).

Croplands outside of Mekelle for May 2021 and April 2018
  1. Other geolocation studies

After early reporting, the massacre of at the edge of a cliff in Mahbere Dego in January made headlines on the BBC again – the Ethiopian soldiers filmed their ‘bravery’, which allowed to geolocate the exact place of the massacre. The Citizen Evidence Lab, explains: How to Crack Complex Geolocation Challenges: A Case Study of the Mahibere Dego Massacre.

At Debre Abbay, geolocation of graphic photographs has allowed reconstructing exactly how a mass killing by ENDF took place. Recently, close-up photos of the killers desecrating their victims have been published by TGHAT – ultimately, this must lead to international court cases!

Earlier on, in parallel to the cluster bombing on Samre, we evidenced rampaging and a killing spree by ENDF/EDF in which more than 500 homesteads were burned down near Gijet. Ted Galt worked with Sentinel satellite imagery, developed an algorithm to locate burned homesteads, and draped the results over Google Earth imagery. We can really visualise how entire villages have been burned down.

  1. In the media
  1. Opinions

Follow up communication compiled by Prof. Dr. Jan Nyssen.

Jan Nyssen is full professor of geography at Ghent University (Belgium). Besides numerous scientific publications mostly related to Ethiopia, he published two books: “ካብ ሓረስቶት ደጉዓ ተምቤን እንታይ ንስምዕ”? “What do we hear from the farmers in Dogu’a Tembien”? [in Tigrinya] (2016), and “Geo Trekking in Ethiopia’s Tropical Mountains, the Dogu’a Tembien District”. Springer GeoGuide (2019).

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