Humanitarian situation in Tigray (31 May 2021)

Internally displaced family including a pregnant mother ©Esiey Leul

Dear friends,

The catastrophic humanitarian situation in Tigray is now (finally) making headlines in international media (section 1). Besides international reactions that become stronger (section 2), we will also give some insights into how the Tigray people are trying to resist to what Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers call “our season” (section 3). And still, the Ethiopian authorities are attempting to get away with it, using various tactics (section 4). We conclude our newsletter with a digest of press publications (many of them translated from French, Dutch or German – section 5).

  1. Humanitarian disaster

The humanitarian situation in Tigray is catastrophic. Besides massacres and rape that are widely used as a weapon of war, one third of the population has been chased from their residential place, what is euphemistically referred to as “IDP” (internally displaced people). Mothers are giving birth in the streets: https://twitter.com/Mizu_Tile/status/1396046118258102272

The FEWSNET briefing of 17 May 2021 used the following words: “this reduction in household access to cash income has resulted in a widespread food security Emergency in the region and has likely led to even more severe consumption gaps for worst-affected households.” This can be decoded to mean that there is not just phase 4 (Emergency) over most of the region, but also phase 5 (Famine) pockets in Tigray. There are now a large number of media reports on these dire conditions:

Upcoming webinar, 8 June: Voices From Tigray – Brutalities against Religious leaders, Holy Places and Heritage in Tigray

  1. International reactions

International reactions and pressure are becoming more important. Finally, the world is going beyond expressions of ‘serious concern’. Some key points of the U.S. senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearing:

  1. The State Department is conducting a legal review as to whether war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces. The Patriarch’s allegation of genocide is being taken seriously.
  2. The comparison with Darfur is being made.
  3. On the humanitarian issue, the comparison is with the 1984 famine in Ethiopia.
  4. The U.S. is considering utilizing the Global Magnitsky Act which would give far-reaching powers to sanction individuals. They also mentioned that they would be ready to pursue accountability to the highest level.
  5. The elections were mentioned in passing, to the effect that they would have no credibility, and that a national dialogue was needed.
  6. Concern with the regional order in the Horn of Africa (and U.S. national security) was expressed.

The video of the proceedings can be found here: https://www.foreign.senate.gov/hearings/ethiopia-in-crisis-us-strategy-and-policy-response-052721

Related media articles:

  1. How Tigray resists

We communicated with friends in Mekelle. They unanimously claim is that perpetrators of the crimes against humanity are Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers. On the other hand, there is also a mix of fear and pity for the young soldiers who are dropped in Mekelle. We received some details about the ways in which people inside Tigray are trying to resist:

A colleague from Mekelle University found one of their former students among the soldiers. The soldier begged for help to escape from Tigray and from the army. People help by giving them civilian clothes.

In common talk in Tigray, the term “ENDF” is not used anymore when talking about the Ethiopian army, they are simply named “PP soldiers”, after Abiy Ahmed’s “Prosperity Party”. The respected naming has been lost. There is no protection for civilians in the Eritrean-ENDF controlled areas… This stands in contrast with Tigray strongholds, according to friends. North of Mekelle, in Sa’isi’e, Atsbi and towards Adigrat, the TDF (Tigray Defence Forces)  have established a strong presence. In these ‘free areas’ (as some people in Mekelle call them), the rule of law has been re-established. Robberies and theft are punished, there is an authority that can handle complaints.

From 25 to 27 May, an inter-religious “Tigray Fasting”  (twitter: #TigrayTsom) was organised all over Tigray, with people fasting and praying for peace and humanitarian solutions. Oromo political prisoners even participated in the three days long fasting that has been held by the people of Tigray. The reader may take a 26-minutes (virtual) bajaj drive through town, visit the major markets and Mekelle’s hypercentre; all shops were closed, like in a general strike: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ry2KDVg_AfM&t=144s

As a reaction to this large civil disobedience, the PP administration tried to forbid shops from re-opening and stopped inter-city transportation: https://twitter.com/morilla_g_o_a_t/status/1397885156585721857 ; https://twitter.com/HailuKebede_/status/1398249919094439943

Unfortunately, media do not much address this widespread resistance of the population:

  1. Tactics to get away with crimes against humanity

As mentioned, pressure on the Ethiopian authorities in relation to these massive war crimes has increased. Hence, they have developed a whole set of diversion tactics.

  • Tactic 1: Denial: “it’s a very crazy idea”, “you are on the TPLF payroll”
  • Tactic 2: Admit a small crime, say that you are doing something about it, and the World can continue closing its eyes.
  • Tactic 3: “This is a dirty war, all are committing crimes”
  • Tactic 4: “Human rights concerns is Western imperialism; Ethiopia is not for sale”
  • Tactic 5: “Unfortunately, this is the price to pay”

See some articles below, which may be fitted in either of the above categories

  1. Other articles in media
  1. Opinion pieces

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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