Unique pictures show the conditions in the Peace Prize laureate’s country

Children die of starvation. The doctors who are trying to save them are fainting from food shortages.

English translation of an article published on Aftenposten (Norway): https://www.aftenposten.no/verden/i/x8O2mQ/unike-bilder-viser-forholdene-i-fredsprisvinnerens-land

Gina Grieg Riisnæs | Journalist | 27 September 2021

On 4 November 2020, the war began in Tigray. Then Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed closed the internet in the region.  All communication disappeared. It was no longer possible to dial in or out. Small drips of news, however, reached out. About mass murder, rape as a weapon and destruction of food. In April, the first message came that people died of starvation. A famine was approaching; experts warned. In July, the United Nations said famine had hit Tigray for real.  An ongoing blockade makes it impossible to know how bad the situation is. Journalists and aid workers are denied entry.  Aftenposten has received unique documentation showing what the UN calls the worst hunger disaster of the decade.

Doctors faint while operating

Usually, the surgeon Sinatayehu (33) operates three times a day. When the second operation is about to start, it has now become common that at least one of his colleagues faints in the operating room. Not because the patients are too many. Not because the atrocities are so terrible. But because the doctors haven’t eaten. “You have to skip at least one meal a day so you can save what you have for later,” Sinatayehu says on a satellite phone from Ayder Hospital in Mekele. It is the capital of the Ethiopian state of Tigray. Ninety percent of the region’s 7 million inhabitants have been living with food shortages for months.  In July, the UN announced that the situation was escalating sharply. At least 400,000 people had crossed the threshold of famine. That is more than in the whole rest of the world combined. And the situation gets worse with each passing day. At the hospital in Mekele, time is running out. Sinatayehu has taken pictures from the hospital for Aftenposten. They clearly show the disastrous conditions.

Time is running out for the hospital. Surgeon Sinatayehu fears that 22 children will starve to death in three weeks. Photo: Sinatayehu

Civil war in lockdown

Hunger is not a foreign word to Ethiopia. The famine of the 1980s killed over one million people in two years. During the historic Live Aid concert in 1985, Freddie Mercury, Madonna and Mick Jagger sang out loud to fix the problem. It did not happen overnight, but over the next few decades Ethiopia’s 107 million inhabitants rebuilt the country. Democracy got a place in politics. The economy grew into one of the continent’s largest. So why does history seem to repeat itself again? It all started when the war in Tigray broke out in November 2020. On the one hand stands the Ethiopian government. On the other stands the Tigrayan Liberation Army (TPLF).

The two have been locked in a power struggle for years. TPLF was in control of Ethiopia’s military forces and intelligence services until 2018. Then Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power with promises of a democratic future. For a long time, it seemed to succeed. The same year he became prime minister, he came to peace with neighboring Eritrea, with which Ethiopia fought for 20 years. The reconciliation gave him the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.

Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2019. Photo: Terje Benediktsky

TPLF would not cooperate with Abiy’s government. Instead, the party ruled Tigray as a state in a state. In November 2020, the TPLF attacked a government-controlled military base. Afterwards, Abiy’s forces invaded the province with the support of Eritrea.

They are accused of purposefully destroying crops in Tigray. In April, the first reports came that people are starving to death. This summer, the situation reached critical heights at Mekele’s Hospital. 

Living on fermented pancakes

The hospital has already collapsed, explains Dr Sinatayehu. Two months ago, the hospital ran out of money for merchandise purchases. Then they had to find new ways to feed the patients. The solution became rations from Tigray’s closed universities. So far, it has provided three meals a day. But always the same traditional food, injera. A kind of fermented pancake with sauce.

The hospital’s patients are served meals three times a day. How long it can continue is unclear. The hospital’s resources were blocked several months ago. Photo: Sinatayehu

Several of the hospitalized are now malnourished. For newly operated patients, it is critical. “No matter what we do, their wounds don’t heal. They get infected. In the end, you see patients dying. In the past, these were patients one took for granted. Their operations were simple, of course they would survive,” Sinatayehu explains.  “Now we are doomed to fail in whatever we do. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of Mekele are lucky. In the villages, the situation is far worse. In August, rural residents survived eating green leaves for days, AP writes. Only a month before, people hoped that the situation would improve.

Food trucks disappear

In July, the war reached a turning point. Then TPLF’s forces regained control in Tigray. Government forces were driven to flee. Then Abiy put proposals for a ceasefire on the table. Instead, TPLF moved into neighboring Amhara and Afar regions, where fierce fighting is ongoing. The latter is the only open road into Tigray for aid organizations now.

Ongoing battles make it difficult to get aid in, according to the UN. So do the restrictions imposed by Abiy. Although government forces were forced to flee [the Tigray region], they decide from outside [of the region] which aid convoys are allowed in. Several aid organizations have had their work suspended in the region. Among others, the Norwegian Refugee Council. In practice, it has led to a blockade of Tigray. At least 100 trucks carrying food and vital equipment must enter the region every day to meet the needs, according to the United Nations. By 8 September, 445 had arrived since July – there should have been around 7000. But it’s not just enough for them to get in. They have to get out, too. Few have. Only 38 trucks have returned since July. This prevents new aid from being driven in. So where are the trucks? No one knows for sure. Rumour has it that TPLF is taking them for its own use, AlJazeera writes. At the same time, there are reports that the truck drivers, who are often themselves from Tigray, are being harassed by Abiy’s government forces at border crossings. Whatever the cause, the blockade causes more problems than the food shortages at the hospital in Mekele.

Lack of medical equipment

Medications. Antibacterials. Operating gloves. The list of equipment that will soon run out is long.  Sinatayehu and his colleagues can only use one protective glove each when operating.

The blockade has led the US to announce new sanctions. The first came in June. At that time, the United States imposed visa restrictions on members of the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments and TPLF. The cause was accusations of serious human rights violations by all parties involved in the war. On September 17, President Joe Biden signed an executive order. It allows sanctions to be stepped up. What is America’s goal with that? To get more aid into Tigray. The executive order hasn’t been well received by Abiy.

Big political game

He replied in an open letter to Biden. There he described TPLF as a terrorist organization. We must fight our own “war on terror” as “your predecessors did,” he wrote. He’s not all alone, though. In late August, he met with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They signed a military agreement. Its contents are not publicly known.  But it could be a tactical way for Turkey to support the government’s war in Tigray, while at the same time positioning itself on the African continent, writes the Middle East Monitor. In the background of the big political game, the clock is ticking for dozens of children at the hospital in Mekele.

Three weeks left

There, a separate department treats severely malnourished children.

This 10-year-old is one of 22 children admitted for acute malnutrition at the hospital in Mekele. In three weeks, they’ll be out of emergency food. The pictures were taken on September 22. Photo: Sinatayehu
4-year-old Rahwa is also being treated for severe malnutrition. Photo: Sinatayehu

In the rest of the region, there may be hundreds of thousands of children who need the same help. They now have 22 children admitted at the hospital. The oldest is 10 years old, the youngest is one month old. The hospital has enough milk to feed them for three weeks. Even less, if they get more patients.

What happens when you run out?

– “The children will die. And more children will face the same fate,” Sinatayehu concludes.

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