War-torn Ethiopia: How the civilian population lives under the blockade

There are very few images from the Tigray region since the war began, as a result of Ethiopia denying journalists and photographers access to the region. This image is from a food handout in the town of Shire on March 15 last year. Photo: Baz Ratner / Reuters / NTB

What would the situation be like in Norway if we were at war and our borders were closed to supplies from abroad? How long would we last? Just over five million people in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray have lived in such a situation for months. Also in other regions the distress is great.

By Gunnar Zachrisen Published: 21.01.2022

At the beginning of 2022, alarm bells start ringing in earnest. UN organizations and denominations fear a widespread humanitarian catastrophe.

“Hell on earth” was the description used by World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus about the situation of the civilian population in Tigray during a recent press conference.

Since mid-July last year, Ethiopia’s government has refused to accept medical supplies to the region. Only in exceptional cases have shipments come through. The WHO chief clarified that such action by a belligerent government is highly unusual – even in conflict situations.

“Nowhere in the world is the situation worse than in Tigray. Even in the toughest periods in Syria, South Sudan, Yemen and elsewhere, WHO and its partners have had access and been able to save lives, said Tedros, who hails from the Tigray region and has served as foreign minister in a TPLF-dominated government.

Nowhere in the world is the situation worse than in Tigray. Even in the toughest periods in Syria, South Sudan, Yemen and elsewhere, WHO and its partners have had access and been able to save lives. “

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Head of the World Health Organization (WHO)

He pointed out that for over a year (the war began in November 2020, red.) the authorities had prevented their own people from food and medicines.

The statements of the international community’s chief health officer immediately prompted Ethiopia to demand that the WHO launch an investigation. In a letter to the UN organization, it referred to “harmful misinformation” and “inappropriate behavior.”

Ethiopia, which a few months ago refused to support a re-election of Tedros as WHO chief, claims that Tedros supports their counterpart in the war and that he interferes in the country’s internal affairs as well as in relations with Eritrea.

Six reasons why the population suffers

Here are the reasons why the UN and a number of humanitarian organisations believe the situation in Tigray is approaching a catastrophe. The situation is also difficult in the regions of Amhara and Afara.

1. Closed borders, lack of humanitarian access

First came the war, then the “siege,” people in Tigray say. It was in June last year that Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared a “unilateral ceasefire” in the civil war against the Tigray region’s leaders – after seven months of bloody war. He justified the decision with respect to farmers during the crop season and humanitarian causes. The declaration came hours after Tigray forces had surprisingly recaptured the regional capital of Mekele, where government forces backed by Eritrea had been keeping control.

What followed, however, led international humanitarian organizations to question the rationale behind the ceasefire.

Ethiopia’s government imposed a full blockade of the region. All transport of ordinary goods into the region was halted, power supply cut, banking services discontinued. Among the goods that are missing are fuel for vehicles. In addition, major restrictions have been placed on humanitarian organisations, with regard to aid shipments and operational conditions.

The UN believes that those humanitarian aid shipments that have been allowed make up only a small fraction of what is the real need, calling it a de facto  blockade. While the United Nations and aid organizations believe Ethiopia is deliberately putting obstacles in the way of truck transport into the region, Ethiopia says trucks with humanitarian supplies have been seized inside Tigray and later used by Tigray forces in the war.

Various problems have arisen when trucks were supposed to pass border posts between Afar and Tigray, where drivers have experienced various forms of harassment. Last November, the UN accused Ethiopian authorities of arresting 72 drivers who assisted in the transport of emergency aid.

Tigray, who has been at war with the federal government since November 2020, is “crooked by enemies.” Neighbouring Amhara and Afar are both taking part in the war on the Abiy government’s side. So does neighboring Eritrea in the north. West Tigray, considered the region’s “grain store”, has been occupied by Eritrean and Amhara forces since the early weeks of the war.  This means that the border with Sudan is also closed.  

The Tigray region is surrounded by enemies. Eritrea (in the north) and the regions of Amhara (in the southwest) and Afar (in the east) all participate in the war on the Abiy government’s side. So did Somalia in the first months of the war. Western Tigray has been occupied by Amhara and Eritrean forces since the start of the war. Nor can Sudan provide supplies to alleviate the blockade. Map: Tim Harding, Media & Management

2. Hunger, food shortages, broken agricultural equipment

To meet the need for emergency aid in the form of food, the UN estimated at the end of last year that at least 100 truckloads were needed daily for Tigray. As of mid-July and the beginning of the year, just over 1,300 trucks had been let in. It covered only 10 percent of the need, according to the United Nations.

Last Friday, the World Food Programme announced that no convoys of food had reached Tigray’s capital Mekele since mid-December and that stocks of nutrition packages for malnourished children had already been exhausted.

“We are now in a situation where we have to choose who should go hungry in order to prevent another person from starving… We are on the verge of humanitarian catastrophe,” said the UN’s regional director for East Africa.

The government in Addis Ababa, for its part, maintains that it is the TPLF leadership in Tigray that is to blame for the blockade and that it is their actions that hinder humanitarian access to the region.

Due to a lack of access to electricity, the internet and transport, regional authorities and emergency aid organisations have limited knowledge of the situation in parts of the countryside. However, satellite images indicate that the cultivated area has been greatly reduced as a result of acts of war.

The situation has deteriorated as a result of what happened in the first seven months of the war. Eritrean soldiers, invited in by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, stole vehicles and seized agricultural machinery and grain mills as spoils of war during their military action in the region. Many bulls, which are the main traction animal in agriculture, were killed, while farmers were forbidden to plow their fields. The shortage of seed is another problem the farmers faced.

Read more: The humanitarian situation in Tigray

“Households across northern Ethiopia face extreme difficulties access to food, with limited access to crops and markets. Millions have been cut off from humanitarian aid as a result of the de facto  humanitarian blockade and conflict. Most of Tigray, and some neighboring areas of Afar and Amhara, are facing a crisis (Phase 4), with populations likely in disaster (Phase 5),” the  Famine Early Warning Systems Network reports.

(Phase 5 is the highest level on the internationally recognised food insecurity scale, describing a level where at least 20 per cent of households face extreme food shortages and where at least 30 per cent of children suffer from acute malnutrition. Red.)

On Wednesday 20 January, a new update came from the UN. It is now said that food distribution in Tigray has reached its “lowest level ever,” while over 50,000 children are believed to be severely malnourished. While half a million people in Amhara received food aid the week before January 12, there was only food aid for 10,000 people in Tigray.

3. Destroyed hospitals, lack of medicines

“Tigray’s health systems are about to collapse completely. They have been affected by attacks, looting and a de facto  blockade of medicines and fuel. (…) Patients with chronic diseases have died as a result of medicine shortages, while children are living with extreme malnutrition,” the humanitarian website Devex wrote this week.

Humanitarian organizations and local authorities have not been granted permission to bring medicines into Tigray during the seven-month blockade.

Recently, an emergency call came out of the Ayder Hospital in Mekele in the form of a letter published in the medical journal The Lancet. The hospital, which was previously a teaching hospital and highly regarded, is running out of medication and must cancel basic surgery.

In “one year, access to basic essential medicines has decreased from 80 percent to less than 20. Patients die as a result of a lack of stable oxygen supply. Spare parts for medical machines no longer exist, and “make the situation reminiscent of the 19th century,” the doctors write.

They say dialysis devices no longer work. Health professionals say that patients with kidney failure who could have been treated instead die right in front of their eyes. Staff at the hospital have been without pay for most of 2021.

“In short, it is a medical disaster that is unfolding – with a background of war, hunger and humanitarian catastrophe,” the doctors wrote.

The Red Cross, for its part, reports doctors in Tigray who have to use salt to wash wounds, who have to give patients medication that has expired, and that they have to reuse disposable equipment such as intubation tubes and gloves.

A difficult situation also occurs in the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar as a result of the Tigray forces’ occupation of parts of these regions in the period from August to November last year, where extensive looting of pharmacies and health institutions was reported. The UN describes 14 hospitals and a number of health centres as “destroyed” by Tigrayan forces.

The situation there is still difficult, but has improved in recent weeks after these forces have withdrawn – back to Tigray. However, some hospitals in Amhara have had to close as a result of medicine shortages.

“The most worrying thing is the lack of medication for vulnerable cases, such as diabetes, HIV or high blood pressure,” Apollo Barasa, health coordinator at the International Committee of the Red Cross, told Devex. The organization works in all three regions of Tigray, Amhara and Afar.

4. Lack of fuel, cash, electricity

Shortage of gasoline is a major problem for the UN’s distribution of food. Fuel tankers have not been allowed into the region since August last year. This affects the possibilities of delivering food and nutrition packages to malnourished children.

“There is an urgent need for the supply of nutritional supplements with the aim of strengthening stockpiles and treating young children and pregnant and lactating women,” UN-OCHA writes in a report on January 13.

At the moment there is still a stockpile of 4,000 tonnes of food in Mekele, but 60,000 litres of fuel are needed before the food can be distributed to the rest of the region.

All UN food distribution partners in Tigray now operate on credit. Some partners, especially local non-governmental organizations, have not been able to pay their employees since June last year, the U.N. relief organization OCHA reports.

Also in the Amhara region there is a shortage of fuel, which in turn places restrictions on food distribution among distressed and internally displaced people after the war.

Limited electricity availability in Tigray exacerbates a problem of a lack of energy for cooking, especially in urban areas. This, in turn, imposes restrictions on the use of foods and increases nutritional and health problems.

Shortages of spare parts and equipment are causing major problems for water and sanitation facilities, the UN relief agency OCHA reports.

5. Internal expulsions

West Tigray is an area that nationalists in the region of Amhara believe is theirs and that it was mistakenly awarded to Tigray in the early 1990s.

Already a few days after the outbreak of war, Amharic forces entered West Tigray. The civilian population, which was mainly ethnic Tigrays, has experienced extreme atrocities committed by soldiers from forces allied with the Abiy government. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has called it “ethnic cleansing.”

Amharic and Eritrean forces still control the area militarily. Many civilian Tigrays in western Tigray have been forcibly expelled from their homes and are now living in camps and private homes in the rest of the Tigray region. About 60,000 have fled to Sudan.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that Tigray has about 1.8 million internally displaced persons, Amhara 1 million and Afar 335,000.

Internally displaced persons, including many women, children and elderly, are among the most vulnerable in most of the world’s conflicts. Providing food for all of these is a particular problem in a situation of blockade and acute food shortages

The many internally displaced in Amhara and Afar in recent months are due to the Tigray forces intervening last autumn. At the same time, fierce battles were going on with, among other things, artillery fire on cities. There have also been reports of harassment, murder and sexual assault, as had happened in the past while federal Ethiopian and Eritrean forces were inside Tigray.

Many internally displaced people in Amhara are now returning to their homes, while there has still been scattered fighting in Afar.

Last fall, prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Abiy Ahmed was himself at the front where he led war operations, government-friendly media reported. Independent media coverage of the war is prohibited under national martial law.

6. Drone strikes and aerial bombing

As of now, there are no known ground operations by government forces inside Tigray, except for the situation in western Tigray where Abiy loyalists still have military control. Smaller groups of Tigray forces, however, operate in parts of the western area, where fighting can take place. The latest reports from military observers also suggest that a disputed area in the far south of Tigray, which was subjected to aerial bombing and then taken over by government forces, is now held by Tigray forces.

Regular drone strikes, however, continue to pose a serious threat to the civilian population. Between October 18 last year and January 4, at least 143 people have lost their lives and 213 have been injured in such attacks, according to the United Nations.

On January 9, at least 56 people were killed when a drone strike hit a camp for internally displaced people in northwestern Tigray. As a result, UN-OCHA has announced that humanitarian partners have halted all activity in the area.

On January 11, another 17 were killed in another drone strike, most of them women. Areas in Oromia, where an Oromo rebel group operates, have also experienced drone strikes.

The United Nations, the United States, the European Union and other Western countries have appealed to the government of Ethiopia for all drone and air strikes to cease.

Ethiopia’s top general, Abebaw Tadesse, told broadcaster Fana on Thursday this week that it was only a matter of time before military operations in Tigray would resume.

***

(“Truth is the first victim of war,” an ancient African proverb reads. Both Ethiopia’s government and its counterpart TPLF are constantly spreading lies and half-truths about the war in the country. In this article it is – related to humanitarian needs – referred only to sources that are not parties to the war.)

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