Humanitarian situation in Tigray (09 April 2022)

Despite the co-evolving dramatic war in Ukraine, we hope that you have seen the information in the media on ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray (section 1) and the Tigray war death rate estimates (section 2). We further address the upcoming cropping season (section 3), as well as the blockade of Tigray, which, despite promises, continues unabated (section 4). Starving Tigrayan people cross now into Amhara region where they end up in prison camps (section 5). This digest further includes the announcement of a webinar on nature-based solutions, conflict and resilience in Tigray (section 6), links to scientific publications regarding the Tigray war (section 7), other media publications (section 8) and opinion pieces (section 9). Note also that these digests must be seen as collective work as each of them goes through of thorough peer review by half a dozen colleagues; a big “thank you” also for contributions of text, contacts to media, forwarding of first-hand information and overall moral support to the people in Tigray.

  1. Detailed report on ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray

A shocking report has been released by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International on 6 April 2022. Amhara regional security forces and civilian authorities in Ethiopia’s Western Tigray Zone have committed widespread abuses against Tigrayans since November 2020 that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said in the report. Ethiopian authorities have severely restricted access and independent scrutiny of the region, keeping the campaign of ethnic cleansing largely hidden. The report, “‘We Will Erase You From This Land: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing in Ethiopia’s Western Tigray Zone,” documents how newly-appointed officials in Western Tigray and security forces from the neighbouring Amhara region, with the acquiescence and possible participation of Ethiopian federal forces, systematically expelled several hundred thousand Tigrayan civilians from their homes using threats, unlawful killings, sexual violence, mass arbitrary detention, pillage, forcible transfer, and the denial of humanitarian assistance. These widespread and systematic attacks against the Tigrayan civilian population amount to crimes against humanity as well as war crimes.

These findings are in line with earlier testimonies of witnesses, including some that we had narrated for Bete Mulu, along Tekeze River, and in Western Tigray in general.

There is also overwhelming evidence of destroyed settlements from satellite imagery:

Remarkably, a couple of days before the release of the AI-HRW report, the University of Gondar started excavations of mass graves in the very Western Tigray, claiming that they found evidence that these graves were holding remnants of ethnic Amharas executed forty years ago. We read the narrative, but we do not see evidence that forensic methods are used, and even less that there is involvement of specialised international organisations.

The Tigray government claims that essentially these excavations are destroying mass graves, related to the ethnic cleansing of Western Tigray. Other possible reasons for the coincidence of these excavations, according to insiders in the AI-HRW investigation, could be an attempt to shift the narrative towards war crimes committed by Tigrayans, or an attempt to strengthen Amhara claims on Western Tigray in view of peace or ceasefire negotiations.

On 7 April, EU Commissioners Josep Borrell and Janez Lenarcic called for the UN “Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia” (which has been constituted and which is starting its work from Entebbe) to be allowed to go to Western Tigray as soon as possible.

It is also very worrying that, according to the mentioned HRW-AI report, thousands of Tigrayans are currently being held in Western Tigray and that they are in great danger of starvation or illegal execution.

And then, yes there are also reports of Tigrayan soldiers committing war crimes in Amhara region by the end of 2021. But what happened and happens in Western Tigray is clearly in another order of magnitude.

Last but not least, we must appreciate Ukrainian Amnesty activists actively sharing the Western Tigray report:

Further reading

  1. Starvation

After publishing the previous digest on 13 March, holding an estimate of the number of civilian deaths, I have been contacted by The Globe and Mail and several other international media; the number of half a million deaths was widely published (we have always stated that it was the upper estimate).

Geoffrey York, the G&M journalist, sent out a tweet with the estimate of war-related deaths that quickly went viral:

Filsan Ahmed, the former Ethiopian cabinet minister who stepped down because of the atrocities committed against the Tigrayan people and in particular girls and women, also tweeted about the estimate, adding her own comments: .
Even Russia’s Sputnik took it up and twisted it in an interesting way, illustrating again how Putin’s media machine is completely supportive of Abiy and his wars. 

And our team received encouraging emails, such as this one: “You’ve done a tremendous job with the Atlas of the Humanitarian Situation, and with calculating a death toll from massacres and famine. This is in my opinion an essential duty for the UN, criminal investigators, states and humanitarian institutions, with employees that are paid to do it. In their absence, you’ve spent an enormous amount of energy in documenting one of the greatest crimes of the 21st Century. Thank you.”

The Health Professionals Network for Tigray organised a hearing where I could present the way we calculated the estimate. Among the partipants there were dozens of (mainly US-based) staffers of think-tanks, NGOs, national and international organisations.

Testimonies on starvation in Tigray continue pouring in: “This day, a desperate call from F., the oldest partner of “Tesfay NGO”. Even in Mekelle, people are starving. So far, he has done everything he can to beg for some flour for the poor, for the old. Now he can’t do anything… “  

“There was a call from G. who went to Alamata, on the southern border, where there is network (see section 4). They mentioned that people are starving in Sasun, a district between Adigrat and Mekelle, where we have relatives.” Sasun is the flat land on the southern outskirts of Adigrat, north of Goda glass factory. The area is known for its fertile and productive soil, with barley as the dominant crop. Learning about starvation in that area makes us worry more about people in areas with degraded, less productive soils.

Thousands of emaciated Tigrayans also pass the regional border of Amhara region, in search for food aid (see section 5).

Further reading

  1. The upcoming cropping season

So far, according to email messages from project staff, the spring rains have been poor, certainly in the Southern, South-Eastern and Central zones of Tigray; the spring rains have been insufficient for sowing the high-yielding sorghum because the growing period will be too short.

Farmers are ploughing their land in preparation of the summer rains and the Tigray government advises them to do so; no land should be left fallow this year. Most farmers have saved seeds; it is also against their culture to eat seed.

Grain marketing is likewise regulated: grain cannot be traded or moved between districts, but it is allowed to be transferred within districts and to the district town.

There is also some seed on the market, but owing to a shortage of funds, farmers may not be able to purchase it in time.

As a result, the seed situation is critical, although the crop genetic variability would be conserved, thanks to careful keeping of seeds. 

A senior professor of agronomy at Mekelle University  has also sent us an update on the fertilizer situation in Tigray. He has highlighted the issues of the forthcoming planting season to international NGOs working in Tigray, as well as UN agencies present, in several meetings organized by the Tigray Bureau of Agriculture. He insisted on inorganic fertilizer being delivered. Crop yield will be low if this is not handled now. On behalf of Tigray’s farmers, he urged that, in addition to humanitarian relief, fertilizer, insecticides, and improved seeds be provided. There would be constant hunger if this were not the case. All of the organizations agreed to notify their headquarters.

An additional challenge is that international organisations would fear for the potential use of nitrogen-based fertilizer to prepare explosives. However, weapons continue to be shipped to Ethiopia, so the risk seems small that fertilizer be used for preparation of bombs. In Raya, both on the Tigray and the Amhara side, there is shortage of fertilizer (confirming the country-wide low supply). This will not be a problem for the areas with spate irrigation which are naturally fertilised with sediment, but rainfed crop production (which is the large majority of Tigray’s croplands) and that on formally irrigated lands will be less.

  1. Tigray blockade: coping with absence of telecommunication and banking

Some colleagues managed to send money to their family in Tigray, through the Afar route. It now has also become serious business in Alamata on the border to Amhara region. There is a detailed Facebook post (with automated English translation) about people travelling from all over Tigray to Alamata, in order to telephone to relatives abroad, asking to send money through smugglers. Whereas some months ago, there was a 20% commission, in Alamata the rate has now increased to 50%! Of course, not only such type of smuggling incurs costs, but the demand is also high.

And the blockade of Tigray continues. After a much-hyped small convoy of 20 lorries with food aid and one tanker lorry with fuel for humanitarian operations, the second UN convoy since the announcement of the “humanitarian truce” has been stopped.

The rationale and tactics of siege implementation by the Ethiopian government, has been conceptually represented as a decision tree by @alex9dan on Twitter:

Further reading

  1. Tigrayans in search for food aid end up in prison camps

Thousands of Tigrayans mainly from the border districts, but also farther away have started walking in search for food and ended up in Kobo or Sokota, in Amhara region. On arrival in Kobo, the hunger refugees are in a bad shape like never seen in Tigray in recent decennia (see our presentation, slide 18). It is not “Korem 1984”, but close to that state of desperation… Our contacts in Kobo mention that, while the local people try to accommodate these hunger refugees the best they can, the Fano paramilitary group actively search them, as they consider any Tigrayan as a potential spy for the TDF (Tigray Defence Forces). The Ethiopian authorities transport these people further south; destinations named are Shewa Robit, Semera and even Adama but the precise whereabouts of these Tigrayan hunger refugees are unknown to their relatives and friends.

Staff of international organizations informed us that they could visit some of the “Tigray IDP camps” – in fact prison camps, managed by the ENDF (Ethiopian army). Conditions there are very cramped and services minimal. People are forcibly taken to such camps from the Tigray border, their mobile phones are taken from them, and people are not allowed to leave the camps (even if they have relatives in Addis Ababa with whom they could stay).

In some of these prison camps, there are citizens of Tigrayan origin with an international passport, who discreetly wanted to travel to Addis Ababa in order to fly home. Embassies trying to assist confirmed that their citizens are extremely badly treated in these camps – no mobile phones, not allowed to leave, only one meal a day, no access to medical facilities.

Local authorities in Afar and Amhara regions say that all of these measures are taken for “for the security of those displaced”, but every indication is that they are in fact prison camps. The small positive note is that the ICRC (International Red Cross) also has access to monitor a bit and give assistance where possible.

  1. Webinar announcement. Tigray: nature-based solutions, conflict and resilience

How has the war in Tigray impacted its landscape-level environmental restoration programme?

On 26 April, join the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS) as they launch a new remote sensing study with Teklehaymanot Weldemichel (NTNU, Norway), Henrike Schulte to Bühne (CEOBS), and Jan Nyssen (UGent, Belgium). Moderation by Doug Weir (CEOBS).


  1. Scientific publications
  1. Other media articles
  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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