Humanitarian situation in Tigray (27 March 2023)

Dear reader,

We would have liked to join the “good news show” related to Tigray that is displayed by government media and some international news outlets. On 7 March, the Voice of America titled: Children in Ethiopia’s Tigray Return to School but Face Extended Trauma. In reality, a private kindergarten is featured in this article – public schools have not yet started after three years of interruption (see section 4). Communications with the poorest segment of the population in Mekelle shows that people are disabused: “Nothing changes. Nobody gives the real information, not the government, not the media. People are murmuring a lot.”

In this Tigray Digest, we discuss the accountability for crimes against humanity in the Tigray War (section 1) and the ethnic cleansing and continued Amhara and Eritrean occupation of parts of Tigray (section 2).

Progressive insights, particularly about the number of famine fatalities, may imply that the IPC/FEWS categorization overestimates famine mortality. This, together with (limited) sample data from villages in Tigray, suggests that the total number of civilian deaths may be on the lower end of our previously projected range (section 3).

Section 5 addresses some public activities related to the humanitarian situation in Tigray, and as usual the last sections present an overview of new scientific publications, opinion pieces and other media articles.

1. Accountability for crimes against humanity in the Tigray War

It may seem far away from Tigray: on March 17, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest order for Russian President Vladimir Putin in connection with the invasion of Ukraine (deportation and transfer of population). It is a step forward from the previous situation where often crimes against humanity committed by heads of state remained unaccounted for.

Yet, in the present, there is also the Tigray War, which occurred concurrently with the Ukraine War. It took them a couple of years, but after his recent travel to Ethiopia, on March 20, US Secretary of State Blinken issued a press statement on “War Crimes, Crimes Against Humanity, and Ethnic Cleansing in Ethiopia”. Besides war crimes by all parties, Blinken stated that “members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, the Eritrean Defense Forces and Amhara forces … committed crimes against humanity, including murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence and persecution.” And, he accused the Amhara forces of “the crime against humanity of deportation, or forcible transfer, and … ethnic cleansing through their treatment of Tigrayans in western Tigray.”

Of course, Blinken is not the ICC, but with such insights gaining momentum in the international community, may we hope for the ICC or a UN sanctioned special court to issue arrest warrants for Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara leaders who are all involved in crimes against humanity? According to the Handbook on International Criminal Law, crimes against humanity are widespread or systemic criminal acts which are committed by or on behalf of a state, that grossly violate human rights. Crimes against humanity apply to widespread practices rather than individual acts.

The risk is however, according to a recent report by Reuters, that the international community (including EU and US members of the UN Human Rights Council) may have done a deal with Addis not to extend the mandate of the ICHREE (International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia) beyond September 2023, in exchange for the Government of Ethiopia dropping the immediate curtailment resolution. Several HRC members (even Ireland!) talked about an ICHREE ‘final’ report in September 2023. Given the huge scale of the abuses to be investigated -the ICHREE mandate requires them to look at all parts of Ethiopia- this is tantamount to agreeing to curtail justice, accountability and transparency. All of the key global UN investigation panels are conducting their investigations remotely (Syria, Myanmar), and they all take many years to develop a picture in this kind of case. It is therefore only just that ICHREE should be allowed to continue in this way too, in order to complement whatever the Ethiopians wish to do domestically. Anything else would be a travesty.

Further reading:

2. Ethnic cleansing and continued Amhara and Eritrean occupation of parts of Tigray

It took more than four months after the Cessation of Hostilities agreement for the Ethiopian parliament for ‘simply’ cancelling the TPLF ‘terrorism’ designation; first of all, it indicates that such labels are not an objective fact but depend on the circumstances of the day. Next, if such a move needs four months, then how much time would be needed for the retreat of Amhara troops from Western Tigray and restoration of the Tigrayan authority over the zone, arguably more sensitive politically and with the potential of triggering yet more violence?

As mentioned (section 1), the Amhara forces are guilty of the crime against humanity of deportation, or forcible transfer, and of ethnic cleansing through their treatment of Tigrayans in western Tigray. The Amhara government is actively organising the settlement of Amhara households in Western Tigray.

With regard of the Eritrean occupation of the northern borderlands, we have been in contact with some people in Alitena/Dawhan, and they said that Eritrean troops do occasionally enter Alitena town, but they do not stay there, but they are residing in the surrounding areas- Aiga, Kala-asa, Engal, Sebeya. We heard that more troops arrived at the end of February, when they again blocked the Adigrat-Dawhan road. The aid trucks sent to Dawhan were blocked. The forcible disappearance of people and obstruction of their movement continues. Crossing the Zegaru River to either side is not possible currently. The people say that Alitena was bombed 300 times. And Eritreans would also have attempted to bomb to the Gunda Gundo monastery, which is quite far away.

Further reading:

3. Progressive insight into the number of starvation deaths in Tigray

Take-home message: As our estimate of the civilian deaths in the Tigray war is regularly mentioned in the media, it seems important to share our evolving understanding and updated (lower) number of civilian deaths as a result of the Tigray war and blockade. We concluded that the IPC/FEWS categorization, on which our Tigray statistics are mainly based, overestimates hunger mortality. Along with developing information on the ground, this would point to a total number of civilian deaths ranging from 162,000 to 378,000. This is still a staggering figure, and the revised estimate does not acquit the Ethiopian government and its allies of the premeditated war crime of besieging and starving the population.

Several international media articles have given attention to our estimate of the civilian deaths in the Tigray war. We have always given a range of civilian deaths, roughly between 300k and 600k civilian victims, indeed in Tigray alone. Progressive insights, particularly related to the number of famine deaths, may indicate an overestimation of famine deaths in the IPC/FEWS classification. Jointly with emerging evidence on the ground, this would hint at a total number of civilian deaths that could rather be on the lower side of our earlier estimated range.

The IPC issued a famine warning in May 2021. They have detailed and structured data around how many people are affected by hunger in Tigray. Although not perfect, this gave us a starting point to calculate how many people might have died of starvation. IPC stopped providing data afterwards (due to inaccessibility to the region), but we had FEWS NET and WFP reports to work with as well, although they are less detailed.

Now, with better access to Tigray, there are some sample areas where civilian casualties were tallied. Christian Putsch, for the German newspaper Die Welt, visited the tabiya (municipality) Tashi in the Saharti woreda (district), where the tabiya leader had tallied all civilian victims of the war: 350 dead, of which 50 in a massacre and the others by starvation and lack of medication. That is one out of 30 inhabitants.

In the Dogu’a Tembien district, we had our own qualitative investigations on the impact of the war on the social coherence and the natural environment in ten, generally small villages. The following civilian casualties were mentioned:

  • Atsa: “There was no health service during the war. Many people have died due to lack of medicine and medical treatment.”
  • Addilal: “Six civilians were killed by soldiers and an airstrike;” “Several mothers died during their delivery. Very recently, three mothers died. In the last two years, about 20 community members passed away [due to war conditions].”
  • Addi Qoylo: “Several civilians who escaped first and returned later to inspect their homes were killed by soldiers;” “Though most of the village community was displaced, the few people who stayed at home, were killed by the soldiers.”
  • Miheni: “Many civilians were killed by soldiers;” “The soldiers killed four people (from this village only) who were on their way to escape to the caves to save their lives;” “We were denied burying them. We buried the bodies after 7 days. One of the bodies was eaten by hyenas.”
  • Kolal: “An airstrike killed two people of the village, a man and a girl who were in the market in Togogwa and wounded many.”
  • Awulo: “The Eritrean soldiers killed 14 residents in the village;” “My son fell down from the cliff and died while escaping from the soldiers.”
  • Zeyi: “There was critical shortage of medicine in the last two years. Villagers died because there was no access to health facilities.” 
  • Gumuara: “One day, Eritrean soldiers passed through this village. On their way they encountered a priest who was going to the church and they killed him.”
  • Aregen: “Some people have been killed;” “Fourteen farmers have died due to hunger;” “About eight mothers died while delivering due to shortage of medication.”  

Except for Aregen and Addilal, these are all small villages with 100-200 households. The stories are harrowing, everybody is bony skinny, but fortunately nothing in the interviews would point to a decimation of the population, i.e. 10% of the inhabitants losing their life.

From these reported numbers, the sample sites tend to indicate between 2% and 5% of civilian deaths per location. Of course, this is only a very small sample, and there are several caveats.

Tallying of death toll by local administrators or inhabitants may miss deaths due to hunger or inaccessibility to healthcare, because the cause may go unnoticed. The IPC approach takes such cases into account, in a statistical way.

Further, in several villages, the situation was and is still very bad and at the worst of the blockade, people have moved to towns or even to the Amhara region and Eritrea, hoping that they could better survive there. Deaths along the road or at the place of destination would not have been accounted for. For instance, in the Aregen tabiya in the Dogu’a Tembien district, the inhabitants told us that 600 people (some 10% of the population) had left the tabiya in search for survival.

These reports, from Saharti and Dogu’a Tembien, concern better accessible areas; the situation is thought to be worse in the low-lying drier woredas, which often happened to be the most severe battlefields, such as Kola Tembien, Weri’i or Zana; and places such as Irob where no humanitarian access is allowed to date. We also have no information at all from the areas that are still under Amhara or Eritrean occupation.

Reversely, our own research in Dogu’a Tembien brought us to Dabba Selama, one of the better endowed villages. There, the earlier food reserves of the farmers were not discovered and destroyed, and the local solidarity and age-old survival skills made that no starvation deaths were reported.

Overall, the samples show an estimate of 2% to 5% civilian deaths per location, which is well below our earlier estimate of 5% to 10% that heavily drew on death tolls associated with the different phases of the IPC classification.

An indicator that possibly too high death tolls are associated with the IPC classes is the recent study by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in collaboration with WHO and UNICEF on excess deaths due to starvation in Somalia. In this study, they tried to estimate the overall excess deaths in 2022 compared to the death rate in 2016, before the drought. They had access to hundreds of mortality reports from hospitals and health centres, and they could also reference their results with historical famine data. The researchers acknowledge that the data is not 100% accurate, but it can be used as a ‘what is known’ scenario. Here, the death rates associated with the 2022 IPC data on Somalia would project at least 115,000 excess deaths (own calculations). The report mentions 43,000 excess deaths, only 38% of the projected IPC data.

Applying a similar correction on our earlier calculations for Tigray (starvation adjusted to 38% of the calculations) results in an estimate of 96k to 218k famine-related deaths by December 2022. Adding 30k-100k deaths due to lack of healthcare (hence, halving our earlier estimate) and 36k-60k deaths due to direct killings of civilians (massacres, bombardments, …), ends up with a total estimated civilian death rate in Tigray of 162k to 378k people.

The available data and most of the narratives coming out of Tigray, make us believe that the situation is not totally as bad as what the IPC/WFP data (and hence our earlier calculations) suggested, luckily. Yet, 162,000 to 378,000 civilian victims in Tigray is a huge number and this new estimate does not at all absolve the Ethiopian government and its allies from the deliberate war crime of starving the population of an entire region through a near-medieval siege.

Further reading:

4. Tigray’s educational, health, and other public services are still in shambles.


Following extensive negotiations between Tigrayan universities and “Addis,” the total of three months’ pay (December, January, and February) has been deposited to the university, which has in most cases already transferred it to the staff’s bank accounts. To that end, representative teams from Tigray’s four institutions, including the most senior emeriti, had to meet in Addis Abeba for three weeks.

Employees are hoping that their salary is now “on” for monthly payments. Yet, all contract workers (such as security guards) did not get their paychecks until today. Three universities (Raya, Aksum, and Adigrat) have additionally paid deans, directors, and (vice-)presidents their legal position allowances.

The teaching-learning process has yet to begin in any of Tigray’s four higher education institutions.

Primary and secondary schools

Teachers did not get their pay yet. Primary and secondary schools are closed.

Private elementary schools in cities have begun informal education (tutorial classes). Nevertheless, this is only available to individuals who can afford to pay for the tutorial lessons. Rather of retaining their children until formal schooling begins, those families that can afford to pay for tutorial courses send their children to private schools.

Tigray’s children and youth have not attended school in three years.

Other sectors

Health clinics have already opened. Nonetheless, health professionals are still working without pay.

Except for a few organizations (such as banks and universities), government employees have yet to receive their paychecks. The bankers were paid for a whole year.

It is also very difficult to withdraw salaries from bank accounts. Before two weeks, banks only allowed people to withdraw 2000 birr per day, which was later increased to 3000 birr per day. Then, for a few days, there was no money in the banks. Last Monday, the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia in Mekelle granted a weekly withdrawal limit of 10,000 birr. Additionally, cash may be received illegally through brokers for a fee of 2.5% or 5%.  The Addis Standard has the details on how the speculators operate.

No back payments

While all public sector wage payments in Tigray have been suspended since June 2021, most sectors have yet to collect their paychecks, nearly five months after the cessation of hostilities. University employees did not get back pay, and bank employees received back pay for one year only.

Many of the employees who live in leased houses have not been paying their rents; they and their landlords have been waiting for back payments, which have not yet been made. Conflicts may now develop.

The lack of back payments reinforces our earlier analysis that this “law and order operation” was and continues to be a collective punishment on the Tigrayans!

Differential treatment among government employees

If partial salary payments have been made to university and other federal government employees (including those of parastatals such as banks, telecom, and electricity agencies), teachers, health workers, and other regional government employees will not be paid until regular block subsidy transfers from the Federal Ministry of Finance to the Tigray Region resume. If there was a will, there would be a way… and one might consider these delays as an additional means of pressure on the Tigray government.


Colleagues of the University of Firenze organise a fundraising to support Mekelle University’s researchers:

5. Tigray activities

  • 3 April 2023: webinar by the Tigrayan Diaspora Council in Europe “promoting accountability and justice for all the crimes committed in Tigray”. Panelists: Getachew Reda, Laetitia Bader, Fisseha Tekle, William Davison, Michael Rubin, Millete Birhanemeskel. Moderator: Melat Habtu. See the details here:
  • On Thursday, March 9, a seminar was given by missionary Ángel Olaran (aka Abba Melaku) at the University of Lleida in Spain: “Tigray, the untold war” (in Spanish).
  • On Sunday, March 26, a seminar was given by Jan Nyssen at Ghent University: “The geography of war crimes, humanitarian crisis and associated poor harvests in Tigray (northern Ethiopia)” (in Dutch) – slides in English.
  • On 6-8 December 2023, the Human Rights Research Network of Ghent University (Belgium) organises an international conference on ‘The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 75: Rethinking and Constructing its Future Together’. This is an excellent opportunity to present papers/posters/videos on the human rights situation in Tigray and in the Horn. Deadline for submission of proposals is 16/04/23.
  • Watch out for similar conferences worldwide, in relation to the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  1. Scientific publications

Gebretsadkan Gebremedhin Gebretsadik, Mahlet Abraha, Tedros Bereket, Ferehiwot Hailemariam,Freweini Gebrearegay, Tigist Hagos, Mizan Assefa, Kidanemaryam Berhe, Hadush Gebregziabher, Amaha Kahsay Adhanu, Mekonnen Haileselassie, Mulugeta Gebregziabher, Afework Mulugeta, 2023. Prevalence and multi-level factors associated with acute malnutrition among children aged 6–59 months from war affected communities of Tigray, Northern Ethiopia, 2021: a cross-sectional study. Conflict and Health, 17(1).

Nyssen J., Hailemariam Meaza, Annys S., Emnet Negash, Biadgilgn Demissie, Zbelo Tesfamariam, Tesfaalem Ghebreyohannes, 2023. How did the community surrounding the Horn’s oldest monastery survive the Tigray War? – Dabba Selama revisited. World Peace Foundation (Tufts University, Somerville, MA, USA) – Reinventing Peace. The WPF editor introduces the work as: “The people of Tigray owe their survival to no-one but themselves. This report by a multi-author team from the universities of Mekelle and Ghent focuses on the small village of Dabba Selama. As Tigray emerges from its imposed isolation and silence, this is one tale among many. In this case it’s a story that shows the formidable resilience and survival skills of rural people, skills of enduring exceptional hardship that have lain unutilized for a generation, but have again been drawn upon.”

Rynn, S., 2023. On Shifting Ground: An Appraisal of UK Engagement in Ethiopia (RUSI)

  1. Opinion pieces
  1. Other media articles

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

Jan Nyssen is Emeritus Senior 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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