From “exhausted” refugees to crops burned on the brink of the harvest, famine threatens the survivors of more than two months of fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
The first humanitarian workers to arrive after appealing to the Ethiopian government for access describe weakened children who die of diarrhea after drinking from rivers. Shops were looted or emptied weeks ago. At a crisis meeting on January 1 between the government and aid workers, a local official said that hungry people had asked for “a single biscuit.”
More than 4.5 million people, almost the entire population of the region, need food in emergencies, the participants say. At its next meeting on January 8, a Tigray administrator warned that “without help” hundreds of thousands would starve to death “and some had already, according to minutes from the Associated Press (AP).
“There is an extremely urgent need – I do not know what more words in English to use – to quickly scale up the humanitarian response as the population dies every day as we speak,” Mari Carmen Vinoles, head of the Médecins Sans Frontières rescue unit, said AP.
But battle pockets, opposition from some officials and outright destruction stand in the way of a massive food delivery effort. To send rations of 15 kilograms (33 pounds) to 4.5 million people would require more than 2,000 trucks, the minutes of the meeting said, while some local respondents reduced to walking around on foot.
The ghost of hunger is sensitive in Ethiopia, which turned into one of the world’s fastest growing economies for decades since images of famine there in the 1980s led to a global outcry. Drought, conflict and government denial contributed to the famine, which swept through Tigray and killed an estimated 1 million people.
The largely agricultural region of Tigray, with about 5 million people, already had a food security problem in the midst of a grasshopper outbreak when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced fighting on November 4 between his forces and defiant regional governments. Tigray leaders dominated Ethiopia for almost three decades but were shut down after Abiy introduced reforms that won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
Thousands of people have been killed in the conflict. More than 50,000 have fled to Sudan, where a doctor has said that new arrivals are showing signs of starvation. Others protect in uneven terrain. A woman who recently left Tigray described sleeping in caves with people who brought cattle, goats and the grain they managed to harvest.
“It is a daily reality to hear people die with the consequences of fighting, lack of food,” said a letter from the Catholic bishop of Adigrat this month.
Hospitals and other health centers, which are crucial in treating malnutrition, have been destroyed. In markets, food is “not available or extremely limited”, says the UN.
Although Ethiopia’s prime minister declared victory in late November, its military and allied warriors remain active in the presence of troops from the Eritrean neighborhood, a bitter enemy of the now volatile officials who once led the region.
Fear prevents many people from venturing out. Others flee. Tigray’s new officials say more than 2 million people have been displaced, a number that the US Government’s humanitarian aid agency calls “amazing”. The UN says the number of people reached with aid is “extremely low.”
A senior Ethiopian government official, Redwan Hussein, did not respond to a request for comment on his Tigray colleagues’ warning of starvation.
In the northern Shire region near Eritrea, which has seen some of the worst fighting, up to 10% of children whose arms were measured met the diagnostic criteria for severe acute malnutrition, with many children affected, a UN source said. Sharing the source from many humanitarian workers about compromising access, the source spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Near the city of Shire, there are camps that house almost 100,000 refugees who have fled Eritrea over the years. Some who have entered the city “are exhausted and are asking for help that is not available”, said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on Thursday.
Food has been a goal. Analysis of satellite images from the Shire area found a research group based in the UK that two storage structures in the UN Food Program Association in a refugee camp had been “very specifically destroyed.” DX Open Network could not say by whom. It reported a new attack on Saturday.
It is challenging to verify events in Tigray because communication links remain poor and almost no journalists are allowed.
In the cities of Adigrat, Adwa and Axum, “the level of civilian accidents is extremely high in the places we have been able to access,” said the Vinoles rescue service. She cited the fighting and the lack of care.
Hunger is “very worrying”, she said, and even water is scarce: Only two of 21 wells still operate in Adigrat, a city of more than 140,000, forcing many people to drink from the river. With suffering for sanitation follows the disease.
“You walk 10 kilometers from the city and it’s a complete disaster,” without food, Vinoles said.
Humanitarian workers are struggling to measure the extent of the need.
“Not being able to travel from highways always raises the question of what happens to people who are still outside the borders,” said Panos Navrozidis, director of Action Against Hunger in Ethiopia.
Prior to the conflict, Ethiopia’s National Disaster Management Agency classified some Tigray woredas, or administrative areas, as priority food safety hotspots. If some already had high malnutrition, “two and a half months into the crisis, it is a safe assumption that thousands of children and mothers are in immediate need,” Navrozidis said.
The network of early warning systems for famine, funded and managed by the United States, says that parts of central and eastern Tigray are probably in emergency phase 4, a step during famine.
The next few months are critical, said John Shumlansky, the representative of Catholic relief services in Ethiopia. His group has so far provided up to 70,000 people in Tigray with a three-month food supply, he said.
On the issue of combatants using hunger as a weapon, an issue among aid workers, Shumlansky dismissed it by Ethiopian defense forces and police. With others, he did not know.
“I do not think they have food either,” he said.