First, the Eritrean soldiers stole the pregnant woman’s food as she hid in the bush. Then they turned her away from a checkpoint when she was on her way to work.
She gave birth at home and went for 12 days to get the starving child to a clinic in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray. At 20 days old, baby Tigsti still had shrunken legs and a lifeless gaze – a sign of what the UN’s top humanitarian official calls the world’s worst famine in a decade.
“She survived because I kept her close to the womb and continued to hide during the strenuous journey,” said Abeba Gebru, 37, of Getskimilesley.
Here in the war-torn Tigray, more than 350,000 people are already facing famine, according to the UN and other humanitarian groups. It’s not just that people are starving; it is the case that many are starving, the Associated Press (AP) found. In agricultural areas in Tigray, the AP rarely had access to confirmed farmers, aid workers and local officials that food had been turned into a weapon of war.
Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers are blocking food aid and even stealing it, they said, and an AP team saw convoys of food and medical aid by Ethiopian military officials returned when fighting resumed in the town of Hawzen. The soldiers are also accused of preventing farmers from harvesting or plowing, stealing seeds for planting, killing livestock and looting agricultural equipment.
More than 2 million of Tigray’s 6 million people have already fled without being able to harvest their crops. And those who stayed can often not plant new crops or cultivate the land because they fear for their lives.
The grinding war in Tigray began in early November, just before the harvest season, as an attempt by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to disarm the region’s rebel leaders.
On the one hand, there are guerrillas loyal to the outcast and now volatile leaders of Tigray. On the other hand, there are Ethiopian government forces, allied troops from the neighborhood of Eritrea and militias from Ethiopia’s ethnic group Amhara who see themselves as rivals of the Tigrayan guerrillas. Captured in the middle are civilians.
The war has led to massacres, rape and the widespread expulsion of civilians from their homes, and the United States has declared “ethnic cleansing” in western Tigray.
Gebre Kidan Gebrehiwet, 2, is being treated for malnutrition after fleeing the city of Abi Adi with his mother, Abeba Tesfay, at Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, May 6, 2021. (AP Photo)
Tigray’s Deputy CEO, Abebe Gebrehiwot, reiterated the assessment of “ethnic cleansing” and quoted “some players who do not want us to … plow the land” and others who prevent the distribution of seeds.
The Ethiopian government strongly denies that hunger is used as a weapon of war. Mitiku Kassa, an official at the National Disaster Risk Management Commission, said on Wednesday that the UN and others have “unlimited access” to Tigray.
“We have no shortage of food,” he explained.
That is not what the AP discovered on the ground.
Teklemariam Gebremichael said he and his neighbors were no longer allowed to farm. When Eritrean soldiers came over him and took care of his cattle and harvested crops, they shot both him and his cows, he said.
He survived. The cows did not. With food shortages, the wound is far from healing.
“I urge the world to take immediate action to help Tigray, because we can no longer live in our own country,” he pleaded.
Hunger is a sensitive topic in Ethiopia, after images of famine there in the 1980s led to a global outcry. Conflict contributed to the famine, which estimated 1 million people.
Agriculture has not stopped completely in Tigray, but it has become a dangerous act of resistance. On the way to Abi Adi, a town about 100 kilometers west of Mekele, the AP saw some farmers plowing or taking their cattle to pastures in the remote hills.
“If they (Eritrean soldiers) see us plowing, they will strike us,” said a 20-year-old farmer from Melbe, southwest of Mekele, who gave only his first name, Kibrom. “We only plow when we’re sure they’re not around.”
In addition to preventing plowing, the soldiers took other measures to destroy food, witnesses said. An official with an aid group based in Mekele said Eritrean soldiers were known to contaminate food silos and sometimes mixed grains with sand and soil. And sometimes the looting of both Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers included agricultural equipment, farmers said.
“All our agricultural implements, including plows, were looted and removed on trucks,” said Birhanu Tsegay, a 24-year-old farmer from the town of Neksege. “They left nothing there.”
Sometimes food aid manages despite all the challenges, but it is never enough. In early May, a large crowd gathered under a scorching sun in Agula to share food purchased with American money.
Tigrayans queue to receive food donated by local residents at an internally displaced reception center in Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, May 9, 2021. (AP Photo)
“Demand for food in the villages is very high,” said Tekeste Gebrekidan, coordinator of the Tigray Relief Society in Tsirae Womberta. The level of need, he said, is “beyond our capacity.”
The food they gave out that afternoon in Agula – 15 kilos of wheat, half a kilo of peas and a little cooking oil per person, which lasted for a month – was earmarked only for the most vulnerable. That included 60-year-old Letebrhan Belay.
“There will be people dying of hunger,” she said.
Some of the lucky ones, such as breastfeeding mother Abeba, make it past the many barriers to seek medical help in Abi Adi and Mekele, but they are few.
Four women and their children were admitted to Abi Adi’s provisional ward for malnourished children when the AP was there.
Birhan Etsana, a 27-year-old mother from Dengelat, was still hanging on to the lone survivor of her triplets, a baby admitted to Mekele’s Ayder Hospital with complications from severe acute malnutrition. The baby, Mebrhit, was 17 months old but weighed only 5.2 kg (11 pounds 7 ounces) after a week in intensive care.
“Even when we were out in the field and I breastfed her, she could not drink anything,” Birhan said. “It’s due to lack of food.”