Image by Gerald Schombs on Unsplash
By Sarah Rennie
In April 2021, when I last wrote about the Tigray war, four months of violence had plagued this northern Ethiopian region. At the time of writing this article (exactly a year later), the brutal conflict is still ongoing. While there are now many different factions involved, at its most basic level the war is a political dispute over who should be in charge of the Tigray region, with Ethiopian government forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on opposing sides. Journalists and humanitarian organisations are not often permitted into Tigray, and it is not a conflict that we often see in western news, therefore many people are unaware of the massive humanitarian crisis that is now unfolding in the area. With thousands of people already killed on both sides of the war, innocent civilians are now the victims of war crimes, ethnic cleansing and famine.
It has been continuously reported over the past 16 months of conflict that the civilian population in Tigray have suffered numerous crimes against them including “threats, unlawful killings, sexual violence, mass arbitrary detention, pillage, forcible transfer and the denial of humanitarian assistance”. In February 2022, in a long-awaited report, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International confirmed that war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity had been committed since the outbreak of the war. At the beginning of the war, the TPLF massacred a town named Mai Kadra near the Sudanese border, killing hundreds. It has been said that the violence against Tigrayans since then can be understood as “revenge killings”.
More recently, in an extreme form of this ‘revenge’, there have been reports of “ethnic cleansing” taking place in Western Tigray, which Ethiopian federal forces have denied. Ethnically targeted restrictions on movement and access to farmland have been put in place and civilians have described threats and pamphlets giving Tigrayans “24-hour or 72-hour ultimatums to leave or be killed”. Authorities in Western Tigray have also been said to have imposed restrictions on speaking the native Tigrinya language. In some areas, this cleansing was even openly discussed at town meetings.
Against the backdrop of war crimes and a ruthless clearance of the Tigrayan populace, famine has been officially declared in Tigray. An estimated 5 million people are in need of food assistance, with over 115,000 children severely malnourished. Many refugees, being interviewed after leaving the Tigray region, mentioned a “worrying shortage of food”. Many also reported that crops, which are the “backbone of economic survival” for many communities in Tigray, had been looted or burned in certain communities. The last harvest in this region was half yield of a normal year, and very quickly this stock is being exhausted. Some Tigrayans have decided to stay put in the hope that they will soon plant and harvest new crops, however, if this is not possible many worry that there will be a mass exodus of Tigrayans fleeing a lack of resources.
Due to the overspill of conflict, many people in neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar are also in need of assistance. Getting aid to those in need is proving to be a difficult task for many reasons. For many of the initial months of the conflict, main routes were blocked due to outbreaks of fighting between the two sides. As opposing militia competes for control of surrounding areas other roads have also been blocked, for example roads from the Amhara region to the south and Sudan to the west.
While the Ethiopian government states that the TPLF has been disrupting aid into the Tigray region, the TPLF itself declares that aid trucks have never been prevented from passing through the region. This back and forth detracts from the grave issues of starvation and malnourishment that are threatening millions of ordinary Tigrayan civilians. Only 10% of the intended supplies have reached the region since July 2021. The World Food Programme reported on 1st April (2022) that “3 trucks [have] arrived safely into Mekelle…This is1st humanitarian convoy to arrive in the Tigray region since last Dec”. As well as these issues, fuel shortages make it near impossible for aid trucks to travel all the way to Tigray to distribute aid and even nutritionally fortified food to treat malnourished children.
No party in this conflict is innocent. The constant blame-shifting and denial of action from the TPLF, the Ethiopian government, and the many other factions involved takes much needed attention away from the millions of victims in Tigray and those in the surrounding regions. It is imperative that the focus remains on the ordinary people that are being forced from their homes and left to starve. Parties to the conflict may continue to deny certain allegations of crimes against humanity, but what they cannot deny is the suffering being inflicted on their own people by their own people.