Ethiopian military use dirty tactics, Tigray citizens in grave danger

UMMATIMES - Ethiopia's northern highlands became a global byword for famine in the mid-1980s, when drought and conflict combined to create a catastrophe that killed as many as one million people.

Now famine lurks in the Tigray region again, and a senior United Nations official alleges that famine is being used as a weapon of war.

More than 350,000 of Tigray's nearly 6 million people live in starvation conditions, according to an analysis by UN agencies and global aid groups first reported by Reuters on Thursday.

Nearly 2 million more are one step away from such dire shortages, they said. Ethiopia has disputed this estimate.

Fighting since November between the Ethiopian government and the region's ousted ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), has displaced more than 2 million people.

Conflict broke out just before the harvest, with each side blaming the other. Neighboring Eritrea and the Amhara region next to Ethiopia are sending troops to support Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government.

In some of his strongest public comments to date on the crisis, the UN's top humanitarian official, Mark Lowcock, accused Eritrean forces of "trying to deal with the people of Tigray by starving them."

In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, Lowcock said the Eritrean army and local fighters deliberately blocked supplies to more than 1 million people in areas outside government control. "Food must be used as a weapon of war."

The Ethiopian government, the United Nations and aid agencies have delivered food and other aid to some 3.3 million Tigray residents since March, according to UN humanitarian agency OCHA.

But most of the aid will go to government-controlled areas, Lowcock said.

Eritrea, which was embroiled in a brutal border war against Ethiopia in 1998-2000, did not answer questions for this article.

Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel earlier said accusations that the Eritrean army was blocking or looting aid were "fabricated."

The Ethiopian military, prime minister's office and head of the national task force in Tigray did not respond to requests for comment on Lowcock's remarks. At a press conference June 3, Abiy's spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, dismissed accusations that state defense forces used food as a weapon as baseless and politically motivated.

Mitiku Kassa, head of Ethiopia's National Disaster Risk Management Commission, which manages the government's crisis response, accused the TPLF, the former ruling party, of attacking food trucks and aid personnel, but did not respond to requests for examples. He told reporters on Wednesday that more than 90% of people in Tigray had been provided with assistance. "We are not short of food," he said.

The United Nations, however, has said it has received reports from local Tigray officials of more than 150 people dying of starvation. Lowcock said he believed many more died but could not give a figure. He had already seen echoes of the "colossal tragedy" of the 1984-1985 famine in Ethiopia, he said. "It's not strange to think it could happen (again) if action to address the problem doesn't improve."

In the fertile lands of western Tigray, farmers are leaving fields full of sorghum, tef (grain crops) and sesame to escape the violence, Reuters reports. Some residents accused Amhara troops of stealing their crops and livestock, or driving them off their farms. In north and east Tigray, farmers told Reuters that soldiers from Eritrea had burned their crops and grain sheds, and slaughtered the oxen needed for plowing.

An estimated 90% of the harvest for 2020 is lost, according to a UN analysis. Some farmers say they are now eating the seeds they need to grow their next crop.

Gizachew Muluneh, a spokesman for the Amhara regional government, told Reuters that Amhara forces would never steal crops, livestock or block aid.

Growing need

In the pediatric ward of Adigrat General Hospital, some 30km from the Eritrean border, Adan Muez was huddled under a warm blanket in mid-March, his skeleton too weak to lift his head and his eyes closed despite the chatter around him.

The 14-year-old used to be "strong as a lion," said his uncle Tadesse Aregawi at the boy's bedside, as Adan struggled to breathe. But when he was admitted earlier that month, he weighed nearly 14.9 kilograms, or 33 pounds - about a third of his normal weight for his age.

The family had spent more than three months hiding in a cave to escape Eritrean soldiers, who they heard had killed and raped people, Tadesse said - a charge the Eritrean government denies.

They survive on a handful of roasted barley per day; another six people from their village of Tsasie died of hunger and illness while in hiding, Tadesse said.

"When we returned to the village, there was nothing left - no livestock, no food, no water. Someone donated clothes to us," he said, his coat hanging from his emaciated body.

He said the family had only received food aid once since then - 20 kilograms of wheat for 10 people.

Like many malnourished children, Adan has complicated health problems - he suffers from stomach ulcers that make it difficult to digest some foods, including certain types of grains, according to his medical records.

On May 4, the hospital referred him to another facility in the regional capital, Mekelle, a doctor in Adigrat told Reuters. Adigrat has run out of fortified milk used to treat malnourished children. But doctors in Mekelle could not find Adan's hospital admission record. Reuters was unable to reach the family to find out what happened to him. Officials at Adigrat hospital said they did not know what happened after Adan was discharged from the hospital. Information about the level of malnutrition in Tigray is minimal. Health facilities were heavily damaged in the fighting, and many were barely functional. The army blocked major roads for weeks, and most areas still don't have working cell phone service.

Figures compiled by the United Nations children's agency UNICEF and shared with Reuters offer a rare picture of a worsening crisis.

As of March, 1,187 children were treated for "severe malnutrition" in hospitals that account for about a third of Tigray. That's roughly the same amount that would have been treated across the region before the war, UNICEF said. In April, the number rose to 1,723. In May it reached 2,931.

International medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which runs mobile clinics in some remote rural areas, said it had seen "alarming" levels of malnutrition. About 19% of the children who visited his clinic in May were malnourished, MSF told Reuters. More than 4% suffer from the most severe malnutrition and can die without treatment.

Help blocked, looted

Hunger is a perennial threat in Tigray, an agricultural region particularly vulnerable to drought and locust plague. The population is mostly Tigray. The TPLF dominated Ethiopia's government for nearly three decades until 2018, when protests swept one of Africa's most repressive regimes from power. The TPLF then withdrew to their original territory. In November 2020, the federal government expelled the TPLF from the regional capital and installed a new interim government in Tigray.

Most people were subsistence farmers whose stone houses decorated the terraced fields with care.

Nearly one million people were already dependent on food aid before the conflict between the federal government and the TPLF began. The number in need of emergency food has now jumped to 5.2 million, or 91% of the Tigray population, according to the United Nations World Food Programme.

The government refused to allow aid convoys into the region for the first five weeks of fighting, citing security concerns. Although access has improved since December, a weekly report from OCHA shows the Tigray region remains out of reach.

Persistent clashes have blocked access to many rural areas, according to the United Nations. As of May, OCHA had recorded about 130 incidents of aid agents being turned away at checkpoints and staff being attacked, interrogated or prevented from working in the area. Lowcock told Reuters that Eritreans were "obviously" responsible for 50 such incidents and men in Ethiopian military uniform for another 50. Volunteer militias from Amhara were responsible for 27 incidents, he said. Tigray's opposition forces also blocked operations on at least one occasion.

At least 10 aid workers died in the conflict, Lowcock said. They include an employee of the Tigray Relief Society - a partner of the US Agency for International Development - who was shot dead on April 28 in the central Kola Tembien district. The US Embassy issued a statement on May 20 saying Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers had reportedly shot him.

"According to eyewitnesses, he clearly identified himself as a humanitarian worker and pleaded for the safety of his soul before he was killed," the statement said. Neither the Ethiopian military nor the Eritrean government responded to Reuters questions about the killing.

Ethiopian soldiers and their allies from the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) are still refusing aid vehicles at checkpoints and attacking and detaining aid workers in the northern zone,

central and southeastern Tigray this month, according to 11 internal UN reports reviewed by Reuters and interviews with five aid workers.

The head of the Regional Justice Bureau, Abera Nigus, a Tigray, said the issue of access to food aid was being discussed at weekly meetings between the military and the interim government in Tigray. Over the past two months, he said, he had repeatedly raised the issue with the Eritrean army blocking food trucks along the road between the two major cities, Axum and Adwa, to no avail.

"Food clogging is not a coincidence - it's done very deliberately," Abera says.

Reuters sent detailed inquiries to government officials in Ethiopia and Eritrea about the food supply bottleneck but received no response.

Next year's plants are in danger

Abebe Gebrehiwot, deputy head of Tigray's interim government, told Reuters that the Eritrean army was now preventing farmers from planting their next crop, while Amhara regional forces blocked the transport of agricultural supplies, such as seeds, to Tigray.

"It's not the Ethiopian national defense forces campaigning against agriculture, it's the Eritrean defense forces. Another challenge comes from Amhara region militias or special forces," Abebe told Reuters in a text message. "We are on good terms with the Ethiopian military force."

But a senior regional Tigray official told Reuters that the militaries of both countries were chasing farmers from their fields.

"This was the case for the last month especially Eritrea but also Ethiopian troops. They said, don't plow. Go away," he said.

Eritrean and Ethiopian officials did not respond to questions from Reuters. Billene, a spokesman for the Ethiopian prime minister, previously denied that farmers were barred from doing their jobs.

In the town of Ziban Gedena, northwest of Tigray, Eritrean soldiers have burned 150 homes, killed 300 civilians, looted or massacred 90% of cattle and livestock, burned and stole crops and burned fodder, according to records from a UN briefing following the June 6 visit. . Constant harassment from Eritrean troops means that no one plows the land for the next harvest, farmers tell aid workers.

Many villages on the main road to Adwa are deserted, and there is no ongoing ground work, a report from an aid agency noted last week.

Trouble in the west

The UN warning of starvation conditions does not include an assessment of western Tigray, which is now under the control of the Amhara regional forces who claim the territory as their own. The United Nations says it doesn't have enough data from there.

Driving through the area in March, Reuters saw fields of damaged crops left to rot. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tigray have fled the area, many saying they were driven out by Amhara forces, including the part-time militia known as Fano. Mizan Berhanu, 23, said he left the city of Division in March, seeking refuge in a crowded school in the Shire, a town 150km to the northeast, to which many people from western Tigray had fled.

"Cops Fano and Amhara robbed everyone's cows," he said. "Anyone who followed them was shot."

Gizachew, regional spokesman for Amhara, said western Tigray is now part of Amhara. He rejected accusations that Amhara's troops had taken grain or cattle. "Amhara troops are not robbers," he said. "They keep people from the dangers of the TPLF." Neither Fano nor Amhara police responded to questions from Reuters. Fano has previously denied any looting.

Few newcomers to the Shire could find a place in a crowded classroom; even the space under the tree has been taken. The city is home to more than half a million people, according to a UN analysis.

Local authorities said they were unable to feed them all.

At a farmer's meeting at the farm office in the Shire in March, representatives from nearby districts told Reuters their crops had been burned, their plow oxen stolen and the seeds they planted would be burned or eaten. Most support relatives fleeing violence elsewhere.

"The children are coughing and having diarrhea. We eat once a day," said Danau Mekonnen, an Ethiopian Orthodox priest from central Tigray, who has 13 refugee relatives living with him. Half of his harvest had to be abandoned because of the fighting, and the other half that he collected was burned, he told the meeting.

"I thought about committing suicide, but it was forbidden as a priest," he said