As the war in Tigray enters its tenth month, the already catastrophic humanitarian situation for Tigrayan civilians is worsening by the day. Caught between at least five warring factions, civilians are facing attacks from militias in the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar, as well as air-strikes and incursions by both Ethiopian and Eritrean troops.
Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed sent state troops into the country’s northern Tigray region in November 2020 in retaliation to attacks by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on military bases and other strategic points.
He pledged that the operation would take two weeks tops, stressing an armed response was necessary to prevent a full-fledged civil war that could destabilise the entire region. ‘Our defence forces have been ordered to carry out their mission to save the country,' Ahmed said in a television broadcast.
‘The final point of the red line has been crossed. Force is being used as the last measure to save the people and the country.’
Ten months later, and the conflict is quickly escalating, following several high-profile attacks on civilians by soldiers from Eritrea and militias from Tigray’s neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions.
In July, the local authorities in Tigray’s southern neighbour, Amhara, urged citizens to take up arms against the Tigrayans, following the capture of an Amhara town by Tigray fighters.
‘I call on all young people, militia, non-militia in the region, armed with any government weapon, armed with personal weapons to join the anti-TPLF war mission,’ said its regional president Agegnehu Teshager. His call to arms was echoed by Teshager’s counterpart in the Afar region.
As anti-Tigrayan sentiment escalates, there have been reports of Tigrayan civilians being attacked in both regions, as well as the capital Addis Ababa, and neighbouring Eritrea.
Unconfirmed reports have already emerged of bodies floating down the Tekeze River, allegedly Tigrayan civilians killed by Amhara militias, while Tigrayans across Ethiopia have complained of discrimination, looting and beatings at the hands of other ethnic groups and authorities alike in recent weeks.
As the situation deteriorates for ethnic Tigrayans in the rest of Ethiopia, millions of men, women, and children in Tigray itself are thought to have witnessed and experienced systematic sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, mass rape, massacres, torture, and other crimes against humanity since the conflict began last November.
Aid agencies and human rights organisations are extremely worried about the situation, which shows no sign of easing up. ‘We call on all parties to prevent further massacres and war crimes, including by ensuring no reprisal attacks are carried out by their troops or militias allied to them,’ Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn, and the Great Lakes, has urged.
‘All parties must ensure unfettered access to humanitarian aid for all civilians, and work to restore full access to communication as there is no access to the internet, print or broadcast media at the moment.’
People walk next to an abandoned tank belonging to Tigrayan forces south of the town of Mehoni, Ethiopia.
In addition to the crimes against humanity being perpetrated by all sides, hunger has become endemic in Tigray.
The ongoing hostilities have shattered the region’s agricultural infrastructure.
‘Many farmers have been stripped of productive assets like seeds, animals, or tools due to looting, or saw their sources of credit disappear and seed markets disappear,’ said Rein Paulsen, director of emergencies and resilience at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). ‘As a result, local food production has been brought to a virtual standstill.’
Seven million men, women and children – 70 per cent of Tigray’s population – rely on food aid to survive. Of them, 400,000 are facing famine, according to the international NGO Action Against Hunger. Its regional director for the Horn and East Africa, Hajir Maalim, urged all parties involved in the conflict ‘to uphold International humanitarian law to allow unimpeded humanitarian access so that aid can reach communities in desperate need’.
He added: ‘We call on the global community to dramatically scale up its funding for emergency food assistance, nutrition treatment, and livelihoods support. Famine is always man-made, and its solutions must be, too. We must step up and act now before more lives are lost to hunger and conflict in Tigray and the border areas.’
The ever-shifting conflict is making it difficult for farmers to plant and, ultimately, harvest their crops. In the meantime, the planting window is also narrowing due to the fast-approaching short rainy season.
‘The rural communities, who play a critical role in keeping northern Ethiopia fed, urgently need support if they are going to manage to get seeds in the ground ahead of the impending short rains,’ explained Paulsen.
‘Each seed they plant represents a brick in a firewall against famine. But to get them those seeds, we need more financial support and improved access.’
To make matters worse, healthcare services has become incredibly difficult to access in Tigray, with most people relying on the two dozen aid organisations in the region.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has reported the region’s only oxygen-producing company has gone out of business. The few functioning hospitals are facing shortages.
The warring parties have also targeted and destroyed various primary healthcare centres in the region, looted medicine, stolen life-saving supplies, and even attacked medical staff and aid workers. ‘Ethiopian defence forces entered and raided UNICEF offices in late June, dismantling critical communication equipment,’ said Laetitia Bader of Human Rights Watch.
‘Warring parties, notably Eritrean government forces, have deliberately attacked and occupied medical facilities.’
Twelve aid workers have been killed since the conflict began, something Bader blames, in part, on inflammatory social media posts by influencers, targeting health care workers.
Three employees from Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) were murdered on the roadside in June, including the charity’s emergency coordinator, Maria Hernandez, assistant coordinator Yohannes Halefom Reda and driver Tedros Gebremariam Gebremichael. Nobody has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Meanwhile, Horn of Africa watchers are concerned about how long this ‘two-week’ conflict will drag on. The spiral of destruction, killings, and bloodshed has already spilled over to one neighbour, Eritrea, and there are fears the conflict risks destabilising the entire region if left unresolved.esolved.
The Tigray war in a nutshell
The Tigray war is essentially an escalation of the strained relationship between Ahmed and the TPLF, which in the 1970s-80s waged war against the military junta that was in charge of Ethiopia at the time. In 1991, the group won and became the leading member of a four-party coalition government that took power.
Ethiopia’s political landscape changed once more in 2018 when Ahmed came to power amidst anti-government protests. As the TPLF started losing ground nationally, remaining only an influence in Tigray, the animosity between them and Ahmed grew.
When he disbanded the coalition in 2019, merging its members into his new Prosperity Party, the TPLF refused and broke its ties with the statesman. The relationships soured quickly, especially after Tigray decided to hold its own elections in September last year. Attacks by TPLF fighters on various Ethiopian military bases in November 2020 were the point of no return.
Echoes of the Eritrea-Ethiopia war
This is not the first war Ethiopia has fought with a restive northern region. Ethiopia’s prime minister was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2019 for bringing an end to a decades-long conflict with Eritrea, which, like Tigray, launched an armed insurgency after declaring independence from Ethiopia.
Violence between the Addis Ababa and Eritrea stretches back to the 1960s, when Ethiopia annexed the former Italian colony. The two sides later engaged in open conflict after Eritrean troops marched into a stretch of borderland in 1998.
Eritrea’s actions, as expected, triggered retaliation from the other side, which led to a complete escalation of the conflict in February 1999, when thousands of troops and weaponry from both sides lined up along the shared 700-mile (1,100km) border. In the 20 years that followed, tens of thousands of people were killed, and many more injured and displaced.
A peace treaty came into being shortly after Abiy Ahmed came to power, and the Ethiopian PM was later awarded the peace prize for his role in ending the conflict.