Explainer: what is happening in Tigray?

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In November last year a civil conflict erupted in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray, when the country’s government sent in armed forces to deal with a threat from the region’s former governing party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Three months on and there are no signs of a peaceful conclusion. The threat to civilians seems only to have worsened with 4.5 million facing famine, the potentiality of a fatal Covid-19 outbreak, a lack of medicine and the trauma of frequent air strikes and military attacks. There have also been reports of horrific sexual violence against women and girls. The situation has evolved into a humanitarian crisis, which Debretsion Gebremichael, Tigray’s ex-leader, has explicitly called a “genocidal war”.

The situation has evolved into a humanitarian crisis

The situation is made even more confusing by the fact that the Ethiopian government has enforced a near-total communications blackout on the region, meaning that a lot of information remains obscured. 

Despite the blackout, limited access has been granted to UN agencies and UNHCR, who are saying that there is a dire need on the ground which is not being met by the federal government. The situation, according to Filippo Grandi, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, is “extremely grave”. International aid organisations like OCHA claim that their persistent efforts to deliver essential food, water and healthcare to the region have been rejected by the Ethiopian government. Eritrean forces waiting at the border are looting and shipping away the aid that does arrive, causing thousands to die from starvation and disease. 

This would not be the first time that hunger has been used as an attrition strategy to subjugate and exterminate the Tigray people; the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s took place in the very same region and wiped out 1.2 million civilians. 

Food insecurity was already a problem for Tigray before the start of the civil war. The Covid-19 pandemic has destabilised food supply chains and climate change has resulted in more arid land and an increase in damaging locust swarms, which feed on the crops. Now the heavy conflict has stripped the land barren and the suspension of trade to Tigray prevents food from entering. 

The denial of humanitarian corridors to aid groups suggests that something is being hidden from the media and the public gaze. Under international law, any state is obliged to allow humanitarian access if it is needed. Therefore, Ethiopia’s decision not to do so begs the question, why? 

Abiy Ahmed’s government insists that help is already being provided. Billene Seyoum, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister has stated that “federal support is being undertaken to enable the provincial administration to activate functioning systems and service delivery.”

Safe humanitarian access is vital

Zenebe Kebede, the Ethiopian ambassador to Switzerland, also said on Twitter that “the federal Government and the Tigray Interim Administration are distributing humanitarian relief services to the needy, restoring the damaged services and infrastructures by the TPLF, rehabilitating and resettling the displaced people.” 

However, even if this is the case, safe humanitarian access is still vital. It is crucial that international organisations can verify these claims and assist with providing help. 

The international community needs to unite

Challenging the official narrative of Tigray remains very difficult when internet, phone and physical access is blocked. However, the Tigray people cannot be ignored simply because the media spotlight is not on them. Intervention from the international community is needed to remove the Eritrean forces from Tigray.

Furthermore, unimpeded humanitarian access must be granted to ensure the safety of civilians and independent investigations should take place in order to hold those who have committed war crimes accountable. The international community needs to unite in order to prevent the appalling atrocities and genocide from occurring right under our noses.

Image by Rod Waddington via Flickr

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