In Tigray, bent by famine, they fight with wheat and cows

Igor BarberoIgor Barbero/MSF

Women line up with their children for a medical consultation at an MSF-run mobile clinic in Adiftaw, a village in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray.

In the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, food is used daily as a weapon of war. Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers are blocking or even stealing food aid for the population, starving over 350,000 people. The Associated Press, which has managed to enter some agricultural areas of the region, hitherto inaccessible to the press, is telling the tragedy of civilians, forced to face the worst situation of famine in the last ten years, documenting the strategy of the allied armies of Ethiopia and Eritrea to “starve” the Tigrinya population. A population reduced to the limit, victim of acts of “ethnic cleansing”, according to the United States, but so far largely ignored by the international community.

In this region of northern Ethiopia, the war broke out in early November, and officially – according to the government led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed Ali – lasted only a month. In reality, the fighting and clashes have never ended, even if the military superiority of the regular armies, supported by the Amhara militias, has pushed the Tigray People’s Liberation Front to hide in rural areas and mountains, changing the face of the conflict. Thus, in the fine line between war and guerrilla, civilians have been trapped in dramatic humanitarian conditions, unable to cultivate the land and raise animals, prevented from accessing medical care and food aid.

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In the agricultural areas of Tigray where the Associated Press was able to enter, farmers, aid workers and local officials confirmed that food has been turned into a weapon of war. The PA team saw convoys with food and medical assistance pushed back by Ethiopian military officers as fighting resumed in the town of Hawzen. The soldiers are also accused of preventing farmers from harvesting or plowing, stealing seeds for sowing, killing livestock and looting farm equipment. More than 2 million Tigers have already fled; those who have often remained cannot plant new crops or cultivate the land because they fear for their lives.

Among the testimonies collected is that of Abeba Gebru, 37 years old.

Before, Eritrean soldiers stole her food while, pregnant, she sought refuge in the bush; then they turned her away from a roadblock when she was on the verge of labor. She gave birth at home and walked for 12 days to take her starving baby to the hospital. At 20 days, little Tigsti still had shriveled legs and a lifeless gaze, signs of what Mark Lowcock, the United Nations top humanitarian official, calls the worst famine conditions in the world in a decade. “She survived because I kept her close to my lap and kept hiding during the grueling journey,” said Abeba Gebru.

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The war in Tigray begins in early November, just before the harvest season, as Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s attempt to disarm the region’s rebel leaders. The parties involved are on the one hand the TPLF (Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray), the leading party of Tigray, and on the other the Ethiopian government, supported by the Eritrean army and the regional militias of Amhara (region south of Tigray). . The reasons for the conflict are complex and paradoxical, because at least in part they have their roots in the peace dialogues with Eritrea desired by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this reason in 2019). Those peace talks envisage territorial concessions made both to the Amhara region, south of Tigray, and to Eritrea itself. These territorial concessions are strongly disliked by the leadership of Tigray, a very strong leadership because – while representing only 5-6% of the Ethiopian population – it has expressed two presidents in the past and still expresses important international representatives, such as the current president of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. The discontent of the Tigray leadership mounts to an escalation of violence that culminates in the war. In early November 2020, the Ethiopian army invades the region considered to be rebel, and in a few days overthrows the regional army that was an expression of the TPLF.

The attack phase takes place in a few days, with the support of aviation, heavy artillery, missiles: the Ethiopian army manages to conquer all the largest cities and main arteries of Tigray without great difficulty. The TPLF is obliged to leave the large centers, also in order not to have too many civilian victims, and hides in rural areas and in the mountains, starting a guerrilla war with attacks on military convoys. The TPLF tries to organize a kind of resistance with the support of the local population. This leads to the current situation, where on the one hand there is the Ethiopian army which controls the large cities and major communication arteries, and on the other hand the TPLF which controls the rural areas.

Thanks to its multi-year presence in the region, Doctors Without Borders was one of the few international organizations to provide medical assistance and humanitarian aid from the early stages of the conflict. A few days ago Tommaso Santo, in charge of the emergency intervention in Tigray, told during a media briefing of the devastation caused by the Ethiopian army. “The Ethiopian troops, when they entered the region, destroyed all the infrastructures: factories, wells, hospitals, bringing the population to their knees. Over 80% of medical facilities have been looted or partially destroyed, airports have been put out of use and access to water has been restricted ”.

Igor BarberoIgor Barbero/MSF

MSF operator visits a child in the village of Adiftaw

Humanitarian agencies and NGOs denounce the continuing obstacles in getting aid. Humanitarian access to civilians continues to be “limited and deliberately hindered” – explained the MSF operator – as part of a strategy to inflict even greater damage on the population. “The checkpoints that prevent access to humanitarian aid are made by both sides, but it is evident that the Ethiopian army uses this method to cut out certain geographical areas of Tigray, isolate them and starve them. We had much more difficulty with the ‘regular’ checkpoints of the Ethiopian army – or Eritrean in support of the Ethiopian army – than with the checkpoints of the TPLF. On the one hand there is an army occupying a territory, on the other there is a population represented by a certain leadership, so the strategy of objectively starving the population is perpetrated more on one side than on the other ”.

All this takes place in a region where food shortages, for various reasons, are a constant part of history: already in pre-crisis times, around one million people in the area needed humanitarian assistance to feed themselves. Ethiopia is particularly vulnerable to climate change, as can be seen from various phenomena: invasion of locusts, floods, instability in the rainy season, drought. The conflict has dramatically increased the typical problems of livelihood of the population with agriculture: hostilities broke out in the middle of the harvest period and today the population cannot cultivate the land.

Jemal Countess via Getty Images

The war resulted in massacres, gang rapes and the widespread expulsion of civilians from their homes. Agriculture has not stopped completely in Tigray, but it has become a dangerous act of resistance to be practiced in the rare moments when Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers do not get in the way. “If they see us plowing, they beat us,” a 20-year-old farmer from Melbe, southwest of Mekele, told the AP. “We only plow when we are sure they are not there.” In addition to preventing plowing, the soldiers took other measures to destroy the food, witnesses said. An official from a Mekele-based rescue group said Eritrean soldiers were known to contaminate food silos, sometimes mixing sand and earth into the grain. Looting includes everything – from ambulances, seized for military purposes – to agricultural equipment. Burned houses and stables are the desert where hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans literally go hungry, a famine that threatens to invest over two million people in a short time.

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