"It feels strange to write about a humanitarian crisis in this day and age with barely any pictures, videos or witness testimonies from the ground. But that is what the situation in Ethiopia's Tigray region has come to. Since the conflict between the federal government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and the regional government's ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), began in November 2020, access to the region has been extremely limited. Internet and telephone connectivity was cut off as soon as the fighting began, disconnecting about 5 million people. Months later, the internet remains down and telephone communication has only been restored in a few main towns. Journalists and human rights monitors are still denied entry and cannot report to the world the full scale of the violence which has left at least hundreds of people dead and more than 470,000 displaced, according to the UN." - Vanessa Tsehaye, Amnesty International
The war in Tigray has receded from world attention since the open conflict in November of this year.
Cries for peace talks were not heeded, and after conventional battles ended with the withdrawal of TPLF forces from the capital of Tigray, the Ethiopian government declared the war over. But while the character of the war has changed, it is definitely not over. The physical and human destruction continues unchecked behind a curtain of isolation. The priority demand still going unheeded is for full access of humanitarian agencies to the region.
While many details may be in dispute, and analyses of the causes of the war are complex, the reality of continued war and destruction can only be denied by those who willfully want to disregard the evidence.
International attention has focused primarily on the decisions by leaders of the Ethiopian government and the TPLF leading up to open war in November. But the facts on the ground also include the decisive role played by Eritrean forces, which are also still in Tigray and have included Eritrean refugee camps among their targets to be destroyed. Ironically, it was the 2018 peace agreement with Eritrea which led to the Nobel Prize for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. But in retrospect, this agreement appears to have set the stage for the onset of the war in Tigray and a new phase of regional conflict.
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains (1) Links to key websites and articles, with very brief excerpts in some cases, (2) the article quoted above by Vanessa Tsehaye, and (3) the transcript of a telephone conversation by Alex de Waal of the World Peace Foundation with his colleague Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, speaking from the mountains in Tigray.
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Ethiopia, visit http://www.africafocus.org/country/ethiopia.php - Editor's Note
US-Africa Bridge Building Project
This project, directed by my friend and colleague Imani Countess, is "an initiative to catalyze engagement between local struggles and global problems and promote mutual solidarity between Africans and Americans working to end corruption and tax injustice." You will be hearing more about it in coming months here on AfricaFocus and can also sign up for the project's mailing list and see other ways to support the project here.
The initiative builds in part on the series of articles Imani and I wrote for AfricaFocus Bulletin and other publications last year entitled "Beyond Eurocentrism and U.S. Exceptionalism." Most importantly, it aims at strengthening and extending work on illicit financial flows and tax justice by African, global, and U.S. networks, which has been regularly featured in AfricaFocus for more than ten years.
For more background on program directions for the project for the coming two years, see the website pages on transnational solidarity and on tax justice. - William Minter, Editor, AfricaFocus Bulletin
Sites to watch and recent news on Tigray and the Horn of Africa
The following sites, updated regularly, are good sources of information and analysis on the war in Tigray:
https://www.eepa.be/?page_id=4237 - Conflict in the Horn, Situation Reports (daily)
Recent articles worth noting include the following:
"On social media, pro- and anti-government groups continue to vie for control of the conflict narrative. … Our analysis of over 500,000 tweets related to Tigray helps explain the intensifying information conflict.
We collected and analyzed tweets between Nov. 4 and Jan. 20 to try to understand the kinds of information being circulated, and the effects of different messaging campaigns. We found that both sides are quick to accuse the other of spreading intentionally false information — though actual disinformation accounts for a surprisingly small proportion of tweets about the conflict."
"A conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region could trigger broader destablization in the country, U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council on Wednesday as he warned that a dire humanitarian situation in the north was set to worsen."
Refugee Camps in Ethiopia Appear to Have Been Systematically Destroyed Feb. 3, 2021 https://www.vice.com/en/article/93wmbz/refugee-camps-in-ethiopia-appear-to-have-been-systematically-destroyed
Ethiopia says Tigray back to normal after conflict but witnesses disagree AP, January 30, 2021 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/ethiopia-tigray-conflict-biden-b1795367.html
Witnesses: Eritrean soldiers loot, kill in Ethiopia's Tigray AP, January 26, 2021 https://apnews.com/article/tigray-ethiopia-news-2bdd10888f7717690847ad117f09f2d4
The Eritrean soldiers' pockets clinked with stolen jewelry. Warily, Zenebu watched them try on dresses and other clothing looted from homes in a town in Ethiopia's embattled Tigray region.
"They were focused on trying to take everything of value," even diapers, said Zenebu, who arrived home in Colorado this month after weeks trapped in Tigray, where she had gone to visit her mother. On the road, she said, trucks were full of boxes addressed to places in Eritrea for the looted goods to be delivered.
Heartbreakingly worse, she said, Eritrean soldiers went house-to- house seeking out and killing Tigrayan men and boys, some as young as 7, then didn't allow their burials. "They would kill you for trying, or even crying," Zenebu told The Associated Press, using only her first name because relatives remain in Tigray.
Ethiopia re-enters the abyss of war (extensive and well-informed analysis by Kjetil Tronvoll) Jan. 29, 2021 https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2021/01/29/ethiopia-re-enters-the-abyss-of-war/
The Ethiopian federal government's "law enforcement operation" in Tigray aimed to capture the rebellious rulers in the northern regional state. Thus far, however, the core leadership is at large, and the campaign has further exposed the country's political fragility, pushing it into the abyss of a likely long-term war.
Reports of military recruitment and reinforcements sent to the northern front to battle the rebels are again heard in Ethiopia, reminiscent of the recurring news headlines of the 1970s and 80s.
With the Tigray war now in its third month, the contours of how a drawn-out conflict may evolve are emerging.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Ethiopia, other armed insurgencies are evolving. As conflict lines deepen, pressure increases on the state's security forces and capacity. The surge in violence worsens the dire humanitarian situation across the country, weakens the economy, and diverts government attention, resources, and funding from economic development to warring.
Conflict in the Horn, News Highlights Extra Jan. 28, 2021 https://www.eepa.be/?p=4678
Food and water shortages in Tigray
According to Reuters, aid agencies that finally entered the remote parts of the Tigray region state that people are dying from lack of healthcare, are suffering food and water shortages, and remain "terrified". Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) emergency programme head, Mari Carmen Vinoles, told Reuters that beyond Mekelle and a handful of cities, there are hardly any healthcare facilities, meaning people are dying without life-saving treatment for conditions such as pneumonia or complications of childbirth. Action Against Hunger's (AAH) Ethiopia director, Panos Navrozidis, states: "Central Tigray is a black hole" as aid groups only have access to certain towns and many of the people are remaining within rural villages from fear of fighting and are unable to seek food and medical treatment. The Water Resource Management Bureau of Tigray has reported that access to clean water in Tigray is at risk due to "damaged infrastructure, looted offices, stolen equipment and an inoperative dam." The Economist reports that signs indicate once again that hunger is being used as a weapon in Ethiopia. Aid agencies give an estimate that between 2 and 4.5 million people are in need of urgent care. Mark Lowcock, the UN's humanitarian chief, states that "for more than two months there has been essentially no access to Tigray. There are 450 tonnes of supplies we've been trying to get in that are stuck."
Ethiopian government must allow full humanitarian access to Tigray
By Vanessa Tsehaye
February 4, 2021
Despite an agreement with the UN to allow "unimpeded" humanitarian access, very little aid and very few relief workers have been allowed in.
Workers at UNICEF Ethiopia preparing supplies to be transported to Tigray. Credit: UNICEF Ethiopia/NahomTesfaye.
It feels strange to write about a humanitarian crisis in this day and age with barely any pictures, videos or witness testimonies from the ground. But that is what the situation in Ethiopia's Tigray region has come to. Since the conflict between the federal government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and the regional government's ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), began in November 2020, access to the region has been extremely limited.
Internet and telephone connectivity was cut off as soon as the fighting began, disconnecting about 5 million people. Months later, the internet remains down and telephone communication has only been restored in a few main towns. Journalists and human rights monitors are still denied entry and cannot report to the world the full scale of the violence which has left at least hundreds of people dead and more than 470,000 displaced, according to the UN.
The conflict in Tigray is being fought in the dark, at the expense of those who are suffering and desperate for the world to hear and see their pain.
Despite the information blockade, we know enough to recognise that the situation in Tigray is dire. Many of the people displaced by the fighting into neighbouring regions and countries have shared their accounts of the violence, as well as the hunger, thirst, and lack of medical supplies for the sick and injured they left behind.
Relief agencies are ready to help, but the Ethiopian government is refusing to allow full humanitarian access to Tigray. When the region was locked down at the start of the conflict, many expected that humanitarian assistance would be an exception. They were sadly proved wrong. International humanitarian law requires that parties to armed conflict allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of impartial humanitarian relief for civilians in need, but humanitarian access to Tigray remained completely blocked for almost a month after the conflict began. In December, the UN announced that an agreement had been reached with the Ethiopian government to allow "unimpeded, sustained and secure access" into the areas under its control. Despite this agreement, access remains highly constrained to date.
Instead of allowing full access, the Ethiopian government introduced two separate approval processes for aid shipments and personnel. These approval processes have been slow, and many requests have been denied. So far, a majority of entry requests for relief workers have been denied too, making it incredibly difficult to distribute the very little aid that has been allowed in. An aid worker with more than 40 years of experience recently said that he had "rarely seen an aid response so impeded".
Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis across Tigray is getting worse by the day. The UN recently estimated that 2.3 million people were in immediate need of life-saving assistance. There has been no trade with the region since November and the harvest season has been impacted by the conflict, with crops and equipment destroyed and farmers fleeing from their land. The situation is particularly acute in rural areas where humanitarian access has been even more difficult due to the continued fighting and where banks and markets are still closed. The healthcare system in the region has also largely collapsed.
Tigray borders Eritrea and is home to four refugee camps hosting over 96,000 Eritrean refugees - 44% of whom are children. Two of the camps, Hitsats and Shimelba, have not received any humanitarian assistance since the start of the conflict. One refugee who recently fled Hitsats told Amnesty International: "We were eating leaves from the field and drinking water from the nearby well". Many refugees have been forced to flee the camps. Some have fled to neighbouring towns, where they are begging for food and sleeping outside. Some fled to the capital Addis Ababa, far from the conflict, but were returned to Tigray against their will by the Ethiopian agency in charge of refugee affairs.
The Ethiopian government declared victory at the end of November and has claimed that the situation in Tigray is back to normal. The lack of images, videos and witness testimonies from the ground makes it easier for them to make such claims and for the world to turn its focus away from Tigray. This must not be allowed to continue. People are trapped in an active conflict and suffering immeasurably - citizens and refugees, Ethiopians and Eritreans alike. The Ethiopian government must be held to account for violating international human rights law and humanitarian law by continuing to block full humanitarian access to Tigray.
You can find out more about the campaign #AllowAccessToTigray to pressure Ethiopian Prime Minister to immediately allow full humanitarian access to Tigray.
"They Have Destroyed Tigray, Literally": Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Speaks from the Mountains of Tigray
January 29, 2021
[Mulugeta Gebrehiwot is a Senior Fellow at World Peace Foundation and former Program Director of the WPF African security sector and peace operations program where he led the project on Peace Missions in Africa.
Alex de Waal is the Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Considered one of the foremost experts on Sudan and the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, HIV/AIDS and governance in Africa, and conflict and peace-building.]
This is a special podcast from World Peace Foundation on the war in Tigray, Ethiopia. It is a recording of a phone call from somewhere in rural Tigray on January 27, in which Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe spoke with Alex de Waal.
Mulugeta was a member of the TPLF during the guerrilla war from 1975 to 1991, and served in several senior positions in the EPRDF government from 1991 to 2000. Subsequently he founded the Institute for Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University, and among other things initiated the Tana High Level Forum on peace and security in Africa. Mulugeta is the author of Laying the Past to Rest: The EPRDF and the Challenges of Ethiopian State-building and co-author of a recent paper "Nationalism and Self-Determination in Contemporary Ethiopia," reviewed recently on this blog.
Mulugeta was in Mekelle in November when the war broke out. He evacuated from the city to the mountains. This is the first time we have heard directly from him.
We reproduce the call below exactly as it was without additional commentary. The recording begins with Mulugeta explaining that the Tigrayan Defense Forces were unprepared for the onslaught, and yet managed to inflict a lot of damage on much larger forces.
Because the quality of the recording is poor, we are also providing a transcript.
27 January 2021 Call between Mulugeta Gebrehiwot and Alex de Waal
[The first minute of the call was not recorded. Mulugeta started by describing the onset of the war.]
… and the damage it inflicted on the enemies, it's difficult to express, it was a sort of miracle. Tigray only had 23 battalions, and 42 divisions of Eritrea and twelve divisions of Ethiopia, were all here. This is without including the special forces of the Amhara region, which is beyond, over 10,000, and also special forces of Oromia, Somalia, and other forces as well. The first month's resistance was with this level of asymmetry.
And then the Emirates came [drones from United Arab Emirates, operated from Eritrea]. The Emirates effectively disarmed Tigray. They started killing tanks, then howitzers, then fuel, then ammunition. Then they started hunting small vehicles, targeting leaders, [indistinct] all over. This created [unclear: risk?] and sort of dislocation, and this is part of the weakness of the preparation. So many people moved out of the cities of Tigray towards the rural other areas following the army, some including their families.
So, we were caught in between, you know. Are we going to defend these people who flocked out of the cities with their families or are we going to fight, I mean the army was caught in between. So, the organization has to make a decision. You know, it prioritized continuing the resistance, and then it advised many of us who were not in active duty in the resistance to remain in some remote areas which finally resulted in the type of sad news you heard.
You know, the result became—they have destroyed Tigray, literally, all of them, EPLF [Eritrean People's Liberation Front], the Eritrean forces and the Ethiopian forces. They literally destroyed all the wealth that it had accumulated for thirty years, and burned schools, clinics, they have ransacked each house. They moved in. They have started looting the produce of the peasants, from all the villages beyond the black road that crosses Tigray towards Eritrea. And they kill whomever they find in whichever village they get in. In the village I was in yesterday—it's a small village— they killed 21 people, out of which seven of them were priests of that small village.
And that's what they do, wherever they go. So they literally destroyed the wealth we accumulated for thirty years in Tigray. And, no peasant is staying at home when these forces move around, and therefore we can consider the whole Tigrayan peasantry as dislocated.
It's an effective destruction of Tigray but that's not the only thing. It's also an effective destruction of Ethiopian defense forces. Ethiopia has remained without an army now. Our evaluation initially reduced the Ethiopian army by [to?] about 85 percent. Seventeen percent of the army was immediately reduced by Abiy because 17 percent of them were Tigrayans.
They were torn out of their ranks, put in camps like Dedessa [etc.] under custody 17,000 Tigrayans. So, that was literally approximately 20 percent. And this is not only numbers, but its also critically—a critical part of the army, mid-level commanders, most of the technicians, and also, you know, skilled people who used to work in artillery, engineering, and all sorts of departments. And they literally lost something like 60 percent of [indistinct, call breaks] …they sent the commanders of the Eritrean forces, which they were just using as cannon fodders, you know, they send them first, and then once they're finished, they start sending their army. So, Ethiopia is effectively without an army now. If the Eritrean forces left Tigray…
[BREAK IN CALL]
[The call resumed with Mulugeta saying that if the Eritrean forces left Tigray, the Ethiopian army would not be able to stay there, even for a few days. The recording resumes:]
Alex: Tell me, what is the condition of the people? Are you able to eat? Do you have any medical facilities? What are the essentials of life?
Mulugeta: Not much. You know, there has been this locust infestation, and the harvest also much interrupted because of the war. The crisis started at the beginning of the harvest period, and particularly, the Eritrean forces have deliberately burned crops while they are on the ground or before the harvesting is completed. So there is a reduction of produce as well. The [aid] logistics that was prepared initially by the government was disrupted, so there are drops, these problems of supplies, food, medicine, and so forth. Hunger, among peasantry, is crippling [indistinct] in those remote areas, bordering areas Eritrea. They are massively, massively ransacked by the Eritrean army. Whatever produce they have is taken by them. So, it's tight. Soon, we might see a serious humanitarian crisis.
A: The government is saying it controls 85 percent of the access, and that it can provide humanitarian access to the great majority of people. Is that correct, do you think?
M: The great majority of people. Even the government, even the humanitarian organizations, are estimating the people who need food to around 4.5 million. That's even conservative.
A: And how many of those people can be accessed from the government's side, and how many of them are in areas that are controlled by Tigray forces?
M: Literally people on the towns of the main road. Because there is conflict all over. You know, a certain part of people, or the southern part of Tigray, around Maychew or Alamata… the rest of it is not accessible for humanitarian aid, unless some arrangement can be made. [Until] some sort of preliminary agreement to allow humanitarian assistance to [indistinct] has been reached, I don't think a majority of Tigray is accessible to any humanitarian aid that comes through the government.
A: But we are not hearing anything—we have heard nothing from the TPLF leadership about what—
M: I know, that's a major problem we have. They're just dislocated, and [sighs], that's a critical impediment, we know that.
A: Because—as you might have heard today, well yesterday—the [U.S.] State Department demanded, first of all the withdrawal of Eritrean forces, but then also said there needed to be talks towards a political resolution. But how can any talks be conducted under the current circumstances?
M: I think they're in contact through telephone with some people there, but I don't really understand why they shy away from coming public and talking publicly. I know there is a limitation of communication. They have lost their V-SATs, they only have these Thurayas, and they've really been without any radio transmitter. They brought a television station, which was not possible to run it without having a permanent base. I know that there is this limitation of communication, but the problem they have is more than that. I am telling them, people are telling them, we hope that they will soon come out and start being public. It's even a problem here in Tigray.
A: Because also we are not hearing anything about any political demands. I mean, what is the agenda, what is the political program? I mean if there were to be negotiations, where would be the starting point? We don't know any of this at the moment.
M: Yeah. I know.
A: Anyway, just the news we get every day is so desperately sad. I think many people were shocked, especially by the news of the deaths of Seyoum and Abay and Asmalesh. I think that touched a lot of people around the world. As you may know, I wrote a tribute to Seyoum, which was widely circulated, but we still don't know anything about the circumstances. Did you learn anything about that incident—?
M: They just found them in a village. They were staying in a village, and they didn't have an army. They were just in a secluded area. They caught and killed them. It was the EPLF that killed them.
A: So, this story about a shootout, et cetera, is not—
M: No, no, no. It's completely rubbish. You know, they, the TPLF could have done so many things had they forecasted that level of violence which was not difficult to forecast. You know, it was very obvious that this war would be a war against Tigray, which Abiy is going to run alongside Isaias. And once you expect Isaias, you shouldn't expect it to come less than any devastating force it could mobilize. Therefore, for those who will not have participated in active resistance in the field on the military side, there were lots of options. You know, moving them to Sudan or someehere else. So many things could have been done, but there were no preparations at all.
A: It seems there was just a terrible miscalculation about this, and no political strategy, no communications strategy, no protection strategy.
M: Not at all, yeah, not at all. Extremely poor. People were begging them. They didn't have any [indistinct]. People were literally coming up with plans and asking them do this, do that. But they brought Tigray to their size anyway, what can we say.
A: The mood of the people now must be desperate, angry.
M: Angry, angry, extremely angry, extremely angry. They are left with one option: just fighting. And the war is only beginning. It's the same in the urban centers, and much worse in the rural areas. Wherever you go, you get dozens of youngsters asking you to be mobilized, to be trained and armed. The TPLF doesn't have any shortage of manpower when it wants to mobilize. So it's anger, and they're left without option, with that option only, they don't have an option.
They [i.e. Ethiopian and Eritrean forces] are not even [indistinct] they're not trying to appease them, they're not trying to get the buy-in of the people. They're not attempting anything. They're just out here, and it's literally genocide by decree. Wherever they're moving, whomever they find, they kill him or her. [It's] an old man, a child, a nursing woman, or anything.
A: The stories we've been hearing most recently are especially that it's the Eritreans. Is it everybody, or is particularly the Eritrean forces?
M: It's everybody, but the worst ones are the Eritrean forces.
A: So tell us, are you able to remain abreast of how this has been covered by the rest of the world? Are you able to pick up anything from the news, from the radio, from internet sites or anything?
M: Yeah, I have an old radio transistor which I bought it from a militia [laughs]. That's what connects me to the rest of the world.
A: It's back to those old days.
M: It's extremely difficult. Sometimes the battery gets, you run out of battery and therefore run out of communication for two, three days. It's difficult.
A: So, we have been doing our best to just draw attention to what's been going on, because as you know, there was an attempt to have this war conducted in conditions of total secrecy, and even to pretend that it was not a war. There was the U.S. administration, the last one, was very much complicit in that. The African Union completely failed. But the news is now coming out.
M: Everything is fine. But one thing is you could push more on this humanitarian intervention. There has to be either some sort of monitoring.
And the Eritrean forces will remain here. They had a meeting last week, it's some information we got from them, among the senior commanders of the army. There was a request from some of the army commanders on how long they are going to stay in Tigray. The response they gave them was, "Once we leave Tigray, PP [Prosperity Party] will not stay for one week in Tigray, and therefore we will leave Tigray to Woyane [TPLF] again and it will revive. And therefore, we have to remain there up until PP can pick it up which might take several months to come back." That's the answer that they gave them.
And therefore, this declaration from State Department—it might even come later from the UN Security Council—might not force the Eritreans to leave Tigray, unless it is supported, either with some humanitarian intervention, as much as they did in Kosovo, some armed intervention that reinforces things, or at least some sort of monitoring on the ground.
A: What about the Emirates? You mentioned the Emirates. Presumably, you meant the drones?
M: Yeah. Now we don't have any targets. We don't have tanks. We don't have [indistinct]. We are not big targets. We are just human beings moving around. I think that's the only thing that brought it [i.e. the recent decline in drone attacks]. Otherwise, they have been here in full force, in just full force. They deployed their drones with their operators, and they're the ones who effectively disarmed us.
A: There was one thing that I didn't quite catch earlier on. You said the Eritreans would stay until something had been achieved. What is the Eritrean war aim, as you see it?
M: They don't know when PP will stand on its foot to fight against Tigray. That's what they're saying. They're saying we have to stay there until PP comes up in a position to fight against the Woyanes. That's what they're saying. They don't know when it will happen. It will never happen, actually. They way I see it, it will not happen here. It might not even happen in the rest of Eritrea. We're seeing them in the field. Wherever confronted…
You might have heard of a small operation that happened two weeks ago around Edaga Harbi. There was a full brigade, support brigade of the 33rd division, which was fully mechanized, a support brigade is a mechanized support to the rest of the division. It only took 15 minutes to destroy it. In 15 minutes, six 107mm rocket launchers were taken, six 120mm mortars were taken, four 122 howitzers were taken, several vehicles were taken, and 167 of them were taken prisoners, in just 15 minutes.
A: What is happening to these prisoners of war? Where are they being kept? How are they being kept?
M: We sent them back. We can not carry them around. What we did was, we gave them a sort of political education for two, three days, and then we sent them back to Mekelle and Adigrat. It's only the commanders—one colonel, one lieutenant colonel—who declined to return back. They said, "they will kill us, so we will remain with you." We told them, "you cannot be our soldiers, and that's not what you are asking us, and we shall not provide you shelter, but you can remain in the liberated areas." So, they are just moving around.
So that's where we are Alex.
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