Following his declaration of military victory against rebel forces in Ethiopian Tigray almost two months ago, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that the reconstruction process should begin immediately.
The fierce battles that began in early November between federal government troops and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the former ruling party in the northern region, were fought under the guise of a disruption of communications. Telephone and internet services to Tigray were cut and journalists and aid workers were not allowed in. The conflict that followed kill thousands of people, with at least 50,000 crossing into neighboring Sudan to flee the fighting, including air raids and heavy artillery.
Phone connectivity returned to several towns in the weeks following the government’s capture of the regional capital of Mekelle on November 28, but the majority of areas in Tigrayan still cannot be reached by phone and the entire region remains private. Internet access.
Humanitarian aid, meanwhile, has started to reach those affected by the fighting, although it remains in a trickle, as bureaucratic hurdles and continued fighting hamper stalled efforts to provide life-saving assistance to millions of people. people, including newly displaced people and refugees already sheltering in camps based in Tigray.
Al Jazeera obtained a confidential copy of the minutes of a January 8 meeting between the Tigray Emergency Coordination Center, international aid groups and Ethiopian officials in Mekelle. Representatives of aid agencies appear to be critical of the government’s response to the crisis.
“Overall, engagement is very low and it should be resolved by internalizing the situation and acting in a timely manner,” the leaked document read. “Humanitarian partners call for unhindered access to those in need.”
The document appears to further highlight the severity of the crisis, as it quotes an Ethiopian regional administrator as saying that hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of starving to death if food assistance efforts are not stepped up.
“People are starving. In Adwa, people die while they are sleeping. [It’s] also the same in other areas of the region, ”said Berhane Gebretsadik, according to the document.
Prime Minister spokeswoman Billene Seyoum and Tigray acting governor Mulu Nega have yet to respond to questions sent by email for information on the issue of humanitarian aid reaching Tigray. The government has previously said it remains committed to protecting and supporting the civilian population, while Abiy said no civilian lives have been lost in the government’s offensive.
If there is no official explanation for the heist, it coincides with an assembly period allegations abuse by government forces, a rise in lawlessness and reports that soldiers from neighboring Eritrea intervened in the war, fighting TPLF forces alongside the Ethiopian military.
The communications cut-off made it impossible to independently authenticate the allegations of the presence of Eritrean soldiers, who were allegedly accused of atrocities, including extrajudicial killings.
Addis Ababa and Asmara have denied involvement in the conflict, but an Ethiopian military commander said in a video posted to social media earlier this month, indicating that Eritrean soldiers had indeed participated in the fighting – a position later echoed by the acting mayor of Mekelle.
Mehari Taddele Maru, a professor at the European University Institute, said the refusal to allow unhindered access to the region was aimed at keeping news of the famine and abuses by state forces secret.
“The deliberate obstruction of humanitarian access is a classic method of systematically starving people,” Mehari told Al Jazeera. “The Ethiopian government and Eritrean troops continue to hamper access to humanitarian aid. The coverage continues, so getting first-hand information is almost impossible. Restricting information is in itself a state crime to hide other crimes. “
The region also faces a shortage of medical supplies and food, destroyed hospitals and rampant looting reported. Banks in Mekelle were closed in the early days of the war, leaving people empty-handed or with a shortage of cash for basic goods, before reopening in late December.
“Things are calming down here,” said Ermias Tachene, a trader living in Mekelle. “The stores have food again and people are going back to work. Outside of town I’m not sure as it is dangerous to venture out there and the phone lines are always disconnected.
Food prices, which had skyrocketed due to war-induced shortages, have largely returned to their previous levels. Despite reports of rampant crimes, including the rape of women in Mekelle, stability is gradually returning to the region’s largest city. The companies are resuming their activities and the airspace of Tigray has been reopened.
But outside the capital, banks remain closed and fighting continues as Ethiopian troops and their allies oust TPLF leaders who have reportedly retreated to the Tigray countryside. The Ethiopian government said on Wednesday that Seyoum Mesfin, a senior TPLF official and former Ethiopian foreign minister, was kill while fighting alongside two other officers. TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael is believed to be at large and hiding in the area.
Experts feared that the emerging humanitarian crisis could intensify local resistance.
“In past conflicts, massive famine in parts of Tigray has strengthened local resistance and led to protracted conflict,” said Murithi Mutiga, Horn of Africa project director for the International Crisis Group.
“If the government is to be taken at its word that its campaign is only aimed at ousting the TPLF and not harming the Tigrayan people, it should quickly accede to requests from humanitarian agencies for access to Tigray and even to areas that TPLF forces can always control to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe of the kind that would make it more difficult to emerge from this devastating conflict.
In mid-December, frustration over Ethiopia’s refusal to allow aid groups to enter Tigray led the European Union to postpone delivery of nearly € 88 million in aid financial institution in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia has since authorized part of the aid to reach the region – the Red Cross has provided medicine among other “relief supplies” – but aid workers have complained that the government continues to hamper efforts. on the ground and only a fraction of those who desperately needed help had been obtained.
The UN emergency aid department, OCHA, in a report earlier in January, said up to a third of food shipments and deliveries have been rejected by the authorities.
Last week, the EU claimed that budget support to Ethiopia had been suspended indefinitely.
“We are receiving consistent reports of ethnic violence, killings, massive looting, rape, forced returns of refugees and possible war crimes,” said Josep Borrell, the bloc’s top representative for foreign affairs in a press release. “And although people are in urgent need of assistance, access to the affected region remains limited, making it very difficult to deliver humanitarian aid.”
During the war, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) lost control of the four refugee camps it managed in Tigray, which hosted Eritrean refugees. He recently regained access to two of them, but the other two which have hosted a combined total of more than 35,000 remain inaccessible.
Both camps were allegedly invaded and ransacked by Eritrean soldiers during the war, with reports citing satellite images suggesting that the destruction of the camps took place as recently as January.
“We have not had access to the Shimelba and Hitsats refugee camps since November,” UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch told Al Jazeera. “We have received a number of reports of significant damage to these camps, including recent reports that the camps have been set on fire and indications that many refugees have fled in search of safety and food.”
“We are ready to return to the camps as soon as safe access is possible and stress the importance, in the meantime, of being able to help those who have fled the camps.”