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An elderly Ethiopian woman sits next to a sack of wheat after it was distributed to her by the Relief Society of Tigray in the town of Agula, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia May 8, 2021.Ben Curtis/The Associated Press

With thousands of people already starving, Ethiopia could be heading for a repeat of its catastrophic famine of the 1980s, one of the world’s deadliest disasters of recent decades, aid agencies and diplomats say.

A new analysis by United Nations agencies and other aid groups has estimated that 350,000 people in northern Ethiopia have fallen into famine conditions because of the prolonged war in the Tigray region, in the country’s north. But the famine is likely to get far worse, and 90 per cent of the region’s six million people are now in need of emergency aid, relief workers say.

“It’s unconscionable – especially in the very place that woke the modern world up to the scourge of hunger,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, during an online roundtable hosted by the European Union and USAID, the U.S. international aid agency, on Thursday.

Ethiopia convicts three soldiers of rape, charges 28 others for killings in Tigray region

“We cannot make the same mistake twice,” she said. “We cannot let Ethiopia starve. The humanitarian situation in Tigray is a moment of truth for the international community.”

The world is witnessing a “humanitarian nightmare” in Tigray, she said, calling it a “man-made” emergency. “A second failed harvesting season, which will very likely happen, would kill countless people,” she said. “This is not the kind of disaster that can be reversed.”

An estimated one million people died in Ethiopia’s famine, which occurred between 1983 and 1985. Televised reports shocked the world with images of starving children, provoking a massive global response with fundraising concerts, celebrity songs and new charity movements.

Many people vowed that the Ethiopian famine would never be allowed to happen again. But today there are “strikingly similar events” in northern Ethiopia, according to USAID. It cited the existence of the same basic factors that led to the famine of the 1980s: conflict, blocked humanitarian access and failed harvests.

“There is famine now in Tigray,” said Mark Lowcock, the UN emergency relief co-ordinator, at the online event on Thursday. “Every expert will tell you, this is going to get a lot worse,” he said.

Mass starvation is being used as a weapon of war in Tigray, diplomats said at the event.

The number of people in famine conditions in Ethiopia is already higher than in any humanitarian crisis since the Somalia famine of 2011, which killed about 250,000 people, Mr. Lowcock said.

The Ethiopian government has disputed the latest estimate of 350,000 people in famine conditions. But the estimate was produced by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) system, led by a consortium of UN agencies and major relief agencies. It is considered the most authoritative and detailed assessment of malnutrition and food insecurity worldwide.

An IPC report this week projected that a further 400,000 people could be in famine conditions in Tigray by September.

“This severe crisis results from the cascading effects of conflict, including population displacements, movement restrictions, limited humanitarian access, loss of harvest and livelihood assets, and dysfunctional or non-existent markets,” it said.

The war in Tigray began last November when Ethiopia launched a military offensive against the Tigrayan regional government, which had been feuding with the national government over the region’s demands for autonomy and elections.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said the military offensive was a mere “law enforcement operation” that would swiftly be over. But the war has continued without any end in sight. The Tigrayan opposition has fought a prolonged guerrilla resistance, while neighbouring Eritrea has sent in thousands of its own troops to support the Ethiopian military.

“The armies of Ethiopia and Eritrea have laid waste to Tigray’s food supply,” said Samantha Power, the USAID administrator, at the online event. “The government of Ethiopia’s military allies have burned and looted seeds and farm equipment and slaughtered oxen to ensure the fields lay fallow. So determined are they to eliminate livelihoods that some have reportedly crushed baby chicks under their boots. These same forces have threatened, intimidated, detained and even killed aid workers attempting to feed the hungry.”

Widespread reports of gang rapes perpetrated by the Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers are evidence that they have “launched a campaign to shatter families and destroy the reproductive and mental health of their victims,” Ms. Power said.

Factories have been razed to disrupt the Tigray economy and health facilities have been looted, leaving only 16 per cent of clinics and hospitals still working today, she said.

Unless Mr. Abiy moves quickly to end the violence, allow humanitarian access and ensure the withdrawal of Eritrean forces, she said, “revisiting famine upon Ethiopia will be his legacy.”

Mr. Lowcock described how Eritrean forces and ethnic Amhara militias, allied with the government, still control huge swathes of Tigray. Last month the UN recorded a total of about 130 incidents of blocked humanitarian access in Tigray, he said, and 54 were caused by Ethiopian soldiers, while 50 were by Eritrean forces and 21 by Amhara militias.

The UN Security Council has not yet held a single public meeting to discuss the Tigray crisis, largely because of vetoes by Russia and China.

“The Security Council’s failure is unacceptable,” Ms. Thomas-Greenfield said.

“What are we afraid of? What are we trying to hide? I ask those who refuse to address this issue publicly: Do African lives not matter?”

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