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Ethiopian refugees gather to celebrate the 46th anniversary of the Tigray People's Liberation Front at Um Raquba refugee camp in Gedaref, eastern Sudan, on Feb. 19, 2021.

HUSSEIN ERY/AFP/Getty Images

With relief agencies still blocked from reaching most of the war-ravaged Tigray region in northern Ethiopia, there are reports of hidden atrocities, starvation, ransacked hospitals, rapidly deteriorating conditions and the rising threat of famine.

Almost three months after the Ethiopian government declared victory in what it called its “law enforcement operation” in Tigray, and nearly four months after the conflict began, the fighting is continuing and the military and humanitarian situation is still “very out of control,” according to a European Union representative.

Ethiopia’s civil war in Tigray: What you need to know about who’s fighting whom and the toll it’s taken so far

“This operation has lasted more than three months, and we do not see the end,” said Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, who visited Ethiopia on the EU’s behalf.

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Equally urgent warnings were issued this week by humanitarian agencies and other analysts. The food crisis in Tigray is “extremely dire” and “becoming more dire by the day,” said Dominik Stillhart, director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Water and electricity are scarce, up to a million people are homeless and a harvest season has been lost because of the war, he said.

Humanitarian aid unable to reach

critical areas in Tigray

As of Feb. 20

As fighting continues almost three months after the Ethiopian government declared victory in its operation in Tigray, humanitarian agencies are blocked from accessing most of the war-ravaged region, while reports of looting, atrocities and starvation continue to grow.

ERITREA

NORTH

WESTERN

EASTERN

TIGRAY

CENTRAL

WESTERN

Mekele

SOUTH

EASTERN

AMHARA

SOUTHERN

0

2,000

KM

Legend

YEMEN

Partially accessible areas

Inaccessible areas

ETHIOPIA

Accessible roads

Addis Ababa

Partially accessible roads

0

500

Inaccessible roads

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: UNITED NATIONS OFFICE FOR THE COORDINATION OF HUMANITARIAN AFFAIRS

Humanitarian aid unable to reach

critical areas in Tigray

As of Feb. 20

As fighting continues almost three months after the Ethiopian government declared victory in its operation in Tigray, humanitarian agencies are blocked from accessing most of the war-ravaged region, while reports of looting, atrocities and starvation continue to grow.

ERITREA

NORTH

WESTERN

EASTERN

Humera

Axum

Shire

Adigrat

TIGRAY

CENTRAL

WESTERN

Mekele

SOUTH

EASTERN

Maychew

AMHARA

SOUTHERN

0

2,000

KM

YEMEN

Legend

Partially accessible areas

Inaccessible areas

ETHIOPIA

Accessible roads

Addis Ababa

Partially accessible roads

0

500

Inaccessible roads

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: UNITED NATIONS OFFICE FOR THE COORDINATION OF HUMANITARIAN AFFAIRS

Humanitarian aid unable to reach critical areas in Tigray

As of Feb. 20

As fighting continues almost three months after the Ethiopian government declared victory in its operation in Tigray, humanitarian agencies are blocked from accessing most of the war-ravaged region, while reports of looting, atrocities and starvation continue to grow.

ERITREA

NORTH

WESTERN

EASTERN

Humera

Axum

Shire

Adigrat

TIGRAY

CENTRAL

WESTERN

Mekele

SOUTH

EASTERN

Maychew

AMHARA

SOUTHERN

0

2,000

KM

YEMEN

Legend

SUDAN

Partially accessible areas

Inaccessible areas

ETHIOPIA

SOMALIA

Accessible roads

Addis Ababa

Partially accessible roads

SOUTH

SUDAN

Inaccessible roads

0

500

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: UNITED NATIONS OFFICE FOR THE COORDINATION OF HUMANITARIAN AFFAIRS

In a statement on Wednesday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed complained of “politically motivated misinformation” about the Tigray crisis. He said the government is making “significant progress” in delivering aid to the region, and it announced that it is allowing 135 relief workers to enter Tigray.

But the relief agencies inside Tigray reported that the humanitarian disaster is rapidly worsening. “Our team saw in many towns how hospitals and health centres have been systematically looted and ransacked and are hardly in a position to deliver any meaningful services,” said Mr. Stillhart, who has just returned from Ethiopia.

“Our teams have seen people arriving in the main towns who are in extremely bad shape. In some hospitals there are people in very, very difficult nutritional status. There is no doubt that food supplies are urgently needed.”

A new map, released this week by the United Nations humanitarian affairs office, showed the majority of Tigray is considered inaccessible and the remainder is deemed partly accessible. The Ethiopian Red Cross has estimated 80 per cent of Tigray’s six million people cannot be reached by relief agencies.

Humanitarian workers are blocked by continued fighting, by staff shortages after many workers were forced to flee and by obstacles in getting the official permits that are required for entering Tigray.

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Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said the humanitarian agencies are restricted to major towns and main roads. “Beyond that, where there is fighting, terrible suffering, starvation – we still cannot go.”

Earlier this month, Mr. Egeland gave a stark assessment of the crisis. In his 40 years of humanitarian work, he said, he has rarely seen an aid response “so impeded” as in Tigray.

This week, he gave more details, describing how his 100 staff in Tigray were cut off from the outside world when Ethiopia sent its military into Tigray in early November.

“We were denied access for month after month after month, when women and children were bleeding, when there were massacres and a lot of bad stuff happening from a lot of armed men,” Mr. Egeland told a discussion at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“We still do not know what’s happening in Tigray in many parts. We do not know how bad it is, up to this day. Is it to hide things? Is it because they don’t want us to be there to see what is happening?”

There is “zero access” to western and central Tigray, even though there are “hundreds and hundreds of humanitarian workers ready and eager to go,” he said.

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Catherine Wiesner, a senior official at UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, said the government’s talk of insecure conditions in Tigray “cannot be a façade for just continuing to deny access.”

In a report this week, the UN humanitarian affairs office said there was “staggeringly high malnutrition” among children in Tigray, with further deterioration expected, and a “drastically inadequate” humanitarian response.

“Extremely concerning reports of atrocities against civilians have emerged in the past weeks,” the UN agency said, citing a report of 108 rape cases. “Humanitarians continue to receive disturbing reports of crimes, such as killing, looting and sexual violence, which has also affected aid workers.”

Even in the Tigrayan capital, Mekele, food shortages were so severe that three-quarters of the city’s internal refugees – people displaced by fighting in the region – have been unable to receive any food aid, the report said.

Alex de Waal, a British scholar and Horn of Africa specialist who has worked extensively in Tigray, said there is a danger of famine in the region unless there is a ceasefire and full humanitarian access within the next three months. The mortality rate is already rising, he said.

“The situation is much worse than has been reported,” he told the International Crisis Group in a web discussion this week.

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“There is every indication of what we would call starvation crimes,” Mr. de Waal said, referring to the destruction of “objects indispensable for survival” such as hospitals, clinics, food stocks and water supplies.

“The forces, particularly the Eritrean troops that occupy a very substantial part of Tigray, have been ransacking food stores, carting away everything they can carry, killing livestock and burning food or rendering it inedible.”

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