More than two months after Ethiopia declared victory in its Tigray war, there is rapidly growing international alarm at evidence of starvation and destruction in the region, including reports of emaciated refugees, gutted hospitals, massive looting, burning refugee camps, kidnappings, rapes and other war crimes.
A series of reports by United Nations and European Union officials in recent days have painted a disturbing portrait of a war-ravaged region whose five million people are nearly all in desperate need of food, including an estimated 2.2 million who are now homeless.
In late November, several weeks after sending thousands of troops into northern Ethiopia to subdue the rebellious Tigray region, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said the military operation was “successfully concluded” and “completed.” The top priority was now “returning normalcy” to Tigray’s people, he said.
Ethiopia’s civil war in Tigray: What you need to know about who’s fighting whom and the toll it’s taken so far
But today it is clear that Tigray is far from normalcy. Refugees on foot in the region are “emaciated, begging for aid that is not available,” said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi.
“Of utmost concern, I continue to receive many reliable reports and first-hand accounts of ongoing insecurity and allegations of grave and distressing human-rights abuses, including killings, targeted abductions and forced return of refugees to Eritrea,” Mr. Grandi said in a statement last week.
Before the war, about 100,000 Eritrean refugees were sheltering in four camps in Tigray. But the camps became a key target for the thousands of Eritrean troops who crossed the border from Eritrea into northern Ethiopia. The troops have reportedly looted and torched two of the camps, abducting many of the refugees and forcing them back to Eritrea. Relief agencies have been barred from entering the two camps.
“Reports of additional military incursions over the last 10 days are consistent with open-source satellite imagery showing new fires burning and other fresh signs of destruction at the two camps,” Mr. Grandi said. “These are concrete indications of major violations of international law.”
He said he is “very worried” for the safety of the Eritrean refugees in the two camps. “They have been without any aid for many weeks,” he said.
The Associated Press, citing new satellite images from the DX Open Network group, said on Sunday that more than 400 structures have been badly damaged by attackers at one of the inaccessible camps. The images showed “smouldering ruins, blackening of structures and collapsed roofs,” the report said.
Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs, rejected the Ethiopian government’s claim that the military deployment in Tigray was merely an internal “law and order” operation. The situation on the ground “goes well beyond” such an operation, he said.
“We receive consistent reports of ethnic-targeted violence, killings, massive looting, rapes, forceful return of refugees and possible war crimes,” he said in a statement on Friday.
“And while people are in dire need of aid, access to the affected region remains limited, which makes it very difficult to deliver humanitarian assistance,” Mr. Borrell added.
In a clear signal of dissatisfaction with the Ethiopian government’s policies, he said the EU will continue to withhold about $135-million in budget support for Ethiopia because of its blockade of humanitarian access.
In an earlier report this month, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said 35 of the 40 hospitals in Tigray are inaccessible. Most have been looted or destroyed. This, along with the non-payment of salaries and the continuing danger of violence in Tigray, has “halted basic health services,” it said. “Food supplies are very limited, widespread looting is reported and insecurity is high.”
A leaked document, summarizing statements at a recent meeting of aid agencies, has provoked further concern. The document quoted an Ethiopian government official, Berhane Gebretsadik, who warned that hundreds of thousands of people in Tigray could starve to death if urgent assistance is not mobilized.
“People are dying because of starvation,” the document said, quoting Mr. Gebretsadik. “Food and non-food items … are either looted or destroyed.”
Many people are fleeing their villages and arriving in Tigray’s larger towns because their homes and farms have been vandalized or burned, the document said.
Meanwhile, clashes are continuing between Tigray’s rebel forces and Ethiopian troops, reportedly supported by Eritrean forces.
The government said last week that its troops had killed three elderly Tigrayan politicians – including a 71-year-old former Ethiopian foreign minister, Seyoum Mesfin – because they had “refused to surrender.” Several reports, however, said that the three men had been executed as part of a policy of ethnic cleansing by Ethiopian forces.
Mr. Seyoum had been Ethiopia’s longest-serving foreign minister, holding the post from 1991 to 2010.
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