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A woman carries an infant as she queues in line for food, at the Tsehaye primary school, which was turned into a temporary shelter for people displaced by conflict, in the town of Shire, Tigray region, Ethiopia, on March 15, 2021.BAZ RATNER/Reuters

As many as 500,000 people have died from war and famine in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia over the past 16 months, researchers say.

The estimate, by experts who have closely monitored the Tigray conflict since its beginning, is a rare attempt to calculate the war-related death toll in a region that has been largely cut off from the outside world.

The estimate includes 50,000 to 100,000 victims of direct killings, 150,000 to 200,000 starvation deaths, and more than 100,000 additional deaths caused by a lack of health care, according to researchers led by Jan Nyssen of Ghent University in Belgium.

The war began when Ethiopia sent its military into Tigray in an attempt to subdue the rebellious regional government in November, 2020. The neighbouring country of Eritrea also sent troops into Tigray, and the war has led to massacres of civilians, destruction of hospitals and clinics, an exodus of refugees and the emergence of famine. Ethiopia has blocked most food aid to the region for months.

Despite the huge death toll, there are growing fears that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will overshadow the Tigray war and other long-running conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, reducing global attention and humanitarian aid for those crises.

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Many of the most horrific crises, from Mozambique to Yemen, are in remote regions or countries where access is difficult. The war in Ukraine could further damage the flow of assistance by diverting humanitarian funds and increasing the cost of food and fuel. Some relief agencies are already reporting a decline in funding for their Africa operations as donors switch to Ukraine.

“We are seeing clear evidence of this war draining resources and attention from other trouble spots in desperate need,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told journalists on Monday.

In Ethiopia, authorities have blocked communications and flights into Tigray since the war began, while heavily restricting media access. “The Ethiopian government has been very efficient in shielding Tigray from outside eyes,” Prof. Nyssen said in an interview.

The death toll in Tigray is poorly documented because humanitarian workers were banned from bringing cameras into the region and continue to be threatened with expulsion if they speak out, he said.

Prof. Nyssen and his team have maintained a database of confirmed deaths in Tigray since the war began, in which they recorded 289 incidents causing the deaths of up to 12,478 civilians. But the true number of deaths from violence is far higher, they believe.

Starvation is an even bigger threat. The vast majority of Tigray is considered “hard to reach” or “highly restricted” in the latest UN humanitarian report. Malnutrition is increasing, and humanitarian agencies say their supplies of food and fuel are almost exhausted. Most have been forced to suspend or drastically reduce their operations.

Because of the lack of food aid, lack of income and dysfunctional markets, the majority of Tigray’s families have resorted to begging, cutting meals or selling their harvest to pay off their debts, the UN report said.

Unlike the Ukraine war, however, the Tigray conflict has not led to any international sanctions or votes of condemnation in the UN General Assembly, analysts have noted.

In the Sahel region of West Africa, struggling with armed violence and food shortages, there are growing worries about a diversion of aid to Ukraine. Médecins du Monde, a humanitarian agency working in Burkina Faso, warned last week that some of its donors are planning to cut their funding by 70 per cent and shift the money to new Ukraine operations.

“We are very concerned that this will become a trend, making access to health care and other basic services even scarcer for displaced people,” said a statement by Safia Torche, general director for Médecins du Monde in Burkina Faso, where more than 1.7 million people have left their homes because of violence and hunger.

The Food and Agriculture Organization, a UN agency, predicted on Friday that the war in Ukraine could cause an increase of 8 per cent to 22 per cent in international food and feed prices, which would push as many as 13 million more people into hunger over the next year.

Ukraine and Russia are major exporters of wheat, barley, corn and other food products, but the war is causing a supply gap and forcing prices up.

“The likely disruptions to agricultural activities of these two major exporters of staple commodities could seriously escalate food insecurity globally,” FAO director-general Qu Dongyu said in a statement.

“Wheat is a staple food for over 35 per cent of the world’s population, and the current conflict could result in a sudden and steep reduction in wheat exports from both Russia and Ukraine,” he said.

Mr. Guterres described the war in Ukraine as an “assault” on the world’s most vulnerable people and countries. “We must do everything possible to avert a hurricane of hunger and a meltdown of the global food system,” he said.

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