The NGO Refugees International predicted in a call for help this week that famine in the Tigray region of Ethiopia could “mirror” the Great Famine of the 1980s, as a result of the ongoing civil war in that country.
The Ethiopian government, led by Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has largely blockaded Tigray to prevent critical supplies, reportedly including food, from entering. Human rights organizations have documented extensive atrocities in the war, including attempts to starve civilians as well as the use of rape as a weapon of war and mass killings of civilians by rival ethnic minorities on both sides.
While the war has made few recent headlines in international media, it has raged since November 2020, when members of the Marxist Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which until recently ruled the country, attacked a military facility in the region. Abiy, a member of the country’s ethnic Oromo majority, launched a full-scale war against the population of Tigray and has taken the front lines of the conflict himself, encouraging Oromos and others supporting the government to “bury this enemy with our blood and bones.”
Ethiopia is home to a wide variety of ethnic groups that have been caught in the crossfire between the Tigray and Oromo, including a large Amharic population that, according to a Reuters report in December, has faced widespread rape and torture attacks by Tigray fighters for their perceived support of the government.
Refugees International, a human rights organization active in the area, asserted that the population in Tigray is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe in a report published this week on the conflict.
“The Ethiopian government has blocked virtually all food and medical shipments into Tigray, using food as a weapon of war,” senior fellow Sarah Miller wrote in the report. The group has tallied 2.5 million displaced people both within Ethiopia and abroad as a result of the war.
Ethiopia and Eritrea border each other and fought an extended civil war that ended largely due to Abiy’s contributions, resulting in his Nobel Peace Prize victory in 2019. Displaced Eritreans in Ethiopia have now been caught up in the civil war, the organization noted.
Refugees International predicted the blockade would lead to a historic crisis: “With starvation deaths mounting each day and as many as 900,000 people in famine conditions, there are fears that the current situation in Ethiopia will mirror the Great Famine of the 1980s, where over 1 million people starved to death.”
The 1983-85 famine in Ethiopia affected over 7 million people and various estimates list between 300,000 to 1 million people as having died from starvation. The population of the Tigray region was just over 7 million in 2020.
The charity’s report further notes, “Across three regions in Ethiopia, the UN now estimates some 9 million people need food assistance.”
An anonymous Catholic cleric told the Catholic news site Crux, “We have statements indicating that half of the population in Tigray will die of starvation by the end of this year. In a literal sense, yes: We think this is a direction things may take if things continue as they are.”
The warnings by the NGO and others echo those of the World Health Organization, which has encouraged Addis Ababa to allow United Nations aid into Tigray. The W.H.O. is currently led by an ethnic Tigray and former minister of the TPLF government in Ethiopia, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, whom the Abiy government has accused of attempting to smear the conflict and leverage his U.N. position to benefit the Tigray.
“We have approached the prime minister’s office; we have approached the foreign ministry; we have approached all relevant sectors, but no permission,” Tedros lamented in January. “Humanitarian access even in conflict is the basics. Even in Syria, we have access, during the worst of conflicts in Syria. In Yemen, the same, we have access. We deliver medicine. Here [in Tigray] nothing, it’s a complete blockade.”
“Imagine a complete blockade of seven million people for more than a year. And there is no food. There is no medication, no medicine. No electricity. No telecom. No media,” Tedros detailed.
In those remarks, Tedros noted that he was “from Tigray,” but dismissed his relationship to the region as coloring his views on the conflict.
“But I am saying this without any bias … Nowhere in the world you will see a crisis like the one in the northern part of Ethiopia, especially in Tigray … Lack of medicine has direct impact and people are dying, but lack of food also kills. On top of that, daily drone attacks are killing people,” he emphasized.
While the government appears to have, at press time, superior leverage in fighting and thus has faced more pressure to cease engaging in human rights abuses, a Reuters report from December found that Amharic populations in the country are facing brutality from Tigray fighters as well. Reuters documented widespread gang rape of Amharic women in small population centers, often not directly by TPLF officials but by volunteers the TPLF encouraged to fight the government alongside it.
“Across Tigray in July, a Reuters journalist saw hundreds of young Tigrayans, males and females, joining the army. Youths trained in the early hours of the morning, jogging along the road while carrying large wooden logs,” the outlet noted. “In the small town of Nebelet, newly recruited soldiers marched under heavy rain waving flags of Tigray.”
In one town, Reuters found 70 women testifying they were raped by TPLF-affiliated fighters.
“I want them all to be wiped out – all the Tigrayans. Let their race be wiped out!” one of the women, Abay Tsegaye, declared in the story.
The United Nations refugee agency called on Friday for an extra $205 million in funding for food and other basic supplies to Ethiopian civilians, according to the Addis Standard.
“Of the US$205 million, US$117 million will support the needs of Ethiopian IDPs [internally displaced persons] and Eritrean refugees in the Afar, Amhara, and Tigray regions of Ethiopia, while US$72 million will help us support Ethiopian refugees in Sudan,” the U.N. said, according to the newspaper. “Some US$16 million will be used for preparedness as part of contingency measures for any potential influx into neighboring countries (Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan).”
U.N. officials had claimed a month ago that Ethiopia was in “a much better place” to end the war, but those hopes have yet to materialize into relief for those affected.
“There is much more conversation and dialogue and talk around the national dialogue itself and the way to peace,” U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said following a visit to the Ethiopian capital in February.