Forgotten catastrophe: war and famine in Ethiopia’s Tigray region

Since November 2020, the Ethiopian Tigray region has witnessed a brutal conflict between a rebel movement and government forces. As the conflict has spread geographically and temporally, it has brought violent consequences, ranging from famine to bomb attacks, on civilians in the region. Can there be hope that the war will end soon?
The Tigray region in Ethiopia – image by Rod Waddington via flickr

A chronology of conflict

The war in Tigray started with bitter irony. Having just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the year before, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent out armed forces on 4 November 2020 to arrest the leaders of the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front), a political and rebel movement that had governed the region autonomously until then. The government troops were however met with more resistance than expected, dragging out the initial swift military operation into months of brutal war.

Over the course of the conflict, Addis Abeba has received military support from neighbouring Eritrea and its Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF), as well as regional Amhara forces. This has complicated the military situation and worsened the impact of the fighting on civilians and their displacement and access to humanitarian care.

While Tigray’s regional capital Mekele was captured by government forces by the end of November, it returned under the authority of TPLF forces in late June 2021. This brought about a brief ceasefire and celebrations in the capital, yet the fighting soon returned to the region and the situation de facto deteriorated.

On 8 October 2021, the AFP news agency reported that a new air and land offensive had been started by government troops in the Amhara region. Neighbouring Tigray in the south, this region now seems to also be part of the conflict, just like the Afar region east of Tigray. And, barely two weeks later, on 19 October 2021, the German news agency DPA announced that the Ethiopian air forces had conducted air strikes on Mekele, as the government tries once more to recapture the city.

Bombs, airstrikes, and sexual violence

The Tigray war’s greatest impact has been on civilian lives in the region. Despite little to no information escaping from the zone, the conflict’s extreme violence has been noted from its start by the international community; bearing the brunt of this is the civilian population. The last months of warfare have included airstrikes by the EDF bombarding a civilian market, displacement of about 2 million people, and extra-judicial executions of civilians, including children.

This conflict has however been marked by a particularly brutal aspect: sexual violence against civilians, of which mostly girls and women, in the Tigray region. Sexual violence and rape have long figured as weapons in conflicts to inflict both psychological and physical damage on the enemy. While it is classed as a war crime, large-scale sexual violence continues to be used in many African conflicts, and has become one of the major characteristics of the Tigray war.

The NGO Amnesty International has investigated the situation and collected testimonies from survivors in the region in a report; this has allowed to document the scale of sexual violence happening in the region. Emblematic of this brutality is the testimony from one anonymous woman living in western Tigray, who said: “I don’t know if they [her attackers, ] realized I was a person.”

According to Amnesty International, women and girls in Tigray have been assaulted by members from the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) – the government’s force –, regional police special forces, and the allied Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF).

The famine

Over the course of the conflict, the Tigray region has become increasingly isolated from the rest of the country and from international aid efforts. Organizations such as UNICEF have warned as early as December 2020 that the region could soon see a catastrophic famine unfold. On 30 July 2021, the organization writes on its social media channels: “On entering previously inaccessible parts of Ethiopia’s conflict-ravaged region of Tigray for the first time in months, our worst fears were realised. Without urgent action, over 100,000 children face life-threatening malnutrition in the next year.”

Despite UNICEF workers reaching previously cut-off parts of the region several times, these single efforts will be insufficient. They cannot alleviate the consequences of the fighting in the long-term. With potentially 90 % of Tigray’s population of 5 million inhabitants at risk of dying from hunger, this situation is not easy to be rectified quickly, if at all. What makes matters worse, those aid and health care workers able to reach Tigray are in high danger themselves; in June 2021, three employees of Doctors without borders (MSF, Médecins sans frontiers) were killed in an attack.

No visibility, no end

Despite continued campaigns from major NGOs such as Amnesty International and UNICEF, the Tigray conflict repeatedly slips away from media coverage and political awareness in the rest of the world. This renders international aid efforts difficult, as little visibility for the conflict and the plight of civilians could mean less financial support for NGOs and less priority being given to ending this conflict that has now expanded to more regions. As already mentioned, the physical limitations of access to the Tigray region are another crucial obstacle in this context.

What then remains an option for the international community? A military intervention from any other third party except for Eritrea is highly unlikely, given that this conflict is foremost an interior issue for Ethiopia. As for diplomatic measures, whilst the UN, European or American diplomats have repeatedly called on Addis Abeba to end the war, Prime Minister Abiy has so far not taken any measures to limit the fighting. Instead, state-controlled media reported on the subject of the latest airstrikes in Mekele that “the utmost care had been taken to avoid civilian losses”. The day that these airstrikes were conducted, a Monday, is known as being market day in the city. At least three civilians died, and several dozens were injured.


Temporally = temporellement

Cut-off = separé

Unfold = se dérouler

Rectified = réctifié

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