Some silences can lead to disaster. The situation in Tigray in northern Ethiopia today is a dramatic example. The war in Tigray continues, the famine has probably already begun and may soon become extremely widespread. The Ethiopian government is blocking free access for humanitarian operations, and denying permits to independent journalists as well as to investigations into abuses and massacres. But to the outside world, the people in Tigray do not seem to exist.
The EU has stopped its budget support to Ethiopia and made some clear statements, and the United States (since Biden took office) has also made quite strong strides. Otherwise mostly silence. And no international mobilization for active action can yet be discerned.
In Sweden, Covid dominates everything in the media, something else does not seem to exist. The smallest detail on this topic can be front-page news and get several minutes at prime time on radio and TV while dramatic events 'out in the world' disappear into the silence.
Tigray is located in northernmost Ethiopia and has about seven million inhabitants. The region is barren and its own food security has often been problematic. In the fall of last year, just before the war, about one million people in Tigray were dependent on food aid, but supplies were good and transportation was good. Since the war began in early November 2020, the number of people in need of direct food aid has more than doubled and is now estimated at almost 2,5 million. But today the warehouses are emptied or destroyed and most of the region's towns and villages cannot be reached by any relief shipments.
Partly because the war continues, but mainly because the Ethiopian government has actively prevented both international and domestic humanitarian organizations from conducting their work. It has been officially agreed that the UN should have free access, but in practice every effort has been made to prevent their aid workers and vehicles from entering the countryside and to the smaller towns where the majority of the population is located.
In early February, Jan Egeland (a veteran of the UN, now Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council) said, among other things:
- During all my years as an aid worker, I have seldom seen humanitarian aid that has been hindered so much and has not been able to reach (…). It is not true to say that humanitarian aid is now gaining ground. The help has only reached the places where the conflict is moderate and the needs less. Aid is not keeping pace at all with the humanitarian crisis, which inevitably grows as time goes on. Millions of women, children and men, including refugees, are in a truly desperate situation.
Since then, nothing has improved. And now it's in a hurry. The onset of starvation on a large scale can, in the worst case, be only weeks away. Some compare with the catastrophic period 1984/85, when the military regime in the country denied the serious situation because they did not want the famine to disrupt the party's grand ten-year anniversary. The hungry were made invisible, they were inhabitants who did not exist. And when the famine turned to mass starvation that could no longer be hidden, it was too late. Within a year, one million people had died. And it would have been much worse if the support of the outside world had not been organized, an effort many remember through the international fundraiser where famous musicians, such as Bob Geldof and others, were in the foreground.
It was then, during the military dictatorship, dergen. But why is the current Ethiopian government acting in a similar way? Some argue that with hunger and starvation as weapons, they want to do maximum damage to the dominant ethnic group in Tigray (the Tigreans) and thus prevent them from becoming a power factor in Ethiopian politics again. Personally, I think the main reason is that the government has so much to hide; it wants to delay the release of independent information about the atrocities that have been committed (and are still taking place) in the mainstream media, within the country and in the outside world.
This was not a war at all, said Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed when the federal forces and their allies attacked on November 4. It was just a surgical operation to arrest Tigray's leading politicians (from the TPLF party), hold them accountable for violations of the constitution and thus ensure law and order in the country. Therefore, the outside world would not interfere, this was a purely internal matter. When the maneuver officially ended and victory was announced in late November, Abiy even claimed that the federal Ethiopian forces "had not killed a single civilian" throughout the month-long operation. Now, he said, the focus would be on reconstruction and humanitarian aid.
One hundred days have passed since then and no independent reporting from Tigray is allowed yet. Electricity is still lacking in large parts of the region, both the mobile and the regular telephone network are still shut down in large areas and the internet is completely switched off. Over time, however, many witnesses have appeared, often with gruesome images and video sequences. Some internal statements and reports have been leaked and recently both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have published shocking reports. What we know today can be summarized as follows:
The fighting in Tigray continues and the province has been subjected to large-scale and systematic destruction. Thousands of civilians have been killed, a number of major massacres have taken place, acts of aggression against civilians seem to be the norm, as have mass rapes. Factories, offices, hospitals and homes have been looted and destroyed, as well as a large number of food supplies. The water supply has been put out of action in many places. A large number of villages and farms have been burned and abandoned. An estimated half a million people have been forced to leave their homes and are on the run.
A large part of the abuses and destruction have apparently been carried out by allies of the federal military, mainly militia groups from the neighboring region of Amhara (an ethnic group that makes territorial claims on Tigray) and troops from Eritrea. Officially, the government still denies that Eritrean soldiers are in Tigray, but the evidence is overwhelming.
To hide all this, the Ethiopian government is blocking free access to humanitarian efforts and blocking observers and journalists. There is a risk that the situation will turn into large-scale famine, which all international observers agree on - as well as the fact that the silence of the outside world today contributes to aggravating the situation. Only if many actors in the outside world vigorously raise the issue and mobilize for rapid action can large-scale starvation be averted. Where is our Sweden now in this?
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Current overviews and statements from UN agencies:
UN High Commissioner Human Rights:
Persistent, credible reports of grave violations in Tigray, urgent need for human rights access
Reports of abuse, war crimes and massacres:
Human Rights Watch
Ethiopia: Unlawful Shelling of Tigray Urban Areas
Los Angeles Time:
A rape survivor's story emerges from a remote African war
On the situation of journalists in Ethiopia and Tigray since the beginning of the war:
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ):
Ethiopian military detains BBC reporter, translators for AFP and FT
Analysis of the background to the conflict: