Editor's note: This article contains details of violence, including sexual violence. It was updated on Aug. 22 to reflect the World Food Programme's findings on child malnourishment in Tigray.
A humanitarian truce has been agreed upon in Ethiopia's Tigray region, where there has been an ongoing war for over a year and a half. While this sounds like positive news, the work to undo the damage caused by the conflict is immense, and needs a great deal of support.
The war in Ethiopia has affected the lives of millions of people, both in Tigray, and in surrounding areas like Amhara and Afar. It began as a dispute between the national Ethiopian government and the regional Tigrayan government, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
Since November 2020, millions of people have been displaced, and countless innocent lives have been taken. Humanitarian aid was illegally blocked from entering war regions on several occasions, and the United Nations called out human rights violations being perpetrated by all parties to the conflict.
In fact, on April 4, 2022, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a joint report titled, “'We Will Erase You From This Land’: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing in Ethiopia’s Western Tigray Zone”, which highlights just how serious these violations have been, and exposing ethnic cleansing and genocide occurring in Western Tigray.
On the release of the report, Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of HRW said: “Since November 2020, Amhara officials and security forces have engaged in a relentless campaign of ethnic cleansing to force Tigrayans in Western Tigray from their homes. Ethiopian authorities have steadfastly denied the shocking breadth of the crimes that have unfolded and have egregiously failed to address them.”
Authorities in Ethiopia continue to deny ethnic violence shown toward the citizens of Tigray.
Lives have been in danger for over a year in Tigray, and the truth is, many of them will never be the same again. The conflict has also seen violence against women and girls, torture and ethnic violence being inflicted on citizens, and a painful worsening of the refugee crisis in the horn of Africa.
This is all while humanitarian aid agencies and the press were unable to access affected regions to support those who needed it most, and to spotlight ongoing violations of human rights to the national and international communities.
The physical abuses, the enforced barriers to civilian human rights, and the extended trauma show that Ethiopia has a long way to go in terms of recovering from the war. Despite the truce, the scale of need remains incredibly high, and it’ll take massive effort to restore the lives of those affected by the war.
These are a few facts that help demonstrate the sheer scale of need in Tigray, and how much there is for the international community to do to help.
1. An estimated 4.6 million people are in need of urgent food assistance
This is according to a report by the World Food Programme (WFP), which pointed out that 83% of citizens surveyed are food insecure, and 37% are severely food insecure.
With the war increasing inflation in the country, food has become a luxury for people caught in the middle of it. Making matters worse is the fact that agriculture, which is a major source of food security for the region, has been deeply impacted by both the climate crisis and the conflict.
In a statement released in May 2021, six months into the war, Oxfam’s Ethiopia country director, Gezahegn Kebede Gebrehana, said: “Farming should be beginning now ahead of the long rainy season in June, but it has come to a total halt due to conflict and the absence of rain. Many farmers have no seeds to plant, and their oxen and tools were looted or destroyed in the conflict. Trade and market exchanges have stagnated as people fear a resurgence of fighting.”
On several occasions both the regional and national governments perpetrating the conflict have been called out by organisations on the ground for blocking life-saving humanitarian and food aid to war-impacted areas in Tigray, and this has significantly increased the scale of need in the region.
In fact, according to a statement by the UN in October 2021, only 1% of those in need of food aid in Tigray had actually received it, as a result of blocking access to aid.
2. 900,000 people are living in famine conditions
USAID estimates that up to 900,000 citizens affected by the conflict in Tigray are experiencing famine conditions. This staggering figure was announced to the public in June 2021, and with aid having been continuously blocked and agricultural activity disrupted, this number has likely increased since then.
Around the same time in 2021, the United Nations officially declared famine in the region, with the WFP calling for international funding support to help feed those affected. In October 2021, the agency renewed this call for funding, with spokesperson, Tomson Phiri, saying: “For all activities in the country, WFP has a funding shortfall of $426 million. We continue to appeal for additional funding and increased and sustained access so we can continue to provide assistance in a timely manner."
3. 22,500 humanitarian aid trucks are needed to reach vulnerable people
Almost immediately as the humanitarian truce was declared, international headlines indicated that aid was finally making its way to those in need in Tigray. While this is positive news, the amount of trucks providing life-saving assistance needs to increase dramatically.
According to the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), one hundred trucks with humanitarian supplies are needed daily in the region to attend to the scale of need. As of February 2022, 1,339 trucks had made aid deliveries since the blockade started, which may seem like a great deal, but in fact, UNOCHA estimates that in total 22,500 are needed, and the current number is just a drop in the ocean.
4. 65% of North Tigray's Irob population are facing extreme food insecurity
The northern region of Tigray has not only experienced fierce atrocities and ethnic cleansing as indicated in the previously mentioned joint report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, but according to UNOCHA, 33,000 people in the Irob region, in North Eastern Tigray are facing extreme food insecurity.
The WFP defines extreme or severe food insecurity as being one step shy of famine, and with famine already declared in Tigray, the intensity of that crisis is at risk of increasing.
5. Health care systems have been set back to how they were in the 1990s
Very early on in the war the regional health care systems were destroyed, immediately increasing need. Doctors without Borders confirmed that hospitals and health care facilities had been attacked, looted, and vandalised, leaving citizens with very few places to turn to for assistance. Meanwhile, as the war unfolded, health care workers were reportedly targeted by perpetrators of violence, with reports of them being killed, their lives threatened, or their services terminated by the government coming out of the region early on in the war.
According to UNOCHA, 70% of facilities have been impacted by the war, affecting access to health care for 2.5 million citizens. The damage has resulted in the destruction of decades worth of gains in health care in the region and setting the region's health systems back to the early 1990s, this is according to an analysis published in the Conversation.
6. Over 2 million people have been displaced
The United Nations estimates that 2.5 million people have fled their homes to seek asylum elsewhere in neighbouring countries, or have found themselves internally displaced within Tigray.
The number of refugees remains difficult to measure as the scale of the crisis increased rapidly, and without humanitarian assistance on the ground, it has proven a challenge to account for all those who have been internally displaced. At the peak of the crisis however, the United Nations reported that up to 4,000 citizens were heading to Sudan every day to flee the conflict.
Refugees have also been unjustly targeted in the conflict, with reports of airstrikes and violence erupting in refugee camps, killing and harming thousands of innocent people. Aid agencies have faced reported difficulty accessing refugee camps to help protect and support those who are vulnerable to these attacks.
7. Almost 150,000 Eritrean refugees have been affected or targeted by the conflict
Eritrean refugees who had sought asylum in Tigray from conflict and crisis in their own country, have continued to experience the impact of conflict, with violence being targeted towards them, and their camps being destroyed.
“Eritrean refugees have been attacked both by the very forces they fled back home and by Tigrayan fighters,” said Horn of Africa director at HRW, Laetitia Bader in a statement. “The horrific killings, rapes, and looting against Eritrean refugees in Tigray are evident war crimes.”
She continued: “For years, Tigray was a haven for Eritrean refugees fleeing abuse, but many now feel they are no longer safe.”
HRW estimates that around 149,000 Eritrean refugees have been impacted, but as records from the Ethiopian government have proven to be unreliable, this number could be higher.
8. Schools have been looted, destroyed, or used as war camps
Millions of children in Tigray have not been able to attend school due to the conflict, and a great deal of them have been out of school since March 2020 — having left because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and stayed out of school because of conflict.
According to Ethiopia’s Minister of Education an estimated 7,000 schools in Tigray had been damaged in the war as of August 2021. HRW also reported that several schools in the area had been looted, and some have even been occupied by perpetrators of the conflict.
9. Women and girls have been exposed to gender-based violence and torture
Sexual and gender-based violence and torture has been carried out by all sides of the war, according to the United Nations, which also said that women and girls were being used as a “weapon of war” in the conflict.
Speaking to Global Citizen, Amnesty International campaigner, Vanessa Tsehaye described the atrocities experienced by women and girls caught in the war.
“A majority of the survivors that we interviewed were gang raped. Many of them were held in circumstances that account sexual slavery, where they were held for days and weeks, some of them for months, by the perpetrators,” she said.
“Some of them were raped in front of their family members, in front of their own children. Some of them are pregnant. The circumstances around sexual violence in Tigray has been shocking,” she explained.
Tsehaye also highlighted that because of a lack of humanitarian aid and the destruction of health care facilities, many women and girls had nowhere to turn to for treatment.
10. The Ethiopian government estimates that $2.5bn is needed to rebuild areas affected by war
The war has cost Ethiopia billions of dollars in infrastructure damage, not to mention affected businesses and facilities losing potential income after having to shut down completely.
The Ethiopian government admitted in June 2021 that the country had lost an estimated $2.3 billion since the war began in 2020. This was eight months before the truce was called, meaning this figure has likely increased since then.
Ethiopia, which is already a country that has large debts, is now seeking financing in the form of a supplementary budget to the price of $2.5 billion, which it claims it will use for the “rehabilitation of people affected by war and conflict".
11. 1 in 3 children under 5 are malnourished
Nearly one in three children under five in Tigray are malnourished, says the UN, a critical situation given that a malnourished child is estimated to be 12 times more likely to die than a healthy child.
The emergency assessment carried out by the World Food Programme (WFP) in August 2022 paints a worrying picture for nutrition in the war-torn country. It also found that 29% of very young children are suffering from global acute malnutrition (GAM) and more than half of pregnant or breastfeeding woman are also malnourished.