Situation in Tigray getting worse

Life for civilians in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region has become “extremely alarming” as hunger grows and fighting remains an obstacle to reaching millions of people with aid, the United Nations said in a new report.

And the U.N. special adviser on genocide prevention warned that without urgent measures the risk of atrocity crimes “remains high and likely to get worse.”

The conflict that has shaken one of Africa’s most powerful and populous countries – a key U.S. security ally in the Horn of Africa – has killed thousands of people and is now in its fourth month. But little is known about the situation for most of Tigray’s 6 million people, as journalists are blocked from entering, communications are patchy and many aid workers struggle to obtain permission to enter.

One challenge is that Ethiopia may no longer control up to 40% of the Tigray region, the U.N. Security Council was told in a closed-door session. Ethiopia and allied fighters have been pursuing the now-fugitive Tigray regional government that once dominated Ethiopia’s government for nearly three decades.

An Ethiopian child, who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, is seen at dawn within Hamdayet village on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in the eastern Kassala state, Sudan on December 16, 2020.

Now soldiers from neighboring Eritrea are deeply involved on the side of Ethiopia, even as Addis Ababa denies their presence. Eritrea rejected “false and presumptive allegations” after the U.S. Embassy there posted a statement online about the need for Eritrean forces to leave.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was the latest to pressure Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed directly, urging the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner in a phone call to allow “immediate, full and unhindered” aid access to Tigray before more people die.

Abiy’s brief statement on the call didn’t mention Tigray. Neither did his statements on calls with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as European countries also express concern over one of the world’s newest crisis zones. Neighboring Sudan and Somalia could be sucked in, experts have warned.

The new U.N. humanitarian report released last week includes a map showing most of the Tigray region marked as “inaccessible” for humanitarian workers. It says the security situation remains “volatile and unpredictable” more than two months after Abiy’s government declared victory.

The aid response remains “drastically inadequate” with little access to the vast rural population off the main roads, the report says, even as Ethiopia’s government has said well over 1 million people in Tigray have been reached with assistance. Some aid workers have reported having to negotiate access with a range of armed actors, even Eritrean ones.

Civilians have suffered. “Reports from aid workers on the ground indicate a rising in acute malnutrition across the region,” the new report says. “Only 1 percent of the nearly 920 nutrition treatment facilities in Tigray are reachable.”

Starvation has become a major concern. “Many households are expected to have already depleted their food stocks, or are expected to deplete their food stocks in the next two months,” according to a new report posted by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, which is funded and managed by the U.S.

The report said more parts of central and eastern Tigray likely will enter Emergency Phase 4, a step below famine, in the coming weeks.

Health care in the region is “alarmingly limited,” with just three of Tigray’s 11 hospitals functioning and nearly 80% of health centers not functional or accessible, the U.N. report says. Aid workers have said many health centers have been looted, hit by artillery fire or destroyed.

In a separate statement, the special adviser to the U.N secretary-general on the prevention of genocide, Alice Wairimu Nderitu, said she has received reports of serious human rights violations in Tigray including “extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, looting of property, mass executions and impeded humanitarian access.”

She also has received “disturbing reports of attacks against civilians based on their religion and ethnicity” in Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia, and she urged the government to address the root causes and promote reconciliation.

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