Stories of civil war and massacre surround the crisis of Tigray. Amnesty International has released reports that accuse Eritrean troops fighting in Ethiopia of systematically killing hundreds of unarmed civilians in the Axum city from the 28th of November to the 29th of November 2020. These reports coupled with the news of airstrikes, thousands of refugees trying to cross Sudan’s borders and reports of increased violence and sexual abuse, enable us to label the situation in Tigray a humanitarian crisis. However, even today, months after the fighting began, aid organizations are struggling to reach regions that require them. Before we talk about the figures and proof of the humanitarian crisis, let us start with understanding the crisis and how it developed.
Ethiopia is a union of 10 regions of diverse ethnicities. Each of these regions has a degree of autonomy with the central power in the capital. At present this central power is governed by Abiy Ahmed. The epicentre of the fighting is in the north of the country in Tigray. This region has its own political party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and a regional army. Before Ababa came into power in 2018, the TPLF was the central governing party for almost three decades and was part of the coalition that overturned the military rule before that. During their years in power, the TPLF was known to be autocratic in nature. They actively imprisoned journalists and political dissidents. They were finally brought down due to the massive protests that took place. All this culminated in the people of Ethiopia electing Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister. Young and visionary, he moved quickly to ensure changes within the country. After he took power, political prisoners were freed, opposition parties were allowed to operate among other democratic reforms. He also received the Nobel Prize for negotiating peace with Ethiopia’s neighbour, Eritrea. Ethiopia and Eritrea had a border standoff for the entirety of the time the TPLF was in power. They had long-standing animosities with the Eritrean President Isaias Afwaraki and with Eritrea. As part of his plan for Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed disbanded the previous government coalition ( that was formed of the coalition of different ethnic parties) and formed a new political party that fused the different ethnicities into one. Some ethnic groups such as TPLF did not appreciate this move as it was seen to decrease the individual autonomy of the different ethnic regions and the TPLF reacted against it. During this period, Abiy removed several TPLF members from the top government, and many were arrested and prosecuted for crimes such as corruption and abuse of power. In March of 2020, when the pandemic was taking root across the world, Abiy postponed elections that were supposed to take place before the end of his term. In September, the TPLF, despite being ordered against it, held its regional elections. The government vehemently opposed this and refused to accept the election results. The TPLF responded by declaring Abiy’s government illegitimate. This was a tipping point in the crisis. The TPLF allegedly attacked a military base and Abiy responded by sending in the troops. As the government has cut Tigtray off by blocking roads and airports and blocking internet access. Therefore information from and about Tigray is limited.
Currently, there are reports of government airstrikes and TPLF rockets being launched. Soldiers and civilians on both sides are being killed, however, there are no numbers available to decipher how many. The TPLF claims that Eritrea is in cahoots with the Ethiopian government and has launched attacks on Eritrea. Though the Eritrean President denied this accusation, Amnesty International recently released a report that states that Eritrean troops have massacred hundreds of unarmed civilians in the northern city of Axum on the 28th and 29th of November. This report also concludes that the Ethiopian and Eritrean troops committed multiple war crimes during the attack to control Axum. This is after reports by Amnesty International that stated “it was likely that hundreds of people were stabbed or hacked to death” on the 9th of November. Thousands of civilians are displaced with many migrating across the border to Sudan as refugees. The UNHCR states that around a third, of the estimated 60,000 people who crossed the border, are children. This adds fuel to the Tigray humanitarian crisis as there is very little available for these people. The border area where the Tigray people are located in a desert and is deserted. The basic necessities of food, water and shelter are hard to get by. The aid organizations and the government are trying to help, but the situation is still very dire.
The international Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has warned about the overwhelming needs of those affected by the Tigray Crisis. Dominik Stillhart, ICRC’s director, expressed his concerns about “ serious issues with regards to access to health care” in an interview with BBC. Though exact numbers are hard to come by, it is estimated that thousands of people have been killed and two million internally displaced. In addition to this, around 100,000 Eritrean refugees who had been living in UN run camps are also caught in the midst of this crisis. Reports of sexual violence by Military troops are on an exponential rise. There have various disturbing reports of military officers forcing individuals to rape women in their families at gunpoint. Women have also been reportedly forced by military elements to have sex in exchange for basic commodities. The BBC has reported of a doctor and women’s rights activist ( both anonymous) who counted at least 200 girls under 18 at different hospitals and health centers in Makelle. Even though there have been a plethora of stories and reports, there is no police. Weyni Abraha from Yikono ( a women’s right group which translates as Enough) was in Makelle until the end of December. She told BBC that rape was being used as a weapon of war. ”Many women were raped in Mekelle. This is being done purposely to break the morale of the people, threaten them and make them give up the fight.”However, the Ethiopian army chief Birhanu Jula Gelalcha has denied these accusations and stated that government forces have ethics and rules of engagement. He also stated that human rights groups exaggerated their numbers.
The situation in Tigray is dire. The fighting and aftermath of the conflict are ongoing. The people of Tigray are paying a high price for this conflict. The narrow opening to international media has resulted in the arrest of journalists and their translators. Access, even for humanitarian aid is restricted. People are in urgent need of basic commodities such as food, clean water and health care. Sexual abuse and rape in on the rise and these women have no safe zones. There is no police and no justice for those who suffer from the crimes of the military responsible for handling the crisis in Tigray. Humanitarian aid should be provided to Tigray along with the local structures such as the police and health centers being reestablished in order to start the journey to the end of this crisis.