Acute hunger has been existent for some time now In parts of Ethiopia´s Tigray region ever since the war broke out. People now eat only green leaves for days. At a health center last week, a mother and her newborn weighing just 1.7 pounds died from hunger. In every district of the more than 20 where one aid group works, residents have starved to death.
For months, the United Nations has warned of famine in this embattled corner of northern Ethiopia, calling it the world´s worst hunger crisis in a decade. Now internal documents and witness accounts reveal the first starvation deaths since Ethiopia´s government in June imposed what the U.N. calls “a de facto humanitarian aid blockade.”
Forced starvation is the latest chapter in a conflict where ethnic Tigrayans have been massacred, gang-raped and expelled. Months after crops were burned and communities stripped bare, a new kind of death has set in.
Hayelom Kebede, the former director of Tigray´s flagship Ayder Referral Hospital shared with The photos of some of the 50 children receiving very intensive care because of malnutrition, the first such images to emerge from Tigray in months. In one, a small child with startled-looking eyes stares straight into the camera, a feeding tube in his nose, a protective amulet lying in the pronounced hollow of his throat.
According to Hayelom Kebede, the former director of Tigray´s flagship Ayder Referral Hospital, Medicines have almost run out, and hospital staffers haven´t been paid since June. Conditions elsewhere for Tigray´s 6 million people are often worse.
The blockade and the starvation that comes with it mark a new phase in the 10-month war between Tigray forces and the Ethiopian government, along with its allies. Now the United States has issued an ultimatum: Take steps to stop the fighting and let aid flow freely, or a new wave of sanctions could come within weeks.
The war began as a political dispute between the prime minister, 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed, and the Tigrayans who had long dominated Ethiopia´s repressive national government. Since November, witnesses have said, Ethiopian forces and those from neighboring Eritrea looted food sources and destroyed health centers.
In June, the Tigray fighters retook the region, and Ethiopia´s government declared a ceasefire, citing humanitarian grounds. Instead, the government has sealed off the region tighter than ever, fearing that aid will reach the Tigray forces.
More than 350,000 metric tons of food aid are positioned in Ethiopia, but very little of it can get into Tigray. The government is so wary that humanitarian workers boarding rare flights to the region have been given an unusual list of items they cannot bring: Dental flossers. Can openers. Multivitamins. Medicines, even personal ones.
The list, obtained by the AP, also banned means of documenting the crisis, including hard drives and flash drives. Photos and video from Tigray have disappeared from social media since June as aid workers and others, facing intense searches by authorities, fear being caught with them on their devices. Tigray has returned to darkness, with no telecommunications, no internet, no banking services and very little aid.
Ethiopia´s prime minister and other senior officials have denied there is hunger in Tigray. The government has blamed the Tigray forces and insecurity for troubles with aid delivery. It also has accused humanitarian groups of supporting, even arming, the Tigray fighters.
The prime minister´s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, did not say when the government would allow basic services to the region. The government “has opened access to aid routes by cutting the number of checkpoints from seven to two and creating air bridges for humanitarian flights,” she said in a statement. But medical supplies on the first European Union air bridge flight were removed during government inspection, and such flights cannot carry the large-scale food aid needed.
In the most extensive account yet of the blockade’s toll, a humanitarian worker told the AP that deaths from starvation are being reported in “every single” district of the more than 20 in Tigray where one aid group operates. The group had run out of food aid and fuel. The worker, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
At least 150 people starved to death in August, including in camps for displaced people, the Tigray External Affairs Office has alleged. The International Organization for Migration, the U.N. agency which supports the camps, said: “We unfortunately are not able to speak on this topic.”
Sadly, some toilets in the crowded camps are overflowing because there’s no cash to pay for their cleaning, leaving thousands of people vulnerable to outbreaks of disease, a visiting aid worker said. People who ate three meals a day now eat only one. Camp residents rely on the charity of host communities who often struggle to feed themselves.
Food security experts months ago estimated that 400,000 people in Tigray face famine conditions, more than the rest of the world combined. But the blockade means experts cannot collect the needed data to make a formal declaration of famine.
Such a declaration would be deeply embarrassing for Ethiopia, which in the 1980s seized the world´s attention with a famine so severe, also driven by conflict and government neglect, that some 1 million people were killed. Since then, Africa´s second most populous country had become a success story by pulling millions from extreme poverty and developing one of the world´s fastest-growing economies.
Now the war is hollowing out the economy, and stomachs. Malnutrition rates are near 30% for children under the age of 5, the U.N. World Food Program said Wednesday, and near 80% for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
As the war spreads, so might hunger. Tigray forces have entered the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar in recent weeks, and some residents accuse them of carrying out acts of retaliation, including closing off supply routes. The Tigray forces deny it, saying they aim to pressure Ethiopia´s government to lift the blockade.
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