Hunger Stalks Ethiopia’s Tigray Region After Six Months of War

Severe malnutrition among children and pregnant women is increasing in Ethiopia’s Tigray region after six months of conflict, the United Nations and humanitarian groups said.

Aid convoys are being blocked by combatants, delaying the provision of food to those in need in the northern region, the UN said in a report published Friday. A cluster of humanitarian groups reporting to the UN said that of more than 19,000 children below five that were screened, 431 were identified as severely malnourished, while about 2,721 women were found to be acutely malnourished out of 4,447 that were screened.

“What we’re seeing is concerning levels of malnutrition outside of the big towns,” Karline Kleijer, head of emergency programs for medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières. “There are children dying of malnutrition.”

Ethiopia’s army, backed by forces from neighboring Eritrea, has since November been battling fighters loyal to Tigray’s dissident former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The violence has left thousands of people dead and displaced hundreds of thousands of others, while drawing U.S. claims of ethnic cleansing and leading the European Union to suspend budgetary support to the federal government.

Attacks, Looting

The government began allowing aid agencies unfettered access to Tigray in February, after they complained that they were unable to deliver food, medicine and other supplies to the region. Some humanitarian groups have yet to scale up their response to the crisis because of the continuing insecurity, Kleijer said.

In recent weeks there have been attacks on humanitarian staff, seizures of their vehicles and looting of medical facilities, said Eileen Morrow, chief coordinator of 58 international humanitarian groups working in Ethiopia.

“There has been a serious deterioration in humanitarian partners’ ability to reach crisis affected populations in Tigray region,” she said. “People are on the brink and have exhausted their coping strategies.”

The UN report said access to humanitarian groups is impeded in central, north-western, eastern, south-eastern and southern Tigray due to active hostilities. An estimated 5.1 million need food aid in Tigray compared with just 1.1 million people who have been reached with 19,000 metric tons of food so far in 2021, the report said.

Eritrea Role

Ethiopia’s Peace Ministry on Thursday countered the claims that access is being denied, saying a “blanket approval process” for aid agencies had been implemented and “most parts of the region are accessible” so that food can be delivered. More than 7 million people had received 120,000 tons of food in two separate delivery periods, it said.

Still, documents dated April 23 from the Tigray region’s interim government seen by Bloomberg state that Eritrean troops had recently “forced out humanitarian partners” from areas around the towns of Samre and Gijet where there are food-distribution centers.

This enabled “troops to loot the rations of our communities,” according to the documents, which were verified by an official of Tigray’s interim government.

Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel didn’t respond to several calls and messages asking about Eritrea’s role in the blocking of food aid in Tigray.

For months, Ethiopia denied its forces were being aided by Eritrean troops despite numerous reports documenting atrocities, including massacres and the systematic use of rape, that have been carried by its soldiers. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed admitted in March that Eritrean forces were present and said there were plans for them to leave, though they continue to be present.

G7 foreign ministers meeting in the U.K. on Thursday called on Eritrea to remove its troops quickly. “The process of withdrawal must be swift, unconditional and verifiable,” the group said in a statement, noting the “worsening humanitarian and human rights crises” in the region.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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