Tigray’s Crisis during the Genocidal War

Tigray’s Crisis during the Genocidal War

The situation in Tigray is developing into one of the most catastrophic humanitarian disasters in modern history and requires immediate action from the international community. The Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, and Eritrean dictator Isaias waged war on the Ethiopian region of Tigray on November 4, 2020, following two years of less obvious attempts by Abiy, who came into power in 2018, to cripple Tigray. These included allowing road blockades, budget reduction, blocked tourism and investment, and hindering the fight against locust infestation. Since November 2020, several extreme crippling tactics have been employed to systematically destroy the Tigrayan region and its people, and war crimes that violate Article 8 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions have been committed by Eritrean and Ethiopian forces.

There are hence multiple different threats facing the Tigrayan population. Citizens are experiencing population displacement, starvation, lack of essential goods and services, and healthcare emergencies—while also having been affected by the loss of livelihoods, damaged or looted properties, crippled infrastructure, and collapsed markets. There are also numerous reports of sexual and gender-based violence (SGVB) and mass killings. The Ethiopian government is carrying out this systematic destruction of the Tigray region and its people, some aspects of which undoubtedly constitute war crimes, while  openly denying the severity of the humanitarian crisis and restricting global aid.

This article outlines the most devastating factors facing Tigrayans as of July 2021.The international community must take drastic action without further delay. 

Population Displacement 

More than 2 million children and adults are experiencing internal displacement due to the conflict. Though the actual number is likely higher, over 63,000 people, including more than 18,000 children, have fled to Sudan since the genocidal war began. In addition, thousands of children fleeing the conflict have been separated from their parents or lost their parents due to the violence; these children are at high risk of physical and sexual violence. One refugee, Atsede, in May 2021 told Save the Children: “Two of my children are with my husband but I don’t know where they are. […] Some people tell me they are in Sudan and some have told me my husband was killed with my two girls.” Compounded by heavy flooding and wind that has destroyed many temporary structures, most refugees still lack access to basic needs, such as shelter, water, and food.

Lack of Essential Goods and Services

Tigray residents lack adequate access to food, fuel, water, and medicines, and many are dying due to a lack of essential services. Hospitals and factories have been targeted and destroyed along with core institutions such as schools. The Ethiopian government continues to block humanitarian access to Tigray, preventing the UN and other aid agencies from moving personnel and goods into Tigray. The region has consistently been under a complete blackout enacted by the Ethiopian government, which has left people without access to power, phone, internet, banks, and running water. This makes it even more difficult for humanitarian aid organizations to provide help. Over 2 million children remain cut off from necessary emergency humanitarian assistance. Most recently, the Ethiopian government has suspended the work of humanitarian organizations, including Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Hunger and Malnutrition

There are ongoing deliberate efforts to starve the people of Tigray, which have already led to famine and severe malnutrition. Over 900,000 people are already affected by famine, over 4.5 million Tigrayans at risk of starvation, and the UN Security Council estimates 33,000 children are severely malnourished and at high risk of death. Methods employed by invading armed forces to deliberately starve people include burning crops, looting food supplies, and stealing and slaughtering livestock. In addition to this, an anti-farming camp is in full effect, as invading forces have blocked vehicles transporting seeds from entering the region. This is occurring in the context of an already challenging food security landscape due to the 2020 locust infestation. The National Disaster Risk Management Commission (NDMRC) has warned that Ethiopia will experience less than normal rainfall, potentially worsening water shortages and consequently food availability. 

“Efforts to prevent the entry of seeds and efforts to stop farming have no other message than perhaps, “Let the people of Tigray perish with starvation,’” Abebe Gebrehiwot, deputy head of Tigray’s former interim government,  stated prior to the restoration of the elected Tigrayan government. “We are hearing of starvation-related deaths already,” stated UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock, “People need to wake up.” Further, the UN has reported these conditions have forced women in Tigray to trade sex for food.

As of April 2021, the World Peace Foundation (WPF) estimated that between 50 and 100 starvation-caused deaths were occurring a day in central and eastern Tigray alone.​​

Healthcare Emergencies

MSF reported that by February 2021, over 80 percent of hospitals in Tigray had become defunct due to being looted, bombed, or losing medical staff. In June 2021, Joseph Belliveau, MSF Canada Executive Director described hospitals with “medicines and needles dumped on the ground, examination beds flipped over, patient records pulled off their shelves, windows broken and ambulances burned or stolen.” MSF also reported that this destruction of the healthcare system has left millions of people without lifesaving medication who are either dying at home or traveling for days on foot to reach Mekelle, where there is a functioning hospital. 

Patients with chronic diseases such as diabetes and HIV are going without lifesaving drugs.Most survivors of sexual violence, many of whom have contracted sexually transmitted infections (STIs), are unable to receive proper medical and psychological care. Many children have not received appropriate vaccinations due to the crippled healthcare system, raising the risk of future outbreaks of infectious diseases. Lastly, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that communicable and vaccine-preventable diseases can quickly spread in Tigray due to a lack of food, clean water, safe shelter, and healthcare access. WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic stated in June 2021 that “All these factors combine – are literally a recipe – for larger epidemics.”

War Crimes 

War crimes observed during the conflict include mass murder, looting, and sexual violence against Tigrayan women and young girls. Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, founder of the Institute for Peace and Security Studies, has described the killings of Tigrayans by the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces as “literally genocide by decree.” SGBV committed by Eritrean and Ethiopian troops has been described as a weapon of war. UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock stated in April 2021 that “there is no doubt that sexual violence is being used in this conflict as a weapon of war, as a means to humiliate, terrorize, and traumatize an entire population today and into the next generation.” There is a surge in demand for emergency contraception and testing for STIs, as many women have contracted STIs, including HIV. Aid workers have witnessed ​​soldiers carrying out extrajudicial killings. At least 11 humanitarian aid workers have been killed since the beginning of the conflict.

Destruction of Cultural and Religious Sites 

Religious sites are an integral part of Tigrayan culture and history, and with the intention to destroy the Tigrayan identity, Eritrean and Ethiopian forces have decimated ancient churches and mosques. Significant religious and historical manuscripts and artifacts that carry the legacy of Tigrayan culture have been looted, with academics at Hamburg University warning that these “will be taken out of Ethiopia to be sold at antiquities markets in other countries.” The expropriation of sacred materials and the violent attacks on heritage sites are intentional attempts to psychologically demoralize and humiliate the people of Tigray, and can be described as  cultural genocide.

All the acts of brutalization aforementioned have occurred despite the Ethiopian government’s continuous denial of the extent of the genocidal war in Tigray. Further, the Ethiopian government fails to act on agreements with the international community and blocks humanitarian aid to the region.

In an interview with the BBC in June 2021, Abiy stated “There is no hunger in Tigray,” while the UN and other aid agencies had already confirmed the dire man-made famine in Tigray. In March 2021, the Ethiopian government finally admitted to the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray after months of denial. .However, Eritrean troops remain in the region four months later despite Ethiopia and Eritrea agreeing to withdraw them.

Meanwhile the UN reports that movements in and out of the region remain restricted, impacting humanitarians’ capacity to sustain aid operations. The Ethiopian government however has stated that there is unfettered access for aid to be delivered to Tigray, and in July 2021, continues to deny blocking it. “The allegation that we are trying to suffocate the Tigrayan people by denying humanitarian access and using hunger as a weapon of war is beyond the pale,” Demeke Mekonnen, Deputy Prime Minister of Ethiopia and Minister for Foreign Affairs, declared in June 2021.

On June 28, 2021, the situation shifted as the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) regained control of Tigray’s capital city, Mekelle. Elation among Tigrayans locally and globally, however, rapidly gave way to the realisation that the crisis is far from over. Since then, the TDF has recaptured most Tigrayan cities and towns, but millions remain at risk of famine. The region remains in a telecommunication blackout, access to essential services, such as banks, are limited, and efforts to prevent farming continue. The healthcare system remains barely functional, and efforts to restore humanitarian access, which remains blocked and restricted, must intensify without delay. The international community must acknowledge the severity of the current situation and that the consequences of this genocide will impact generations to come. 

Finally, the war crimes committed against Tigrayans must be acknowledged by the rest of the world and investigated by global institutions, including the United Nations Human Rights Council. The official request for a unilateral ceasefire by the Ethiopian government, even if it holds, does not reduce the desperate need for immediate global action to mediate the catastrophic and ongoing impact of this genocide. 

 Octavia SheepshanksOmna Tigray External Contributor, August 2021