Today marks 100 days since the Ethiopian government imposed a blockade on all humanitarian assistance to its northern region of Tigray. The blockade on Tigray has been nothing short of devastating for civilians. It has been called a “stain on our conscience.” But the world has yet to act meaningfully to end it and stop the man-made famine it has caused. That must change.
One hundred days on, the situation is incredibly dire for people in Tigray. The government of Ethiopia has blocked nearly all food and medicine from entering the region, with less than 10 percent of what is required to respond to famine making it to those in need. Basic services including communications, banking, and trade have also been severed, denying the ability for Ethiopians trapped inside Tigray to let loved ones know they are alive, to receive remittances, or to buy goods that may prevent their death. It also prevents Ethiopians from hearing for themselves what is happening: that without a radical change in trajectory, history is repeating itself in northern Ethiopia and that millions of the country’s people are at risk of starvation. Just like in 1983-1985.
To be clear – people in Tigray have been dying of starvation for at least 10 months. The Transitional Government of Tigray, installed on January 25, has confirmed reports of ten people who had died from starvation in Gulomahda and three starvation deaths in Adwa. On February 10, the head of Ethiopian Red Cross Society (ERCS), described displaced people “arriving camps in Tigrayan towns emaciated, their skin really on their bones.”
But the blockade has made a bad situation worse.
In July, the U.S. government declared that 900,000 people were living in famine conditions in Tigray. In early August, the UN’s World Food Programme reported malnutrition rates near 30 percent for children under five. Perhaps even more alarming, surveys found 80 percent of nursing mothers suffer from acute malnutrition. These are the numbers that indicate that not only has famine set in – but without immediate and sustained assistance, deaths attributed to starvation are set to accelerate almost exponentially.
As fighting spread into Afar and Amhara, far worse could be to come should the parties to the conflict continue down this dark path. Last week, Ethiopia expelled key UN staff from the country, leaving top posts empty during one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and throwing into chaos an operation already under water. Indeed, the threat of suspension or worse effectively muzzled NGOs and UN agencies. Several months ago, Ethiopia already expelled two international NGOs that had the courage to speak out against the horrors happening amidst a largely silenced international humanitarian community. Despite living up to the humanitarian principles to assist those in need with the commodities allowed, they remain caught between speaking out in defense of the people denied life-saving aid, or risk that meagre assistance allowed that is keeping people alive.
Today we talk of a blockade driving famine in Tigray, with millions more at risk in Amhara and Afar. Tomorrow could be worse.
Time has run out. Humanitarians have pleaded for 100 days to allow aid to reach Tigray. All parties to the conflict must be persuaded to change course. It is now up to policymakers and diplomats in the U.S. government, the United Nations, the African Union, and other states to urge Abiy and other parties to the conflict to save lives; to immediately stop the violence and seek peaceful resolution; and to allow food and medicine to reach the dying.
Every day that the blockade remains in place means more lives lost. It is time to act.
PHOTO CAPTION: A woman stands in a metal sheet room that was damaged by shelling, in Humera, Ethiopia, on November 22, 2020. (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images)