Ethiopia Has Turned on Itself. Now What?

A Changing Battlefield, the Same Humanitarian Landscape

Since November 2020, the world has watched Ethiopia turn on itself, starving its own people and destroying itself one day at a time. The fighting goes on, and a recent airstrike on a camp for internally displaced persons in Tigray killed 59 people and injured 30, some of whom were children, according to aid workers. This comes days after three Eritrean refugees were killed, two of whom were children, in the Mai Aini refugee camp. Despite diplomatic investments and highlighting dire humanitarian needs, the international aid community, including the UN and large international NGOs, have been largely muzzled and rendered largely impotent at a time when humanitarian intervention is needed more than ever. While many bear witness to the humanitarian crisis, they face threats, frozen bank accounts, and losing access to areas where they work if they speak out.

In recent months, the battlefield has shifted yet again. Surprisingly, Tigrayan forces retreated in December 2021, calling for a no-fly zone and humanitarian aid – all after making significant gains in territory, with many even fearing that Addis could fall. The abrupt changes in the battlefield have resulted in more lives lost and an increasingly fractured Ethiopia. What has not changed, however, is the desperation of those inside Tigray, parts of Amhara, and in other regions where starvation is a weapon of war, medicine is in short supply, and aid actors, capable and ready to respond, are forced to sit and watch the catastrophe unfold a little more with each passing day.

There are more than two million newly displaced in Ethiopia, on top of an already existing one million IDP population. Ethiopia also hosts some 800,000 refugees, many of whom have found refuge in Ethiopia for years. Over the last year, more than 60,000 Ethiopians – mostly from Tigray – have fled into neighboring Sudan, telling horror stories of human rights abuses, atrocities, sexual violence and massacres. Some are even drawing parallels to the Rwandan genocide, and sounding alarms that Ethiopia is displaying striking similarities. Likewise vulnerable groups inside Ethiopia, including long standing refugee populations such as Eritreans, are being killed, abused and even kidnapped back into Eritrea. Neither Ethiopia nor the UN has been able to offer them adequate protection and assistance as the conflict rages on, and few have managed to find safe passage out of harm’s way. In addition, other countries in the region, like Kenya, are eyeing Ethiopia warily and adjusting their refugee policies in the event that large scale displacement crosses borders. A wider civil war now looms over the entire country – one that could also have dire repercussions for the region.

Among the most dire of humanitarian issues, Ethiopia is on the verge of a famine the likes of which have not been seen since the Great Famine of the 1980s. According to USAID, some 900,000 in Tigray are experiencing famine, and the number is growing in other parts of Ethiopia. As of January 7, 2022, a mere 1,338 of the required 17,600 trucks needed to provide humanitarian supplies have entered Tigray–a mere 7.6 percent of the total trucks needed to help those in need. Ghent University reported in October 2021 that somewhere between 425 and 1,201 people were dying from hunger every day in Tigray. And even if the conflict stopped today and aid were able to reach the hungry, food insecurity will plague this region for years to come. Indeed, fighting groups have not only stopped aid from reaching civilians, but also slaughtered cattle and blocked farmers from harvesting and planting crops for the next season.

An International Community Ignored and Targeted

The international community has struggled to bring parties to the conflict to the negotiating table and has not been able to reach the vast majority of those in need. Aside from donor states, humanitarians and development actors have struggled to be heard, and have even been targeted and killed by armed groups. In October, seven UN staff were expelled from Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian government has accused the UN — without evidence — of siding with the Tigrayans. Aid groups have seen bank accounts frozen, offices and residences targeted and ransacked, communications tracked, staff threatened, and, more recently, staff rounded up and detained. In October and November 2021, dozens of UN staff and their families were rounded up and detained in Ethiopia, further threatening the aid response.

Moving Ahead

Now in its second year, the UN, United States, and other states with influence, including Turkey, China and the UAE, must work for peace in Ethiopia. Ending the blockade and complete aid access–to those starving Tigray, and all other regions in Ethiopia affected by the conflict, including Amhara and Afar–must be a top priority. Recent shifts in the battlefield may provide openings for dialogue, and potentially cross-border aid or a humanitarian corridor, or they may be a momentary shift as each side gears up for new fighting that could go on for months or even years. Recent actions, including the release of several Tigrayan leaders and calls for dialogue, could lay the ground for peace. The US has a new Horn of Africa Envoy, David Satterfield, and China has also announced a new envoy to the Horn. Further diplomatic engagement is a step in the right direction, but as the crisis worsens by the day, the rest of the world must step up to end the conflict and famine, avoiding the worst of what the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, called a “stain on our conscience.”

BANNER PHOTO CAPTION: A man walks among the remains of his destroyed house in the village of Bisober in Ethiopia’s Tigray region on December 9, 2020. Photo Credit: EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images.