Ethiopia

Thousands of starving people flee Tigray, US denounces ‘ethnic cleansing’

A priest, who did not wish to be identified, and said he was captured after trying to flee recent conflict and put in prison for two months and his best friend shot on the journey, sits with his Ethiopian Orthodox cross after arriving at a makeshift camp for displaced people in Shire, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, 24 Feb 2021.
A priest, who did not wish to be identified, and said he was captured after trying to flee recent conflict and put in prison for two months and his best friend shot on the journey, sits with his Ethiopian Orthodox cross after arriving at a makeshift camp for displaced people in Shire, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, 24 Feb 2021. © AP

New photos from Ethiopia’s Tigray region published on Thursday reveal more about the conditions thousands of people are suffering after fleeing the conflict in the country’s north, as access for humanitarian aid remains difficult.

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The Associated Press news agency on Thursday printed photos from the International Rescue Committee, a rarity for the situation in Tigray where media access is severely restricted by the Ethiopian authorities.

Ethiopian forces, backed by troops from Eritrea, embarked on an offensive in Tigray at the start of November, with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed describing it as a law and order operation to capture the leadership of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

Humanitarian organisations are worried about the thousands of people who fled fighting, forced into the rural areas, which are cut off from outside help.

Some 5,000 people arrived in the town of Shire over five days last week, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), a French charity working on healthcare.

Eating leaves

Those fleeing are skinny, dehydrated and extremely tired, said Oliver Behn from MSF, as cited by AP. He described a desperate situation, with people worried about violence and starvation, and some aid workers saying people have resorted to eating leaves or seeds to survive.

Shire, about 150 kilometres north west of the regional capital Mekelle, is acting as a hub for humanitarian aid relief and some 16,000 people already fill three crowded camps.

Hundreds of people are sleeping outside and the thousands of new displaced people could easily overwhelm the few facilities.

Aid workers say people have described spending weeks hidden in the hills following fighting between Ethiopian troops and fighters aligned to the TPLF.

Famine

The timing of the civil war could not have been worse for food security. Fighting started just around harvest time and following a considerable locust outbreak. This resulted in widespread looting of stores in cities like Mekelle at the start of the conflict.

The International Rescue Committee told AP that food distributions have not been enough, although the Ethiopian government claims it has distributed aid to over four million people.

The European Union has underlined the importance of opening up access to humanitarian aid for Tigray, and the regional bloc has floated the idea of slapping sanctions on Addis Ababa for violating international humanitarian law.

US Secretary of State Tony Blinken on Wednesday used the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe alleged human rights abuses in Tigray, as Democratic lawmaker Karen Bass raised the question of sending a peacekeeping force to Ethiopia.

“There has been an escalation of ethnic violence in the country where extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, looting of property, mass executions, and impeded humanitarian access in the Tigray region has continued,” said Bass, in a statement.

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