Ethiopia targeting Tigray with 'starvation crimes' as military tactic: report

A child displaced from western Tigray waits to receive food at a school where they are sheltering in the regional capital Mekelle.
A child displaced from western Tigray waits to receive food at a school where they are sheltering in the regional capital Mekelle. © AFP - Eduardo Soteras

Famine is looming in Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region as military operations specifically target food systems with systematic looting and pillaging of food and farms forming part of efforts to use hunger as a weapon of war, according to a new report published on Tuesday.


This article was updated on 9 April 2021 to add comments from Ethiopia’s embassy in Paris.

“The sole reason for the scale of the humanitarian emergency is that the coalition of Ethiopian Federal forces, Amhara regional forces, and Eritrean troops are committing starvation crimes on large scale,” says the report by the World Peace Foundation, an organisation based at Tufts University.

The 58-page report draws on eye witness accounts, media reports, work by human rights organisations, assessments by the UN as well as open source investigation using satellite imagery to describe how Tigray has been plunged into a humanitarian crisis.

Ethiopia’s federal government has been waging war on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front since November 2020, after accusing the regional authority of masterminding an attack on federal troops.

The government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory in what they described as a law and order operation after securing the regional capital Mekelle. 

Lack of comprehensive information

Authorities in Addis Ababa have restricted the movement of journalists in the Tigray region and several international actors have expressed concern over a lack of humanitarian access.

The report uses multiple sources including work by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission outlining how Eritrean soldiers operating in the area had emptied food and grain storage facilities in Humera, in Tigray’s far north-west.

It quotes a witness describing how Eritrean soldiers during an offensive in Adwa, a town in northern Tigray, systemically looted shops and stores, gaining access to groceries, using young Eritrean women to help steal everything.

Outlining the destruction of the region’s complex food production and supply systems, it warns how the Ethiopian government’s military strategy is threatening famine, prolonged poverty and forcing dependence on external aid.

The Horn of Africa country is no stranger to the spectre of famine. It grabbed the international headlines in the 1980s with famine described as one of the worst events of the 20th century, leading to an estimated 1 million deaths.

Farms burnt, mills out of action

Belgian geography expert, Jan Nyssen, has researched the impact on how non-functioning grain mills have stopped production of bread, with Tigray residents forced to eat roasted barley, or the hardest hit resorting to eat sorrel from the bush, just to have something in their bellies, the report says.

Analysis of satellite imagery cited in the report depicts military tactics specifically targeting civilian areas, including farmland, with fire, illustrated by up to 80 farms plots covering nine square kilometres burnt in Maychew, south of Mekelle. A similar situation is described in Dansheha, in western Tigray.

The report, co-authored by Alex DeWaal, who has published research on famine, points to work by rights group Amnesty International and an alleged massacre in the historic city of Aksum, where Eritrean soldiers reportedly looted sugar, cooking oil, lentils, flour, and animal feed from large stores.

The presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray had long been denied by Addis Ababa, but recently Ethiopian authorities said Eritreans, who have been accused of carrying out massacres in the region, were pulling out.

Widespread looting

Video footage captured in Adigrat, north-eastern Tigray, supposedly shows attempts to loot stores.

While eyewitnesses describe being forced to help troops travelling from shop to shop, factory to factory, transporting generators and water pumps, before taking them away.

Food available in local markets is extremely limited or simply not available, according to the UN, and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said commercial food supply routes were cut off at the start of the conflict.

The World Food Programme said in mid-March it had started food relief, targeting 770,000 people across the Tigray region.

However, any international food aid is being controlled by officials from Ethiopia’s ruling party or military and sold on the market to those in need, the report alleges.

Livestock is also a target, with cattle, camels and oxen either taken as loot, or farmers forced to kill them under the instruction of soldiers.

Infrastructure essential to food production and survival is in the cross-hairs. Humanitarian agencies set forth the destruction of motorised water pumps and at least 250 put out of action by March, according to the report, which includes a foreword by Helen Clark, former head of the UN Development Programme.

Mechanisms responsible for food distribution within the country have reported disruptions, and the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange told of  shortages of seeds such as sesame that comes from Tigray, the World Peace Foundation says.

International actors demand action

G7 foreign ministers on 2 April urged “immediate, unhindered humanitarian access” to the region, underlining worries about worsening food insecurity.

The EU had also blocked aid worth 90 million euros for budgetary support to Addis Ababa over a lack of humanitarian access to Tigray.

Ethiopia’s federal government says it has granted “unfettered access to humanitarian aid”, and it is “abundantly clear” that the authorities have been trying to reach out to more than 4.2 million people.

Tuesday’s report on the “humanitarian disaster” demands a cessation of hostilities and calls for assistance to farmers, explaining that if this does not arrive soon, food insecurity will be exacerbated because agricultural production will miss a key seasonal window and aid will be needed for at least another 12 months.

Furthermore, it suggests that “starvation crimes” could be brought for prosecution before the International Criminal Court, punishing those found guilty of instigating such a policy.

“Starvation crimes” is a term coined by DeWaal used to describe criminal conduct designed to deprive people of items essential for sustaining human life.

“Our stark conclusion is that the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea are starving the people of Tigray,” the report says.

“Circumstantial evidence suggests that this is intentional, systematic and widespread.”

Right to reply

Ethiopia’s embassy in Paris would like to reaffirm that the priority of the Ethiopian government is to rebuild and rehabilitate the Tigray region and respond to the urgent humanitarian needs in the context of the crisis triggered by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

The embassy rejects the unfounded allegations of the World Peace Foundation, as reported by RFI, that the Ethiopian government is "starving Tigray" and using "starvation as a weapon of war".

The author of this report, Mr. Alex de Waal, has been a vocal supporter of the TPLF for many years and cannot be considered a reliable source of information.

The facts on the ground are contrary to the situation described in the report, which deliberately ignores the fact that it was the TPLF that launched the brutal attack on the northern command of the Ethiopian defense forces just before harvest season.

It should be noted that even before the current crisis triggered by the TPLF more than 1.8 million people in Tigray needed humanitarian assistance under the Productive Safety Net Programme to survive.

In addition, recent events such as the locust invasion, the Covid-19 pandemic and the crisis triggered by TPLF have exacerbated the food insecurity situation in the region.

While the TPLF’s armed insurrection in November poses significant challenges, the Ethiopian government remains firmly committed to rehabilitating the region by prioritising the delivery of humanitarian aid. So far, the government has made concerted efforts to meet humanitarian needs by providing aid to more than 4.2 million of its citizens in Tigray, in coordination with local and international partners.

While several organisations are currently stepping up their response to the humanitarian situation, the government of Ethiopia continues to cover 70% of humanitarian needs from its limited resources, while the remaining 30% is covered by development partners and NGOs.

Ethiopian embassy in Paris, 6 April 2021.

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