As fighting rages in Ethiopia, aid groups plead for access to refugees
By Simon Marks and Eric Nagourney
Even before fighting started in November between the Ethiopian government and powerful military forces in the country’s northern region of Tigray, the area was home to as many as 200,000 refugees and displaced people, according to United Nations agencies.
Now, with airstrikes increasing and the conflict intensifying, international aid groups say that tens of thousands more people are fleeing. But the organizations say that they have been prevented from helping.
On Tuesday, aid groups appealed to the Ethiopian government to secure access for them to the Tigray region so they can replenish dwindling supplies for people stranded by the fighting. At refugee camps in Tigray, fuel is running perilously low, a major concern because the camps rely on generators to pump water.
“We have fuel for a week — and that maybe dwindled to days now,” said Ann Encontre, resident representative for the U.N’s refugee agency in Ethiopia. “So you can imagine how desperate everything is.”
The conflict began in early November when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered Ethiopia’s military to open a military offensive against the powerful ruling faction in Tigray. Abiy accused the region’s ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front of arming irregular militias and orchestrating an attack on a federal army base.
The TPLF had for decades been the dominant force in Ethiopia’s government, but when Abiy became prime minister in 2018, he accused the region’s leaders of corruption and sought to undermine their power. They quit the coalition government, and proceeded to hold regional elections in Tigray, in defiance of Abiy, who had called off elections, citing the pandemic.
While reports from the region are sparse, analysts and aid workers say that hundreds of people have died in the fighting since then, and thousands have been displaced.
Saviano Abreu, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in East Africa, said “Since the conflict began in early November we have had reports of tens of thousands of people being newly displaced inside Tigray.”
In addition, 5,000 people crossed the Ethiopian border to Sudan just on Monday. So far, more than 27,000 people fleeing the violence in Tigray have arrived in Sudan, Abreu said.
With roads to Tigray cut off, getting food and other supplies to the refugees has become impossible, the aid group says. And with most communication lines also cut off, it is hard even to know what needs to be done.
“Because of the communications blackout, it’s really difficult to corroborate a lot of the information we get,” Encontre said.
Speaking to reporters in Addis Ababa on Monday, Redwan Hussein, the Ethiopian state minister for foreign affairs, offered reassurances.
“We’ll come up in a couple of days with a solution,” he said. “We will come up with a plan to take care of the humanitarian issue before it becomes a crisis.”
But aid workers are becoming increasingly frantic, with one senior U.N. official complaining of “a de facto economic blockade.”
The U.N. has food, health supplies and other relief items in warehouses ready to be sent to Tigray. The only problem is getting there.
“The telecommunications are down, road access is closed, and fuel, water and cash in particular for our remaining staff and civilians to buy food wherever they may be is cut off,” said Catherine Sozi, the U.N. resident coordinator in Ethiopia.
“Things are getting rather hard,” she said.
Aid groups are in talks with both the government and the leadership in the Tigray Region about opening up a humanitarian corridor. But in the meantime, thousands of refugees have decided that their safest course of action is to flee.
Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea.”
But with the fighting spreading in Ethiopia and threatening to bring about a wider conflict in the region, the Nobel Peace Prize committee on Tuesday issued a rare — if tacit — rebuke of one of its honorees.
“The Norwegian Nobel Committee follows the developments in Ethiopia closely, and is deeply concerned,” it said in a statement.
Henrik Urdal, director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, which analyzes the Nobel Peace Prize selections, said it is “highly unusual” for the Nobel committee to issue such a statement.
“The committee hopes, of course, that the laureates addressed will feel a responsibility for honoring the prize and show restraint,” he said.