Despite Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed Ali declaring victory on the 28th November, a two-and-a-half month long conflict between Ethiopian government forces and the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) is still raging in Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia.
The causes of this civil war (or “law enforcement operation”, as the government calls it) are complex and historically rooted. However, tensions had escalated in the months prior to the outbreak of violence due to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s desire to centralize federal control over Ethiopia’s regions, a move which the TPLF views as an affront to Tigrayan autonomy. The point of no return came when the Prime Minister chose to postpone general elections due to COVID-19 related concerns: the TPLF ignored such a decision, and went on to hold its own regional elections. The central government deemed these elections unconstitutional, and refused to officiate the results.
Fighting first broke out on the 4th of November, following accusations that the TPLF had attacked an army base. Since then, the Ethiopian government has invaded Tigray; imposed a state of emergency and telecommunications blackout on the region; and restricted access for international organisations, resulting in a lack of reliable information and casualty reports from the ground.
However, news outlets, Amnesty International and UN agencies confirm that the fighting has now developed into a full scale humanitarian crisis. At least one door-to-door massacre has been reported in Mai Kadra, where up to 600 civilians were killed. Meanwhile, thousands of deaths, and mass displacement plague the region. An estimated 2.3 million people remain in desperate need of humanitarian assistance: access to provisions (food, water, fuel and electricity) has been hindered; most hospitals in the region have been destroyed or looted; and COVID-19 surveillance work has been interrupted, with experts fearing that the conflict might have “facilitated massive community transmission of the pandemic”.
Tens of thousands are fleeing the violence while flooding refugee camps in neighbouring regions and countries. To make matters worse, the arrival of some 50 to 60 thousand Ethiopian refugees in Sudan has escalated pre-existing land-dispute tensions between the two countries, who keep threatening each other with military action.
U.N. agencies are also alarmed by their inability to protect and assist some 96,000 Eritreans who were already living in refugee camps in Tigray prior to the outbreak of violence. They are now at their most vulnerable: while unable to provide for themselves, reports show that many refugees have either fled the camps, fallen victim of human rights abuses, been abducted or forcibly sent back to Eritrea.
Conflict related damage to infrastructure, bureaucracy and ongoing violence continue to stop International NGOs from ensuring an appropriate response to the humanitarian needs of civilians in the region. As Carmen Vinoles (head of the emergency unit for Doctors Without Borders) puts it, “There is an extreme, urgent need to rapidly scale up the humanitarian response because the population is dying every day as we speak”.