The Ethiopia Tigray War – 4.5 million refugees need emergency food aid

“A civil war is raging in Ethiopia, with the Ethiopian government waging what it startlingly called a “law enforcement operation” in the Tigray region, branding the former ruling party in Ethiopia—the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—a criminal organization and vowing to destroy it. The conflict, which has already claimed thousands of lives and displaced tens of thousands, has caused trepidation in foreign capitals that it could lead to one of the largest state collapses in modern history, with significant implications for peace and stability in the Horn of Africa and beyond. “

“Seyoum Mesfin, Ethiopia’s long-serving former foreign minister, was one of the foremost African diplomats of his generation. He was gunned down this month in Tigray by the armed forces of a lesser man – Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister and Nobel peace prize winner. Some suggest it was the Eritrean military, Abiy’s allies, who killed Seyoum, although their presence in Tigray is officially denied. The circumstances of his death remain murky.”

Simon Tisdell s article in the guardian also states ” Abiy Ahmed should hand back his Nobel peace prize over his actions in the breakaway region that have raised the spectre of famine again

“As with much of the unreported, unchallenged murder and mayhem currently occurring in northern Ethiopia, murky is what Abiy prefers. When he ordered the army’s assault on the breakaway Tigray region in November, he blocked the internet, shut out aid agencies and banned journalists. It’s a conflict he claims to have won – but the emerging reality is very different. It’s a war fought in the shadows, with the outside world kept in the dark.”

“After humanitarian workers finally gained limited access this month, it was estimated that 4.5 million of Tigray’s 6 million people need emergency food aid. Hundreds of thousands are said to face starvation. The UN warns that Eritrean refugees in the Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps are in “desperate need of supplies” and harassed by armed gangs. Some are said to have been forcibly, illegally repatriated.”

Dr Fiona Meehan lived and worked in Ethiopia over a span of thirty five years (see bio under article) , she summarizes :

“Despite Ethiopian Government claims of full victory after entering Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, in December, reports continue to come in of fighting in many parts of the region, and access for much needed humanitarian assistance remains very limited.  “Hundreds of thousands might starve to death” in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, according to a government official quoted in a leaked copy of notes taken at a meeting of humanitarian workers.

The Ethiopian government cannot facilitate full access to affected areas of Tigray, because although they refuse to acknowledge it, they themselves do not have full access due to continuing conflict between the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) and the combined forces of the Ethiopian National army and the Eritrean army.  “Reports confirm fighting in several locations in Tigray in Southern, Eastern, Western and Central Zones. It has been reported that 90% of the Central Zone is currently under control of Tigray regional forces, where ENDF convoy was reportedly ambushed by Tigray forces.”  EEPA: News Highlights Extra No. 7: Conflict in the Horn  

This echoes the situation during the famine of the 1980s when the then Ethiopian military regime refused to acknowledge the extent of the territory controlled by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front.  This led to the existence of two major relief operations, the official one through the Ethiopian government, and the unofficial operations cross border into Tigray from eastern Sudan, operated by international NGO consortia working with the humanitarian wing of the TPLF.  Many western governments channelled significant funds through these NGO consortia – Ireland channelled funds through consortium member Trocaire – but never publically acknowledged this due to sensitivities over sovereignty issues.  These operations saved hundreds of thousands of lives. 

However, given the agreement reached between the respective Prime Ministers of Sudan and Ethiopia to shut the border with Tigray before the commencement of the current conflict in November, there is no open channel of assistance or prospect of one at this time, leaving large numbers of the civilian population trapped in conflict areas, many of them displaced, with little or no access to food, medical supplies, or shelter.   

The fate of Eritrean refugees who had been based in refugee camps in Tigray, continues to cause great concern.  “The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said satellite imagery showed fires burning and fresh signs of destruction at the Shimelba and Hitsats camps for refugees from neighboring Eritrea which people fled due to political persecution and compulsory military service before the conflict in Tigray.” 

Josep Borrell Fontelles, High Representative of the European Union has spoken out strongly.  “The situation on the ground goes well beyond a purely internal ‘law and order’ operation. We receive consistent reports of ethnic-targeted violence, killings, massive looting, rapes, forceful returns of refugees and possible war crimes. More than 2 million people have been internally displaced. And while people are in dire need of aid, access to the affected region remains limited, which makes it very difficult to deliver humanitarian assistance.”   

Only cessation of hostilities can allow for full humanitarian access but given the adamant refusal of Abey Ahmed and the Ethiopian Government to consider any of the many offers to facilitate negotiations between the two sides, international multilateral institutions need to consider all forms of pressure and intervention to bring this destructive, senseless and utterly unjustifiable war to a close.  

The obsessive focus on complete destruction of TPLF as a party and political force, was further highlighted by the brutal and triumphalist nature of recent killings and captures of members and former members of the TPLF.  Most of these were elderly veterans from the war during the 1970s and 1980s.  Former Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin, Abay Tsehaye, and Asmelash Woldeselassie are widely believed to have been executed after being captured. 

Of the group of captives displayed triumphantly on Ethiopian and social media 8-10 January, only Sebhat Nega, the 86 year old former leader of TPLF, Abay Woldu, and Abrahan Tekeste were included in the list of 64 former and current TPLF members for whom arrest warrants had been issued. The others were mostly retired following public service careers, and had been evacuated to places of safety when Mekelle was coming under attack. They included Abadi Zemo, a former Ethiopian ambassador to Sudan, his wife Heriti, a retired Supreme Court judge, and Teklewoini Asseffa, the Executive Director of an internationally respected relief and development agency.  

This ongoing conflict is not only playing out in the context of an increasing unstable and conflict ridden Ethiopia – with reported conflicts and killings  particularly in Beni Shangul, Oromia, Somalia and Afar regions.  The potential disintegration of Ethiopia combined with the international dimension, including the heavy involvement of Eritrean military in Tigray , the influx of over 50,000 Tigrayan refugees into Sudan, and conflict  between Sudan and Ethiopia over border military incursions and territorial claims,  brings a high risk of significant political and security  destabilisation in the Horn of Africa and more broadly throughout the Red Sea region. Recent reports on the involvement of Somali troops, trained in Eritrea and brought cross border into the war in Tigray, further broadens the regional and international dimensions of this conflict.  Five Reasons Why the UN Security Council Needs to Deal with the Humanitarian Crisis in Ethiopia.”

Dr Fiona Meehan coordinated an international NGO consortium operating cross border from Sudan into Tigray during the Ethiopian famine and civil war in the late 1980s, and then worked directly for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front Foreign Relations Department in the late 1980s. After the end of the war in 1991 she moved to Ethiopia to work with the Relief Society of Tigray (REST), previously the humanitarian wing of the TPLF, for 12 years before returning to Ireland in 2003.  Along with lecturing in development studies, she continued to work as an independent researcher in Ethiopia for REST, Irish Aid and other organisations.  

enquiries to :




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.