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Ethiopia: No End to War in Devastated Tigray
February 8, 2021 (2021-02-08)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
“It feels strange to write about a humanitarian crisis in this day and age with barely any pictures, videos or witness testimonies from the ground. But that is what the situation in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has come to. Since the conflict between the federal government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and the regional government’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), began in November 2020, access to the region has been extremely limited. Internet and telephone connectivity was cut off as soon as the fighting began, disconnecting about 5 million people. Months later, the internet remains down and telephone communication has only been restored in a few main towns. Journalists and human rights monitors are still denied entry and cannot report to the world the full scale of the violence which has left at least hundreds of people dead and more than 470,000 displaced, according to the UN.” - Vanessa Tsehaye, Amnesty International
The war in Tigray has receded from world attention since the open conflict in November of this year.
Cries for peace talks were not heeded, and after conventional battles ended with the withdrawal of TPLF forces from the capital of Tigray, the Ethiopian government declared the war over. But while the character of the war has changed, it is definitely not over. The physical and human destruction continues unchecked behind a curtain of isolation. The priority demand still going unheeded is for full access of humanitarian agencies to the region.
While many details may be in dispute, and analyses of the causes of the war are complex, the reality of continued war and destruction can only be denied by those who willfully want to disregard the evidence.
International attention has focused primarily on the decisions by leaders of the Ethiopian government and the TPLF leading up to open war in November. But the facts on the ground also include the decisive role played by Eritrean forces, which are also still in Tigray and have included Eritrean refugee camps among their targets to be destroyed. Ironically, it was the 2018 peace agreement with Eritrea which led to the Nobel Prize for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. But in retrospect, this agreement appears to have set the stage for the onset of the war in Tigray and a new phase of regional conflict.
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains (1) Links to key websites and articles, with very brief excerpts in some cases, (2) the article quoted above by Vanessa Tsehaye, and (3) the transcript of a telephone conversation by Alex de Waal of the World Peace Foundation with his colleague Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, speaking from the mountains in Tigray.
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Ethiopia, visit
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Sites to watch and recent news on Tigray and the Horn of Africa
The following sites, updated regularly, are good sources of information and analysis on the war in Tigray:
https://www.eepa.be/?page_id=4237 – Conflict in the Horn, Situation Reports (daily)
Recent articles worth noting include the following:
Feb. 5, 2021
“On social media, pro- and anti-government groups continue to vie
for control of the conflict narrative. … Our analysis of over
500,000 tweets related to Tigray helps explain the intensifying
We collected and analyzed tweets between Nov. 4 and Jan. 20 to try
to understand the kinds of information being circulated, and the
effects of different messaging campaigns. We found that both sides
are quick to accuse the other of spreading intentionally false
information — though actual disinformation accounts for a
surprisingly small proportion of tweets about the conflict.”
Feb. 3, 2021
“A conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region could trigger broader
destablization in the country, U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock told the
Security Council on Wednesday as he warned that a dire humanitarian
situation in the north was set to worsen.”
Refugee Camps in Ethiopia Appear to Have Been Systematically Destroyed
Feb. 3, 2021
Ethiopia says Tigray back to normal after conflict but witnesses disagree
AP, January 30, 2021
Witnesses: Eritrean soldiers loot, kill in Ethiopia’s Tigray
AP, January 26, 2021
The Eritrean soldiers’ pockets clinked with stolen jewelry. Warily,
Zenebu watched them try on dresses and other clothing looted from
homes in a town in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region.
“They were focused on trying to take everything of value,” even
diapers, said Zenebu, who arrived home in Colorado this month after
weeks trapped in Tigray, where she had gone to visit her mother. On
the road, she said, trucks were full of boxes addressed to places
in Eritrea for the looted goods to be delivered.
Heartbreakingly worse, she said, Eritrean soldiers went house-to-
house seeking out and killing Tigrayan men and boys, some as young
as 7, then didn’t allow their burials. “They would kill you for
trying, or even crying,” Zenebu told The Associated Press, using
only her first name because relatives remain in Tigray.
Ethiopia re-enters the abyss of war (extensive and well-informed analysis by Kjetil Tronvoll)
Jan. 29, 2021
The Ethiopian federal government’s “law enforcement operation” in
Tigray aimed to capture the rebellious rulers in the northern
regional state. Thus far, however, the core leadership is at large,
and the campaign has further exposed the country’s political
fragility, pushing it into the abyss of a likely long-term war.
Reports of military recruitment and reinforcements sent to the
northern front to battle the rebels are again heard in Ethiopia,
reminiscent of the recurring news headlines of the 1970s and 80s.
With the Tigray war now in its third month, the contours of how a
drawn-out conflict may evolve are emerging.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Ethiopia, other armed insurgencies are
evolving. As conflict lines deepen, pressure increases on the
state’s security forces and capacity. The surge in violence worsens
the dire humanitarian situation across the country, weakens the
economy, and diverts government attention, resources, and funding
from economic development to warring.
Conflict in the Horn, News Highlights Extra
Jan. 28, 2021
Food and water shortages in Tigray
According to Reuters, aid agencies that finally entered the remote
parts of the Tigray region state that people are dying from lack of
healthcare, are suffering food and water shortages, and remain
“terrified”. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) emergency programme
head, Mari Carmen Vinoles, told Reuters that beyond Mekelle and a
handful of cities, there are hardly any healthcare facilities,
meaning people are dying without life-saving treatment for
conditions such as pneumonia or complications of childbirth. Action
Against Hunger’s (AAH) Ethiopia director, Panos Navrozidis, states:
“Central Tigray is a black hole” as aid groups only have access to
certain towns and many of the people are remaining within rural
villages from fear of fighting and are unable to seek food and
medical treatment. The Water Resource Management Bureau of Tigray
has reported that access to clean water in Tigray is at risk due to
“damaged infrastructure, looted offices, stolen equipment and an
inoperative dam.” The Economist reports that signs indicate once
again that hunger is being used as a weapon in Ethiopia. Aid
agencies give an estimate that between 2 and 4.5 million people are
in need of urgent care. Mark Lowcock, the UN’s humanitarian chief,
states that “for more than two months there has been essentially no
access to Tigray. There are 450 tonnes of supplies we’ve been
trying to get in that are stuck.”
Ethiopian government must allow full humanitarian access to Tigray
By Vanessa Tsehaye
February 4, 2021
Despite an agreement with the UN to allow “unimpeded” humanitarian
access, very little aid and very few relief workers have been
Workers at UNICEF Ethiopia preparing supplies to be transported to Tigray. Credit: UNICEF Ethiopia/NahomTesfaye.
It feels strange to write about a humanitarian crisis in this day and age with barely any pictures, videos or witness testimonies from the ground. But that is what the situation in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has come to. Since the conflict between the federal government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and the regional government’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), began in November 2020, access to the region has been extremely limited.
Internet and telephone connectivity was cut off as soon as the fighting began, disconnecting about 5 million people. Months later, the internet remains down and telephone communication has only been restored in a few main towns. Journalists and human rights monitors are still denied entry and cannot report to the world the full scale of the violence which has left at least hundreds of people dead and more than 470,000 displaced, according to the UN.
The conflict in Tigray is being fought in the dark, at the expense
of those who are suffering and desperate for the world to hear and
see their pain.
Despite the information blockade, we know enough to recognise that
the situation in Tigray is dire. Many of the people displaced by
the fighting into neighbouring regions and countries have shared
their accounts of the violence, as well as the hunger, thirst, and
lack of medical supplies for the sick and injured they left behind.
Relief agencies are ready to help, but the Ethiopian government is refusing to allow full humanitarian access to Tigray. When the region was locked down at the start of the conflict, many expected that humanitarian assistance would be an exception. They were sadly proved wrong. International humanitarian law requires that parties to armed conflict allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of impartial humanitarian relief for civilians in need, but humanitarian access to Tigray remained completely blocked for almost a month after the conflict began. In December, the UN announced that an agreement had been reached with the Ethiopian government to allow “unimpeded, sustained and secure access” into the areas under its control. Despite this agreement, access remains highly constrained to date.
Instead of allowing full access, the Ethiopian government introduced two separate approval processes for aid shipments and personnel. These approval processes have been slow, and many requests have been denied. So far, a majority of entry requests for relief workers have been denied too, making it incredibly difficult to distribute the very little aid that has been allowed in. An aid worker with more than 40 years of experience recently said that he had “rarely seen an aid response so impeded”.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis across Tigray is getting worse by the day. The UN recently estimated that 2.3 million people were in immediate need of life-saving assistance. There has been no trade with the region since November and the harvest season has been impacted by the conflict, with crops and equipment destroyed and farmers fleeing from their land. The situation is particularly acute in rural areas where humanitarian access has been even more difficult due to the continued fighting and where banks and markets are still closed. The healthcare system in the region has also largely collapsed.
Tigray borders Eritrea and is home to four refugee camps hosting over 96,000 Eritrean refugees – 44% of whom are children. Two of the camps, Hitsats and Shimelba, have not received any humanitarian assistance since the start of the conflict. One refugee who recently fled Hitsats told Amnesty International: “We were eating leaves from the field and drinking water from the nearby well”. Many refugees have been forced to flee the camps. Some have fled to neighbouring towns, where they are begging for food and sleeping outside. Some fled to the capital Addis Ababa, far from the conflict, but were returned to Tigray against their will by the Ethiopian agency in charge of refugee affairs.
The Ethiopian government declared victory at the end of November
and has claimed that the situation in Tigray is back to normal. The
lack of images, videos and witness testimonies from the ground
makes it easier for them to make such claims and for the world to
turn its focus away from Tigray. This must not be allowed to
continue. People are trapped in an active conflict and suffering
immeasurably – citizens and refugees, Ethiopians and Eritreans
alike. The Ethiopian government must be held to account for
violating international human rights law and humanitarian law by
continuing to block full humanitarian access to Tigray.
You can find out more about the campaign #AllowAccessToTigray to pressure Ethiopian Prime Minister to immediately allow full humanitarian access to Tigray.
“They Have Destroyed Tigray, Literally”: Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Speaks from the Mountains of Tigray
January 29, 2021
[Mulugeta Gebrehiwot is a Senior Fellow at World Peace Foundation
and former Program Director of the WPF African security sector and
peace operations program where he led the project on Peace Missions
Alex de Waal is the Executive Director of the World Peace
Foundation at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts
University. Considered one of the foremost experts on Sudan and the
Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed
humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, HIV/AIDS and
governance in Africa, and conflict and peace-building.]
This is a special podcast from World Peace Foundation on the war in
Tigray, Ethiopia. It is a recording of a phone call from somewhere
in rural Tigray on January 27, in which Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe
spoke with Alex de Waal.
Mulugeta was a member of the TPLF during the guerrilla war from
1975 to 1991, and served in several senior positions in the EPRDF
government from 1991 to 2000. Subsequently he founded the Institute
for Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University, and among
other things initiated the Tana High Level Forum on peace and
security in Africa. Mulugeta is the author of Laying the Past to
Rest: The EPRDF and the Challenges of Ethiopian State-building and
co-author of a recent paper “Nationalism and Self-Determination in
Contemporary Ethiopia,” reviewed recently on this blog.
Mulugeta was in Mekelle in November when the war broke out. He
evacuated from the city to the mountains. This is the first time we
have heard directly from him.
We reproduce the call below exactly as it was without additional
commentary. The recording begins with Mulugeta explaining that the
Tigrayan Defense Forces were unprepared for the onslaught, and yet
managed to inflict a lot of damage on much larger forces.
Listen to the Interview
Because the quality of the recording is poor, we are also providing
27 January 2021 Call between Mulugeta Gebrehiwot and Alex de Waal
[The first minute of the call was not recorded. Mulugeta started by
describing the onset of the war.]
… and the damage it inflicted on the enemies, it’s difficult to
express, it was a sort of miracle. Tigray only had 23 battalions,
and 42 divisions of Eritrea and twelve divisions of Ethiopia, were
all here. This is without including the special forces of the
Amhara region, which is beyond, over 10,000, and also special
forces of Oromia, Somalia, and other forces as well. The first
month’s resistance was with this level of asymmetry.
And then the Emirates came [drones from United Arab Emirates,
operated from Eritrea]. The Emirates effectively disarmed Tigray.
They started killing tanks, then howitzers, then fuel, then
ammunition. Then they started hunting small vehicles, targeting
leaders, [indistinct] all over. This created [unclear: risk?] and
sort of dislocation, and this is part of the weakness of the
preparation. So many people moved out of the cities of Tigray
towards the rural other areas following the army, some including
So, we were caught in between, you know. Are we going to defend
these people who flocked out of the cities with their families or
are we going to fight, I mean the army was caught in between. So,
the organization has to make a decision. You know, it prioritized
continuing the resistance, and then it advised many of us who were
not in active duty in the resistance to remain in some remote
areas which finally resulted in the type of sad news you heard.
You know, the result became—they have destroyed Tigray, literally,
all of them, EPLF [Eritrean People's Liberation Front], the
Eritrean forces and the Ethiopian forces. They literally destroyed
all the wealth that it had accumulated for thirty years, and
burned schools, clinics, they have ransacked each house. They
moved in. They have started looting the produce of the peasants,
from all the villages beyond the black road that crosses Tigray
towards Eritrea. And they kill whomever they find in whichever
village they get in. In the village I was in yesterday—it’s a small
village— they killed 21 people, out of which seven of them were
priests of that small village.
And that’s what they do, wherever they go. So they literally
destroyed the wealth we accumulated for thirty years in Tigray.
And, no peasant is staying at home when these forces move around,
and therefore we can consider the whole Tigrayan peasantry as
It’s an effective destruction of Tigray but that’s not the only
thing. It’s also an effective destruction of Ethiopian defense
forces. Ethiopia has remained without an army now. Our evaluation
initially reduced the Ethiopian army by [to?] about 85 percent.
Seventeen percent of the army was immediately reduced by Abiy
because 17 percent of them were Tigrayans.
They were torn out of their ranks, put in camps like Dedessa [etc.]
under custody 17,000 Tigrayans. So, that was literally
approximately 20 percent. And this is not only numbers, but its
also critically—a critical part of the army, mid-level commanders,
most of the technicians, and also, you know, skilled people who
used to work in artillery, engineering, and all sorts of
departments. And they literally lost something like 60 percent of
[indistinct, call breaks] …they sent the commanders of the
Eritrean forces, which they were just using as cannon fodders, you
know, they send them first, and then once they’re finished, they
start sending their army. So, Ethiopia is effectively without an
army now. If the Eritrean forces left Tigray…
[BREAK IN CALL]
[The call resumed with Mulugeta saying that if the Eritrean forces
left Tigray, the Ethiopian army would not be able to stay there,
even for a few days. The recording resumes:]
Alex: Tell me, what is the condition of the people? Are you able to
eat? Do you have any medical facilities? What are the essentials
Mulugeta: Not much. You know, there has been this locust
infestation, and the harvest also much interrupted because of the
war. The crisis started at the beginning of the harvest period,
and particularly, the Eritrean forces have deliberately burned
crops while they are on the ground or before the harvesting is
completed. So there is a reduction of produce as well. The [aid]
logistics that was prepared initially by the government was
disrupted, so there are drops, these problems of supplies, food,
medicine, and so forth. Hunger, among peasantry, is crippling
[indistinct] in those remote areas, bordering areas Eritrea. They
are massively, massively ransacked by the Eritrean army. Whatever
produce they have is taken by them. So, it’s tight. Soon, we might
see a serious humanitarian crisis.
A: The government is saying it controls 85 percent of the access,
and that it can provide humanitarian access to the great majority
of people. Is that correct, do you think?
M: The great majority of people. Even the government, even the
humanitarian organizations, are estimating the people who need
food to around 4.5 million. That’s even conservative.
A: And how many of those people can be accessed from the
government’s side, and how many of them are in areas that are
controlled by Tigray forces?
M: Literally people on the towns of the main road. Because there is
conflict all over. You know, a certain part of people, or the
southern part of Tigray, around Maychew or Alamata… the rest of it
is not accessible for humanitarian aid, unless some arrangement
can be made. [Until] some sort of preliminary agreement to allow
humanitarian assistance to [indistinct] has been reached, I don’t
think a majority of Tigray is accessible to any humanitarian aid
that comes through the government.
A: But we are not hearing anything—we have heard nothing from the
TPLF leadership about what—
M: I know, that’s a major problem we have. They’re just dislocated,
and [sighs], that’s a critical impediment, we know that.
A: Because—as you might have heard today, well yesterday—the [U.S.]
State Department demanded, first of all the withdrawal of Eritrean
forces, but then also said there needed to be talks towards a
political resolution. But how can any talks be conducted under the
M: I think they’re in contact through telephone with some people
there, but I don’t really understand why they shy away from coming
public and talking publicly. I know there is a limitation of
communication. They have lost their V-SATs, they only have these
Thurayas, and they’ve really been without any radio transmitter.
They brought a television station, which was not possible to run
it without having a permanent base. I know that there is this
limitation of communication, but the problem they have is more
than that. I am telling them, people are telling them, we hope
that they will soon come out and start being public. It’s even a
problem here in Tigray.
A: Because also we are not hearing anything about any political
demands. I mean, what is the agenda, what is the political
program? I mean if there were to be negotiations, where would be
the starting point? We don’t know any of this at the moment.
M: Yeah. I know.
A: Anyway, just the news we get every day is so desperately sad. I
think many people were shocked, especially by the news of the
deaths of Seyoum and Abay and Asmalesh. I think that touched a lot
of people around the world. As you may know, I wrote a tribute to
Seyoum, which was widely circulated, but we still don’t know
anything about the circumstances. Did you learn anything about
M: They just found them in a village. They were staying in a
village, and they didn’t have an army. They were just in a
secluded area. They caught and killed them. It was the EPLF that
A: So, this story about a shootout, et cetera, is not—
M: No, no, no. It’s completely rubbish. You know, they, the TPLF
could have done so many things had they forecasted that level of
violence which was not difficult to forecast. You know, it was
very obvious that this war would be a war against Tigray, which
Abiy is going to run alongside Isaias. And once you expect Isaias,
you shouldn’t expect it to come less than any devastating force it
could mobilize. Therefore, for those who will not have participated
in active resistance in the field on the military side, there were
lots of options. You know, moving them to Sudan or someehere else.
So many things could have been done, but there were no
preparations at all.
A: It seems there was just a terrible miscalculation about this,
and no political strategy, no communications strategy, no
M: Not at all, yeah, not at all. Extremely poor. People were
begging them. They didn’t have any [indistinct]. People were
literally coming up with plans and asking them do this, do that.
But they brought Tigray to their size anyway, what can we say.
A: The mood of the people now must be desperate, angry.
M: Angry, angry, extremely angry, extremely angry. They are left
with one option: just fighting. And the war is only beginning.
It’s the same in the urban centers, and much worse in the rural
areas. Wherever you go, you get dozens of youngsters asking you to
be mobilized, to be trained and armed. The TPLF doesn’t have any
shortage of manpower when it wants to mobilize. So it’s anger, and
they’re left without option, with that option only, they don’t have
They [i.e. Ethiopian and Eritrean forces] are not even [indistinct]
they’re not trying to appease them, they’re not trying to get the
buy-in of the people. They’re not attempting anything. They’re
just out here, and it’s literally genocide by decree. Wherever
they’re moving, whomever they find, they kill him or her. [It’s]
an old man, a child, a nursing woman, or anything.
A: The stories we’ve been hearing most recently are especially that
it’s the Eritreans. Is it everybody, or is particularly the
M: It’s everybody, but the worst ones are the Eritrean forces.
A: So tell us, are you able to remain abreast of how this has been
covered by the rest of the world? Are you able to pick up anything
from the news, from the radio, from internet sites or anything?
M: Yeah, I have an old radio transistor which I bought it from a
militia [laughs]. That’s what connects me to the rest of the
A: It’s back to those old days.
M: It’s extremely difficult. Sometimes the battery gets, you run
out of battery and therefore run out of communication for two,
three days. It’s difficult.
A: So, we have been doing our best to just draw attention to what’s
been going on, because as you know, there was an attempt to have
this war conducted in conditions of total secrecy, and even to
pretend that it was not a war. There was the U.S. administration,
the last one, was very much complicit in that. The African Union
completely failed. But the news is now coming out.
M: Everything is fine. But one thing is you could push more on this
humanitarian intervention. There has to be either some sort of
And the Eritrean forces will remain here. They had a meeting last
week, it’s some information we got from them, among the senior
commanders of the army. There was a request from some of the army
commanders on how long they are going to stay in Tigray. The
response they gave them was, “Once we leave Tigray, PP [Prosperity
Party] will not stay for one week in Tigray, and therefore we will
leave Tigray to Woyane [TPLF] again and it will revive. And
therefore, we have to remain there up until PP can pick it up which
might take several months to come back.” That’s the answer that
they gave them.
And therefore, this declaration from State Department—it might even
come later from the UN Security Council—might not force the
Eritreans to leave Tigray, unless it is supported, either with
some humanitarian intervention, as much as they did in Kosovo,
some armed intervention that reinforces things, or at least some
sort of monitoring on the ground.
A: What about the Emirates? You mentioned the Emirates. Presumably,
you meant the drones?
M: Yeah. Now we don’t have any targets. We don’t have tanks. We
don’t have [indistinct]. We are not big targets. We are just human
beings moving around. I think that’s the only thing that brought
it [i.e. the recent decline in drone attacks]. Otherwise, they
have been here in full force, in just full force. They deployed
their drones with their operators, and they’re the ones who
effectively disarmed us.
A: There was one thing that I didn’t quite catch earlier on. You
said the Eritreans would stay until something had been achieved.
What is the Eritrean war aim, as you see it?
M: They don’t know when PP will stand on its foot to fight against
Tigray. That’s what they’re saying. They’re saying we have to stay
there until PP comes up in a position to fight against the
Woyanes. That’s what they’re saying. They don’t know when it will
happen. It will never happen, actually. They way I see it, it will
not happen here. It might not even happen in the rest of Eritrea.
We’re seeing them in the field. Wherever confronted…
You might have heard of a small operation that happened two weeks
ago around Edaga Harbi. There was a full brigade, support brigade
of the 33rd division, which was fully mechanized, a support brigade
is a mechanized support to the rest of the division. It only took
15 minutes to destroy it. In 15 minutes, six 107mm rocket launchers
were taken, six 120mm mortars were taken, four 122 howitzers were
taken, several vehicles were taken, and 167 of them were taken
prisoners, in just 15 minutes.
A: What is happening to these prisoners of war? Where are they
being kept? How are they being kept?
M: We sent them back. We can not carry them around. What we did
was, we gave them a sort of political education for two, three
days, and then we sent them back to Mekelle and Adigrat. It’s only
the commanders—one colonel, one lieutenant colonel—who declined to
return back. They said, “they will kill us, so we will remain with
you.” We told them, “you cannot be our soldiers, and that’s not
what you are asking us, and we shall not provide you shelter, but
you can remain in the liberated areas.” So, they are just moving
So that’s where we are Alex.
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