Humanitarian disaster in Tigray, northern Ethiopia

Eritrea Ethiopia Opinion Tigray

( By Professor Jan Nyssen, 24 January 2021) –

Watch this one: We are the world – “a new song“: these Tigrayan diaspora kids summarise the issues at stake and sing to stop the war in Tigray! Please forward this message to your friends and colleagues and invite them to also sign our appeal.

The situation in Tigray is so bad, as you will read below….


  1. Starvation in Tigray
  2. The Aksum massacre
  3. Sexual violence
  4. Mekelle
  5. Eritrean refugees in Tigray
  6. Destruction of religious and cultural heritage
  7. International dimensions
  8. Opinion pieces
  9. In the media

1.Starvation in Tigray

The leaked minutes of the 8 January meeting of the Tigray Emergency Coordination Centre report (see our previous circular) has well found its way in the media, such as Washington Post: ‘Extreme urgent need’: Starvation haunts Ethiopia’s Tigray. The journalist triangulated the information of the report with several international NGOs.

And that concerned the situation discussed on 8 January. Two weeks later it is much worse, even. There are no operating mills so villagers can’t make bread or tayta (fermented flatbread, also called injera); people are living on roasted barley and whatever else they can find. Traditional grinding of grain is between two stones shaped for that purpose, but many homesteads do not have such stones anymore, and certainly not the numerous IDPs. Two eyewitnesses tell us that people go to bushlands and collect branches and leaves of non-toxic thirst-quenching plants in order to have at least something in their stomach. Such as ሀሆት [hehot] (sorrel or Rumex nervosus) for instance. In places there are even no more matches available to light a fire for cooking.

We hear similar stories from Hawzien and Gheralta, where there is ongoing warfare, lots of looting, and damage to some of the historical rock-hewn churches. The army focuses on every younger man, even in civilian clothes, as they are suspected to be a TDF (Tigray Defence Forces) guerilla fighter.

Eyewitnesses in Adigrat, where intermittent telephone communications are possible now, tell that the men have fled to the mountains for fear of being killed. They shelter in caves, gorges and forests, but not in churches because those are not considered safe anymore. From there, many join the TDF army. A Tigrayan in Belgium mentions that he expects many friends and relatives have been killed. But it’s a culture in Tigray not to tell death of relatives to someone overseas. Yet, some are now preferring to inform so that people don’t face shocking social media posts reporting a friend or relative to have been killed. For instance, another Tigrayan student in Belgium learnt that there have been large massacres in their village with an uncle and two cousins killed.

The student concludes: “I am overdosed with worries for my friends or relatives. A stronger worry is now for the society at large!”

The situation is well summarised by The Economist, 21/1/2021: Ethiopia’s government appears to be wielding hunger as a weapon, and a second article on 22/1/2022: After two months of war, Tigray faces starvation. Besides the huge obstacles to deliver aid, at least part of it seems also to be forwarded to the Eritrean army, which has been spotted supervising the unloading in Shire for instance.

On 15 January, EU commissioner Josep Borrell stated: “I have passed a clear message to the Ethiopian leadership: we are ready to help, but unless there is access for humanitarian aid operators, the EU cannot disburse the planned budget support to the Ethiopian government.”.

Borrells statement is reworded by the Ethiopian authorities as follows: “Both the Deputy Prime Minister and the High Representative have agreed to continue to work closely to scale-up the efforts in the provision of humanitarian assistance in the region and strengthen the closer collaboration between Ethiopian and the European Union.”

The EU is also to dispatch a humanitarian negotiator to Ethiopia after budget-aid suspension. We should stress that this is not about development aid, but a lump sum that is a direct contribution to the Ethiopian government’s budget. The government is lacking financial resources due to this war, as is also evidenced by the fact that all over the country government employees’ salary is reduced by 30% in order to fund the war. The sooner the war stops, the better for all people of Ethiopia who are facing inflation, soldiers killed, and salary cuts

Personally, ever since I started carrying out research in Tigray in 1994, I observed that the fight against famine was a major priority; with many colleagues we tried to contribute to this through studies and projects for environmental conservation. Now we are back “there”!

2. The Aksum massacre

Through short phone calls (people are afraid to speak on the phone) with friends who came from Aksum to Mekelle, the information that people got killed at Maryam Tsiyon, the most important church of Ethiopian Christianity, is confirmed. People were separately engaged in collecting dead bodies from different areas and buried them hastily.

An interview has been published on YouTube with a traumatised witness regarding the Aksum massacre. It’s an 80 minutes phone interview in Amharic with a U.S. resident of Ethiopian origin. She witnessed the murders in Aksum, was evacuated as a foreign national and is now in the U.S.A. She went to Aksum to visit the church. She says the killings committed by Eritrean forces were not only in the church but also random shootings in the streets, in shops, in homes. She says that nearby villages have also been the subject of similar shootings. She is clearly moved and traumatised (cf. 18′). The interview goes a little bit in all directions. The interviewer tries to focus the interviewee’s remarks on the chronology, on the establishing of the facts she experienced, which she witnessed.

A translation of the interview to English has been published by

Videos are now also emerging of the shelling of Wuqro between 22 and 27 November, in which 300 civilians perished: and

We note that such films took two months to emerge. At least people managed to salvage the documentation, despite efforts of the army to confiscate mobile phones and erase documentation.

The Chinese website comes with full details on how Chinese-made armed drones carried out these and other bombings on Tigrayan towns and defence forces. The drones were directly deployed by the United Arab Emirates, from their base in Assab (Eritrea). The EEPA Situation Report No. 64 (23 January 2021) provides a summary of the Chinese article.

3. Sexual violence

Evidence of rape is increasingly reported, such as in Bistandsaktuelt: Kvinne i Tigray, Etiopia: – Jeg ble plyndret, andre ble drept [in Norwegian]: “This is what Eritrean soldiers usually do, when you do not want to give them your belongings. They shoot you down on the spot. Soldiers from the Ethiopian army (ENDF) do not loot. But they do rape. They rape women in front of their husbands.” And also Reuters (22 January): ‘Choose – I kill you or rape you’: abuse accusations surge in Ethiopia’s war.

Internationally, this is taken very seriously: the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Pramila Patten, urges all parties to prohibit the use of sexual violence and cease hostilities in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. (21 January 2021)

A summary of the statement (source: In an extremely worrisome report, United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Pramila Patten states growing concern and increasing incidents of mass rape in Tigray. We will detail some of what is said. It is very disturbing.

Ms. Patten states that very serious allegations of rape are being reported especially in Mekelle. The UN has heard that military elements are forcing women to trade sex for basic commodities (food, water, toiletries). And that there is an increased demand for contraceptives.

On top of women being forced into prostitution, there are serious allegations that men have been forced to rape family members under threat of violence.

In addition to the aforementioned sexual crimes, the UN is receiving numerous reports of Eritrean refugee camps suffering an increasing number of rapes against women and girls. 5000 Eritrean refugees have made their way to Shire and are sleeping rough to avoid abuse.

The UN calls for an immediate end to sexual violence and demands free access to all sections of Tigray in order to provide aid to those in need and also bring perpetrators of rape to justice.

4. Mekelle

On the telephone, one friend could confirm that things are getting a little better in Mekelle. Banks have opened, cafes and hotels are opening slowly. Civil servants have started to get back to work despite not receiving regular salaries. There has also been food assistance to around 70,000 people through tabya (sub-district) offices (30 kg wheat per person + oil). Out of Mekelle, it is much as before with nothing of everything. He said he had heard that electricity had been restored the last days to Shire and Axum (Adigrat two weeks ago). But that there is still not any telephone connection outside of Mekelle and recently Adigrat.

When people go to Mekelle, often on foot, they interact with a flexible politico-military environment. For instance, a town like Adwa nominally under ENDF control, has no administrative bodies; it can be 3-4 days without presence of military. The villages surrounding the town are a kind of no-man’s land. The army is not there, but an Eritrean or ENDF military unit may decide to go for terrorising a village or for looting. People then again move further into areas without roads. Some 20-25 km away from the town they will feel safe. The Tigray forces are there and the army cannot come. Such places count a lot of IDPs who moved there to be safe from Ethiopian and Eritrean armies. When approaching Mekelle, the army is again occasionally present, with the city fully under control of ENDF and Eritrean soldiers.

When telephoning Mekelle, we hear about daily killings by shooting. Military sometimes also rob people’s money and mobile phones at gunpoint. Among many others, Journalist Dawit Kebede (Tigray TV) has been shot dead in Mekelle, together with his lawyer, upon release from police custody.

5. Eritrean refugees in Tigray

A colleague has managed to talk with one Eritrean refugee who came with his wife from Shemelba refugee camp in Tigray to Addis Ababa by bus on Saturday 16 January, as well as with another Eritrean refugee who arrived in Addis the same day from Hitsats camp. It seems there is nothing left of these two refugees camps after being looted and basically destroyed, as also documented by analysis of satellite imagery. The refugees have relocated to the two camps around May Tsebri (Adi Harush and May Ayni), or traveled to Addis Ababa or other places where they feel more safe. First, Eritrean soldiers came and tried to take those who were wanted by the Eritrean government for political reasons and eventually sent them back to Eritrea. Afterwards Tigrayan militia groups chased the Eritrean soldiers out. Several refugees were killed in these different skirmishes. He said he had never been so afraid in all his life. They had not had any food rations for 2-3 months. “We ate what we could find, even plants and leaves”, he said. On the travel to Addis, they had to pay much more than normal bus fare prices for the trip: 200 Birr from Sheleba to Shire, 1000 from Shire to Mekelle, and 1500 from Mekelle to Addis – per person.

There is also very strong language from UNHCR boss Filipo Grandi on the lack of access to the Shimelba and Hintsas refugee camps.

6. Destruction of religious and cultural heritage

Besides Aksum and many other churches in Tigray, the EEPA report for 14 January states that the 6th century monastery of Debre Damo was bombed using heavy artillery and looted by Eritrean troops. Also more detailed information is emerging on artefacts stolen from Negash mosque.

The researchers and fellows of the Hiob Ludolf Centre for Ethiopian and Eritrean Studies at Hamburg University have launched an appeal for the salvation of the cultural heritage of Tigray.

The Telegraph notes on 17/1/2021: Churches and mosques in Tigray ‘vandalised and looted’ in Ethiopian purge.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is silent on these destructions of its own churches. Patriarch Abune Mathias is reportedly not allowed to issue statements. An Ethiopian Catholic Church delegation visited its diocese in Adigrat, reporting damages to churches; buildings of Wukro St. Mary’s Catholic College have been broken and looted, with computers stolen. At their meeting with the interim administration, government officials said 4.5 million people needed emergency support all over Tigray.

7. International dimensions

The border conflict between Ethiopia and Sudan for the Al-Fashaga triangle continues, with Sudan now controlling most of the area. Fighting is ongoing and Sudantribune [in Arabic] mentions the participation of Eritrean soldiers on the side of the Ethiopian army. Besides the Tigray war, the approximate controlled areas of this border war are also mapped by the Ethiopia Map team, with many uncertainties).

Filling and operation of the GERD reservoir on the Blue Nile are another major source of conflict between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, that has flared up since the Ethiopian army became stretched and weakened due to the war against Tigray.

Somalian mothers are protesting because they fear for their sons who had been sent to Eritrea for military training. Reportedly the Somali soldiers have been taken to fight in Tigray, where some got killed.

Diplomatic sources mention that there is a risk for an outright regional war in the Horn, involving Ethiopia and all neighbouring countrie

8. Opinion pieces

9. In the media


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