Allow immediate full access to humanitarian aid to stop starvation in war-affected Tigray

Eritrea Ethiopia Opinion Tigray

(Source: By Jan Nyssen, 23 February 2021) –

In the last days, two international media outlets have published impressive reports on gross war crimes in Tigray:

Ethiopian president Sahlework Zewdie published a worrisome statement about the war crimes in Tigray ( ): “we cannot pretend we do not see or hear what is unfolding”. The statement is late and minimalistic. Yet, in diplomatic terms – coming from the President of a country – this is unusual strong language clearly directed towards those ministers of the Ethiopian Government who are still in “full denial” mode.

In this newsletter, we especially try to unravel the status of the HUMANITARIAN AID TO TIGRAY.

  1. Accessibility according to UN OCHA
  2. Accessibility according to the Tigray interim government, appointed by PM Abiy Ahmed
  3. Aid distribution according to the Ethiopian Ministry of Peace
  4. Dysfunctional aid distribution
  5. From the side of the receivers
  6. Outlook: The Tigray war may lead to another failed harvest in the next season
  7. In the media
  8. Opinion pieces

1. Accessibility according to UN OCH

UN OCHA Tigray region humanitarian update, 12 February 2021: “Inside Tigray, more partners have been able to operate along the main road from Alamata to Shire and are working to scaleup their response in Adigrat, Axum, Adwa and Shire, which are currently accessible locations. While very few partners, such as Action Against Hunger and World Vision International, have been able to access small towns off the main road, including Abiy Adi, Hagere Selam and Samre, access to rural areas remains an acute challenge.”

2. Accessibility according to the Tigray interim government, appointed by PM Abiy Ahmed

Voice of America Tigrinya, 12 February 2021: Interview of Ms Etenesh Nigussie, head of communication affairs for the “Tigray Interim Adminstration”, that is the local government appointed by PM Abiy Ahmed.

VoA: The federal government and the Interim Administration of Tigray are not willing to open a humanitarian corridor for two thirds or Tigray. Why is your administration not willing to open this corridor?

Etenesh Nigussie (EN): There are many challenges to transport food aid. For example, lorry drivers are not willing to go to many areas due to security problems. Now, we found some willing lorry drivers and food aid is on the way to the areas in need. However, we still have a security problem. As you know, Eritrean troops are in Tigray and they loot the aid during transportation. So, food aid is not reaching the people in need. This is the main challenge.

VoA: Have you ever issued a press release regarding the presence of Eritrean troops and the Amhara militia? Have you ever demanded those forces to pull out from Tigray.

EN: Regarding this, we always get questions and we try to give an answer. The Eritrean troops and Amhara militia must pull out from Tigray. The interim administration is doing its best. The presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray is the biggest challenge we have now.

VoA: However, OTNAA [an opposition party in Tigray] is asking the interim administration to pressure the federal government to withdraw Eritrean troops and Amhara militias from Tigray, and they alert the international community.

EN: That is great. We are working on it and we will continue working on it.

3. Aid distribution according to the Ethiopian Ministry of Peace

On 13 February, the Ministry of Peace of Ethiopia distributed a list of 32 woredas in Tigray where food aid would have been distributed. ( ) Those who are familiar with the names of the 88 existing woredas and town administrations in Tigray, noted that this list comprises strongly modified names, amharanised names, duplicates, towns and woreda names mixed up. We have reconstituted the MoP list, matched it with actual woredas – except for one woreda name (“Dro”) out of which we really could not make anything.

In the attached map, the hatched woredas are those that supposedly received the aid reported by MoP. In most of these woredas, only a part is controlled by the ENDF and its allies, along the roads, and if all went well, one or a few distributions would have taken place in towns along the roads. That does not necessarily mean that most of the aid really reached the intended beneficiaries – see below. Other woredas where aid was dispatched are on the Eritrean border. Further, and particularly south of Adwa-Axum, aid would have been sent to woredas that are totally not under government control; one may presume that it has been diverted somewhere…

Sources used for map preparation – thanks to the dedicated cartographer!

4. Dysfunctional aid distribution

Reminder: dissolution of TDA and REST boards

On 8 February, the Ethiopian government officially dissolved the boards of the two largest local NGOs in Tigray, which are largely trusted by people in the region (see Situation Report EEPA Horn No. 80, 09 February 2021).  The Tigray Development Association (TDA) and the Relief Society of Tigray (REST) will now formally be governed by ‘a caretaker administrative board’

Functioning of aid distribution

On our request, a senior Tigrayan activist contacted people on the ground and provided this report on the functioning of aid distribution:

“One of the big problems is the absence of structures to reach out the needy. The Relief Society of Tigray (REST) was the main organised institution for this, but REST is now having a lot of problems:

  • Its’ management is interim and the board members have been replaced; Amharas are dominating the board now.
  • REST’s 33 warehouses in various woredas (7,000 – 10,000 Qt. capacity) are destroyed.
  • 11 offices looted.
  • 70 trucks and vehicles taken away as part of the overall looting from the region.
  • Other Tigray-based NGOs are forced to defame REST.

Having all these problems, REST’s hands are tied.

But, USAID and CRF want to deliver aid through REST, aiming at reaching 1.3 million people.

So, they are trying their best. But internet connection made them incapable to communicate with their foreign partners.

They continue trying to directly deliver aid to the needy, after the consultation of elders and others.

There are logistics problems and people at the interim administration or the military aren’t willing to help them.

As there is no stable local administration in the woredas as well, it is hard to deliver aid.

USAID is now forcing the federal government for going themselves down the level of tabyas (sub-districts), as well as woredas far from the main roads to deliver aid.

If REST is having hard time in reaching out to the public with its existing structures, it is almost impossible for others.

“The others, like WFP, are trying to use the interim administration and the elders assigned by them, but the military is intervening in the process, making it impossible to deliver aid. Military vehicles have been requisitioned for aid delivery. The military are taking much of the aid and together with the interim administration boys, they sell it to flour factories, rather than bringing it to the needy.”

“The military have a clear intention, sometimes speak it out loudly, to starve the public to punish them and then to make the TDF surrender.”

Witness from within a local NGO

A staff member of a major local NGO: “With our NGO, we have shifted back from development activities to humanitarian assistance, because Ethiopia is attacking us so badly. Food aid is only provided to towns and villages along the main roads, not to the rural areas. We are responsible for transporting food aid in bulk, but we do not distribute it directly to the beneficiaries. The names of beneficiaries and quantities are decided by others. We have no control, no decision. If somebody wants to be a member of the Prosperity Party (PP), they give him quintals and quintals of grain. The poor get nothing. Those who manage to collect a lot of food aid sell it on the black market later on.”

“We went to bring food aid to a town in a woreda (district) that is fully controlled by the Eritrean army. All the food aid that we brought was taken by the Eritrean soldiers. I was so sad. On that occasion, I discussed with some farmers. They told me that the Eritreans took everything. They took all medicines from the hospital and sent it to their country. Over there, the people are so suffering. People there die from the smallest thing.”

5. From the side of the receivers

Testimonies on aid to the war-affected population, as published in our earlier paper “What happens with the limited volumes of food aid that are sent to Tigray?”

1. Shire

Notes based on a telephone call: “The initial wheat aid distribution was in December. Distribution was handled by the Ethiopian government, and the aid did not get to all of Shire’s residents. Furthermore, those that were given 7 kg of wheat were required to sign for 15 kg. If they refused to sign for 15 kg they were denied the 7 kg. It’s important to emphasize that there was no electricity. Hence, no way of grinding the grain. During this period, he told me that three young men that were displaced, taking shelter outside the warehouse, were killed after they were accused of stealing wheat, which was impossible as these boys didn’t have a place to stay at and no means to prepare the wheat.”

“Second week of February, USAID labeled aid trucks have begun to arrive and people have been given 1 liter of cooking oil and 3 kg of split peas, and around 15 kg wheat per person. There is gross shortage of food in Shire! People have to sell all they have at low prices to be able to buy food; folks are literally starving to death.”

2. IDPs in Shire

There are currently around 80 000 displaced Tigrayans in Shire, spread across three different schools. In January 2021, at Aksum University’s Shire Campus, there were more than 40 000 displaced Tigrayans. See the report on internally displaced persons in Shire. The others are in the Shire Preparatory School and the Primary School. Amongst the displaced at Aksum Uni’s Shire campus are pregnant women, elderly, children and many sick people needing medical attention. Notes from telephone call: “The wheat aid given to the displaced was 15 kg for each. The staff handed out wheat until 6 PM, until their workday was done. The next day as folks lined up early in the morning they told them the wheat was stolen and used that excuse to not give more wheat. He says that there is ample evidence that all the remaining wheat was transported to Eritrea by the Eritrean soldiers.”

“In January, the same aid people arrived in Shire. This time they were handing 30 kg wheat grains per person, only to the IDPs and none to the residents of the town. The IDPs were told the 30 kg wheat was to last for next two months and to not expect any more for these next two months.”

3. Addi Da’iro

Notes from telephone call: “Residents were denied food aid after the town’s inhabitants refused to appoint PP officials as administrators. The residents demanded the evacuation of Eritrean soldiers instead.”

4. Aksum

“I heard there has been food aid of 15 kilogram of grain per family, and only once. Neither I, nor my relatives have received aid. I am not so sure about how many families received that 15 kilogram of food aid. How many days would that last? Who takes the rest? Of course, the Eritreans?”

5. Adwa

“Last time, they made us sign 15 kg while giving only 7 kg”.

6. Adigrat

“They registered us four times saying they will give aid but none was given. We think that the people who register us are taking the grain for themselves and resell it.”

7. Irob

A witness, from Irob woreda (extreme northeast of Tigray) mentioned to Associated Press that Ethiopian authorities are withholding food aid from families suspected of links to Tigray fighters: “If you don’t bring your father, your brothers, you don’t get the aid, you’ll starve” (Associated Press, 12 February 2021: ‘We’ll be left without families’: Fear in Ethiopia’s Tigray).

8. Hagere Selam

“Mostly transport to and from Mekelle is possible. The road is closed from time to time when battles occur in nearby areas. Here, food aid distribution has started, 25 kilogram of grain per person. But it has been interrupted; I don’t know the reason. The aid was brought by the Relief Society of Tigray. It was distributed by the appointed district administrator, under supervision of the army. The new administrator is not dedicated at all, he is afraid of the situation. People do not like him because he works with the soldiers.” He stresses: “The administrator is not good, we do not like him; we are waiting for Woyane to come back.” Woyane is a generic name for Tigray resistance and the Tigray government.

9. Addishuhu (Imba Alaje woreda)

“They distributed 15 kilogrammes of grain per person, only once, and no oil and beans.”

10. Yechila

“They only distributed 15 kg of grain per person in Yechilla, no oil and beans. All other places in Abergele woreda didn’t get any aid.”

10. Mekelle

“Some people that I know received food aid and they only got 8 kg of wheat and expired corn flour, the so-called fafa.”

11. Rural areas, away from the road

Largely: no information from rural dwellers, there is no network. Several urban people told us: food aid only comes to towns and large villages along the main roads, in minimal amounts; they do not bring it to the rural areas, and they do not call the people from the rural areas to collect it in town.

Mekelle business community: “there is no humanitarian access outside Mekelle, civilians being killed… why should those so called elders and religious leaders from Addis appear in Mekelle? Tigray is not only Mekelle.”

6. Outlook: The Tiray war may lead to another failed harvest in the next season

We received the transcript of a second telephone contact with Mulugeta Gebrehiwot (“Chaltu”); as narrated by Alex de Waal (whose earlier call with Mulugeta was recorded), Mulugeta joined the TPLF in 1976 and later became a Senior Fellow of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University in the USA. At the outbreak of the war he chose to evacuate from Mekelle to one of the remoter woredas. In his recent call, Mulugeta expressed his worries for the coming growing season. Indeed, a cropping season needs to be well prepared. Farmers have modernised a lot over the last decades, they work with fertiliser and selected seed, get advice from the Office of Agriculture. Mulugeta: “If all this is not in place, if people are forced to consume also the grain that is normally conserved as seed, how can they sow in the next cropping season? Will they have oxen for ploughing?” He described what is happening now: “If the marauding army can’t take the stored grain, they pour water on it to make it inedible; they slaughter the oxen and then just take one leg for meat and leave the rest to rot. Farmers are used to work with the Dedebit Microfinance bank; that institution is not operational anymore. Nobody can take loans, they can even not access their own money that is at Dedebit bank.”

Mulugeta gives us a further insight in the life in Tigray’s mountains: “I have never seen rural areas mobilized like this. The army left them with only one option: to resist. Away from the towns, the people are creating new administrative structures of their own. Farmers express their hope that the war should be over before kremti, otherwise there will be huge famine and starvation next year”.

Kremti is the main rainy season in Tigray, starting in June when all farming activities take place. If the war continues, there will be low inputs on farms during kremti, and this will lead directly to crop failure at the end of the year.

7. Ethiopian president Sahlework Zewdie published a worrisome statement about the war crimes in Tigray

8. In the media

9. Opinion pieces


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