Starvation ‘used as weapon of war’ in Ethiopia

Eritrea Ethiopia Tigray

(Source: The Telegraph,

Exclusive: UN humanitarian chief warns ‘dire situation’ will repeat famine of four decades ago unless immediate ceasefire agreed

Tigrayan families in a classroom where they now live at the Hadnet General Secondary School in Mekele, which has become a makeshift home to thousands

Ethiopia is on course to suffer a famine last seen in the 1980s, when mass starvation killed about a million people, the United Nation’s humanitarian chief has warned.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Telegraph, Mark Lowcock implored warring parties in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray Region to agree to an immediate ceasefire or face one of the greatest tragedies of this century.

“People need to wake up,” he said. “There is now a risk of a loss of life running into the hundreds of thousands or worse.

“Businesses have been destroyed. The economy has been destroyed. Crops have been destroyed. Farms have been destroyed. There are no banking services anymore; there are no telecommunications services anymore.”

Mr Lowcock said food aid was being blocked in particular by Eritrean forces also operating in Tigray, saying starvation was being used as a weapon of war.

“We are hearing of starvation-related deaths already,” he said. “The access [for aid workers] is not there because of what men with guns and bombs are doing and what their political masters are telling them to do.”

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator
‘People remember that powerful BBC report from the 1980s’: UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock CREDIT: Jamie Lorriman

The cry for action comes after the World Food Programme said that 90 per cent of Tigray’s six million people needed emergency food aid, a staggering statistic even by the standards of the world’s most hellish conflict zones.

In the past week, the UK, the US, Canada, France and Germany have presented a united diplomatic front pushing for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and full access for aid groups to avert the coming disaster. But despite the proliferation of accounts of appalling atrocities against civilians, both the UN Security Council and the African Union have yet to take a firm stance on Tigray.

In the 1980s, Ethiopia’s Marxist dictatorship fought a scorched earth campaign against guerrilla fighters in the country’s rugged north. The conflict combined with record low rains to create a famine that killed hundreds of thousands.

Starving children in 1984 famine
Starvation: Hundreds of thousands perished in the 1984 famineCREDIT: Keystone/Getty Images

Michael Buerk’s landmark BBC report showing children’s emaciated bodies being carried in cloth sacks shocked the world, and led to Bob Geldof creating LiveAid and a vast outpouring of international donations.  After the famine, the vast East African nation of 110 million people roared forward, becoming one of the most promising economies in sub-Saharan Africa.

But for the past six months, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and allied ethnic Amhara militias have been battling forces loyal to the Tigrayan regional government in a horrific war across the mountain scape.

Any hopes that Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister Abiy Ahmed may have had of a quick victory have evaporated. Instead, the conflict has morphed into a guerrilla civil war marred by a myriad of potential war crimes and crimes against humanity, including a systematic campaign of rape, the indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas, ethnic cleansing and dozens of reported massacres.

Last week, The Telegraph reported that civilians in Tigray had suffered horrific burns consistent with the use of white phosphorus, a potential war crime. Since then, the World Health Organisation and the UK have both launched investigations to see whether incendiary weapons have been used in civilian areas.

The situation on the ground is difficult to confirm because of major reporting restrictions. But multiple sources have told The Telegraph that they believe the Ethiopian government controls most urban areas in southern Tigray, while Eritrean troops hold most towns in the northern half of Tigray.

The battle-hardened Tigrayan defence forces are reportedly offering strong resistance in rural areas and have inflicted heavy losses on Eritrea. There has been massive international pressure, primarily from the US, for Eritrean troops to withdraw. But Eritrean soldiers, many of them now wearing Ethiopian federal army uniforms, have been reportedly stealing food aid at roadblocks and stopping farmers from planting their fields in an attempt to starve the guerrilla fighters into submission.

A refugee prepares food for her family at Um Raquba refugee camp in Gedaref, eastern Sudan, in January
A refugee prepares food for her family at Um Raquba refugee camp in Gedaref, eastern Sudan, in January CREDIT: ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP via Getty Images

Senior observers have hailed Mr Lowcock as one of the few senior UN voices speaking truth on the catastrophic situation on the ground.

Mr Lowcock, who served as the Permanent Secretary of the Department for International Development under prime ministers David Cameron and Theresa May, is due to step down from his post in mid-June.

“All the blockages that are being put in the way of aid agencies need to be rolled back. In order to do that, the Eritreans who are responsible for a lot of this need to withdraw,” he said. “Prime minister Abiy Ahmed needs to do what he said he was going to do and force the Eritreans to leave Ethiopia.”

Mr Lowock started his career 35 years ago, working on the famine in Ethiopia. “I find it desperately sad that one of the last things I’m having to deal with is another potential rerun of famine,” he said.

“Lots of people remember that powerful BBC report [in the 1980s] from a place called Korem. There is a very dire situation going on in exactly the same place now.”

 

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