More than 400,000 people in Ethiopia’s Tigray are now suffering famine and 1.8 million others are on the brink, a top United Nations official has said, painting a devastating picture of an embattled region where humanitarian access is extremely restricted.
Tigray has been racked by conflict since November 2020 when fighting erupted between Ethiopia’s federal government – backed by troops from neighbouring Eritrea and fighters from Ethiopia’s Amhara region – and forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the northern region’s then-ruling party.
The UN Security Council held its first public meeting on the conflict on Friday, days after the Tigrayan forces, in a stunning turn of events, retook the regional capital, Mekelle.
Acting UN aid chief Ramesh Rajasingham told the council that the humanitarian situation in Tigray had “worsened dramatically” in recent weeks, with an increase of some 50,000 in the number of people now facing famine.
“More than 400,000 people are estimated to have crossed the threshold into famine and another 1.8 million people are on the brink of famine. Some are suggesting that the numbers are even higher. 33,000 children are severely malnourished,” he said.
“Two million people are still displaced and close to 5.2 million people still require humanitarian assistance. The great majority are women and children. One of the most distressing trends is the alarming rise in food insecurity and hunger due to conflict.”
The Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire on Monday, which the TPLF dismissed as a “joke”. The region has since experienced electricity and communication blackouts and there are reports of continued clashes in some places, with different forces controlling different areas.
Al Jazeera’s Catherine Soi, reporting from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, said the security situation in Tigray is “complex and fluid”.
“Tigrayan fighters continue to gain ground; central government and Eritrean forces are withdrawing; regional Amhara fighters who still control much of western Tigray claimed by both ethnic communities say they will not leave – and caught in between, desperate civilians that just want to go back to normal.”
Soi further said that that “the Tigrayan forces have been showing pictures of men who appear to be Ethiopian federal soldiers, being paraded along the streets in Mekelle, with thousands of them taken to prison”.
“We spoke to the spokesman of the Tigrayan forces who said that they have, in the last seven days, captured thousands of Ethiopian soldiers during fighting in areas around Mekelle,” she added.
There has been no immediate comment by the Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa, which previously described its “withdrawal” as a strategic move and said it was taken partly on humanitarian grounds aimed at facilitating farming in the mountainous region.
“It’s going to be interesting to hear how the Ethiopian government is going to respond to this,” Soi said. “If these prisoners of war, if these … are indeed Ethiopian soldiers, then it’s going to be a huge embarrassment to the government whose officials have been downplaying the reasons why the soldiers withdrew from Mekelle and much of Tigray in the first place.”
Meanwhile, UN political and peacebuilding affairs chief Rosemary DiCarlo said reports indicate that TPLF leaders including its former president, Debretsion Gebremichael, have returned to Mekelle. “Key infrastructure has been destroyed, and there are no flights entering or leaving the area,” she said.
Elsewhere in Tigray, DiCarlo said, Eritrean forces, who have been accused by witnesses of some of the worst atrocities in the war, have “withdrawn to areas adjacent to the border” with Eritrea.
Amhara forces remain in western Tigray, and DiCarlo said the Amhara branch of the ruling Prosperity Party warned in a statement on June 29 that the region’s forces will remain in territory it seized in the west during the conflict.
“In short, there is potential for more confrontations and a swift deterioration in the security situation, which is extremely concerning,” she warned.
Ethiopia’s UN Ambassador Taye Atske Selassie Amde told reporters later when asked if Amhara forces would remain in western Tigray, “that is a matter of fact.”
The ambassador, who comes from that part of Ethiopia, said the western area was once part of Amhara but was “forcibly incorporated into Tigray in 1990 without any due process”. He said the dispute will now be submitted to a government border commission.
On the humanitarian front, Rajasingham, the acting UN aid chief, said over the past few days UN teams in Mekelle, Shire and Axum have been able to move out to other places, a development he described as “positive”. The UN now plans to send convoys to difficult-to-reach areas but its World Food Programme only has enough food for one million people for one month in Mekelle, he said.
“This is a fraction of what we need,” Rajasingham said. “However, we have almost run out of health, water, sanitation and other non-food item kits. Food alone does not avert a famine.”
Rajasingham urged “all armed and security actors” in Tigray to guarantee safe road access for humanitarian workers and supplies, using the fastest and most effective routes.
He expressed alarm at Thursday’s destruction of the Tekeze River bridge, “and the reported damage to two other bridges – which cut a main supply route to bring in food and other life-saving supplies”.
Rajasingham called on the Ethiopian government “to immediately repair these bridges and by doing so help prevent the spread of famine”.
“What we are seeing in Tigray is a protection crisis,” Rajasingham stressed, citing civilian killings during the conflict, and more than 1,200 cases of serious sexual and gender-based violence reported, “with more continuing to emerge.”
The Security Council took no action and made no statement after its first open meeting on the conflict following six closed discussions.
But United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said Ethiopia’s government must demonstrate “it truly intends to use the ceasefire to address the humanitarian catastrophe,” warning that any denial of aid access is “not an indication of a humanitarian ceasefire, but of a siege”.
Taye, the Ethiopian ambassador, told reporters the purpose of the ceasefire “is not to make a siege, it is to save lives.”
He also questioned the need for the public Security Council meeting, telling the body the ceasefire was declared to improve aid access and “should have encouraged our friends to give support and de-escalate the unhelpful pressure.” He said the government hoped the ceasefire could also spark dialogue.
While Russia and China did not object to Friday’s public meeting of the Security Council on Tigray, they made clear that they believed the conflict is an internal affair for Ethiopia. Russia’s UN ambassador Vasily Nebenzya said: “We believe that interference by the Security Council in solving it is counterproductive.”
Russia and China are both council veto-powers, along with the US, France and Britain.