Ethiopia: Afar region the new front in the civil war as Tigray violence subsides

By Fred Harter
Posted on Friday, 25 February 2022 19:25

An Afar militiaman in Chifra
An Afar militiaman in Chifra in January 2022 (photo: Fred Harter)

Fatuma Taha was at home with her four children when the artillery shell crashed through the roof of her home in Berhale, a town near the border that separates Ethiopia's Afar and Tigray regions. As she fled, she passed the bodies of several people killed by the barrage lying in the road.

Her family are among the 300,000 people who have been displaced by an offensive launched in late December by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) into Afar, an arid region of stony deserts and saline lakes in Ethiopia’s northeast. Heavily pregnant, Fatuma walked for five days to safety, as did most of her neighbours.

She is now staying in Afdera, a ramshackle shantytown of tin shacks that sits within the Danakil Depression, a low-lying expanse of land that ranks as the hottest place on earth. It is a punishing place. In the summer, temperatures can soar past 50 degrees Celsius, and hot winds whip up swirling dust devils. The British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who visited in the 1930’s, described it as a “veritable land of death.”

“We have nothing to eat and nothing to drink,” says Fatuma, 20, whose family is living on a thin tarpaulin sheet outside her relative’s home, with no cover from the sun. “I’m worried about my baby – we need help.”

Fatuma and her four children were displaced after a shell struck their home in Berhale, a town in Ethiopia’s Afar region. January 2022 (photo: Fred Harter)

Why the TPLF are in Afar

It is not clear why the TPLF entered this part of Afar. In November, there was heavy fighting further south in the region as the rebel group tried to cut the road linking Addis Ababa to Djibouti, a vital lifeline that transports 90% of Ethiopia’s trade. Some analysts believe they are aiming for the artery again. They may have also occupied the area in order to prevent Afar forces from building their strength along Tigray’s border, close to the region’s capital, Mekelle.

This region was led by puppets of the TPLF for almost three decades, and the exploitation of the land was extraordinary.

The TPLF has previously insisted that its incursions outside of Tigray were aimed at opening up an aid route to their region, where the UN estimates 400,000 are facing famine, but humanitarians say that this latest round of fighting has blocked food trucks from entering the region since December.

Many Afar people believe the TPLF covets Afar’s mineral wealth, which includes large deposits of salt, potash and gold. The region was split across five different parts of Ethiopia until the 1990s, when the Afar state was created under the TPLF-led regime.

“This region was led by puppets of the TPLF for almost three decades, and the exploitation of the land was extraordinary,” says Musse Adem, head of the opposition Afar People’s Party, referring to the period when the TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics from 1991 to 2018. “They undermined the Afar people for commercial gain, dividing them through clans and blood lineage, and they still see us as a springboard to advance their economic interests.”

Others think the group has captured land in Afar in an attempt to reclaim the west of Tigray – land that has been annexed by ethnic Amhara militias. “The TPLF is hoping to use captured parts of Afar as a bargaining chip in negotiations,” says Dawud Mohammed, a lecturer at Semera University. “They see Afar as something they swap for that. They say, ‘If you let go of west Tigray, we will let go of Afar.’”

No help from ENDF

“We are doing what we can, trying to defend ourselves, but it is not easy,” Humad Ali Ibrahim, a senior militia commander in Afdera, tells The Africa Report. “They have heavy weapons and we are pastoralists, we have none. We are just fighting with Kalashnikovs, no one is supporting us. We need the help of the Ethiopian National Defence Force [ENDF].”

The absence of federal forces on this battlefront is fuelling resentment among some Afar, who feel abandoned by the central government in Addis Ababa and its insistence that life has returned to normal in Ethiopia. “Abiy is losing his support here,” says an academic at Semera University, in Afar’s capital. “The foreign ministry keeps saying there is no war in Afar. They are denying it even when people are being killed and displaced every day.”

The TPLF currently controls six districts of Afar, having launched an incursion into the territory in late December. Displaced people from Berhale and the nearby settlement of Abala say the TPLF shelled civilian homes before taking control of the areas, an act that would constitute war crimes under international law.

‘We left because they were firing heavy weapons’

“We left because they were firing heavy weapons,” says Mohammed Abdullah, a 60-year-old Afar farmer who fled Abala in mid-January. “The village was devastated and burnt.”

As the battle raged, Mohammed offered shelter to his friend Hassan Burele, an ethnic Tigrayan, who Mohammed feared was at risk of being attacked by people angered by the TPLF’s shelling. The pair fled together. Reports suggest that local Afar militia killed several Tigrayan residents in the town during the fighting.

“I left Tigray 15 years ago,” says Hassan, 42. “I have seen images of the TPLF on television, but I don’t know anything about them…I am grateful to my friend for saving me.”

The pair are living in a cramped classroom at a high school in Afdera that was doubling as a displacement camp, whose compound was strewn with empty water bottles and other rubbish. Hundreds more displaced people are living at the site of an abandoned warehouse belonging to a company that pans salt from Afdera’s lake.

Caught in the crossfire

“We left with nothing,” says Asiya Tahar, whose family is camping outside next to the closed warehouse. “I carried only my children.”

Asiya Tahar’s family camp outside a disused salt warehouse serving as a camp for displaced people in Afdera in January 2022 (photo: Fred Harter)

Others were caught by the shelling. Tahir and Nur Dersa, two brothers aged 9 and 10-years-old, were playing at home when an artillery round struck their home in Abala. Most of Tahir’s body was badly burnt by the explosives including his face, which was covered by thick red blisters. Nur suffered burns up his left leg.

Tahir Dersa, 9, was burnt all over his body when a TPLF attack struck his family’s home in Abala in Ethiopia’s Afar state. (photo taken in January 2022, Fred Harter)

The boys were brought to Dubti Hospital, Afar’s main health centre by their mother, Aisha. Her other six children are still in Abala, which is under TPLF control. “I don’t know whether they are alive or not,” she says.

Conditions at the hospital are basic. Cats and goats wander through the wards, and families of people wounded in the fighting are camping on the floor between the patients’ beds. The library has been converted into a trauma and burn ward out of a lack of space. Nuru Seid, a surgeon, says most of the wounded have developed sepsis – which has killed three patients – since there are no advanced antibiotics.

“The injured and displaced have nothing, no money, no shelter,” says Nuru, who appeals to charities and the international community for help.

“We are used to treating trauma here. The problem is the burns. They should be managed in a burn centre and we don’t have one in Afar…there are no CT scanners or neurological specialists in all of Afar. We don’t have enough foreign currency to buy medicines. We have informed the ministry of health, and the health minister and the president have visited the hospital. We are waiting to hear from them.”

A child of  Madina Usman. The mother was wounded along with four of her five children when a shell struck a displacement camp in January 2022 (photo: Fred Harter)

The family of Madina Usman is being treated at one of the wards. She and four of her five children were injured when a shell struck a camp for the displaced in January. The attack killed 11 people. Madina and her children, one of whom had a fractured leg, had to travel four days by car and on foot to reach the hospital.

Dr Nuru Seid at Dubti hospital in January 2022 (photo: Fred Harter)

16 months of fighting…

The war in northern Ethiopia between the TPLF and the federal government is now approaching its sixteenth month. Tens of thousands have been killed and millions displacced, with all sides accused of war crimes including mass killings, rape and torture.

At the end of last year there were hopes for a ceasefire as the government beat back a TPLF surge towards the capital Addis Ababa by deploying foreign-bought drones and drawing upon the support of militiamen from Afar and Amhara, Ethiopia’s second largest region. The rebels subsequently withdrew to their northern Tigray region, a move their leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, described as “a decisive opening for peace.”

So far no agreement has been reached, although the government of Abiy Ahmed has already claimed victory.

  • In January it invited the Ethiopian diaspora to visit in a bid to demonstrate Ethiopia was safe, weeks after western diplomats fled the country;
  • In February it hosted heads of states from across the continent during the African Union summit;
  • Last week it lifted a state of emergency imposed as the TPLF advanced towards Addis;
  • On Sunday 20 February, Abiy hailed the beginning of a “new era” as he announced that Ethiopia’s marquee infrastructure project, the $4.2bn Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), had started generating electricity, more than a decade after construction started.

Yet fighting has continued along Tigray’s border with Afar, an area that has come to resemble a forgotten front in Ethiopia’s bloody civil war. The federal military is not taking part, leaving local militia to fight off a TPLF advance into Afar alone.

This week Abiy told parliament that his government was open to negotiations but confirmed that they had not started yet.

Success, with or without federal help

Ali Hodale Omar, a veteran Afar commander, who fought against the TPLF in the 1980s when it was a rebel group waging an insurgency against Ethiopia’s communist junta, says he is confident Afar fighters will recapture land occupied by the TPLF, with or without federal support.

“We see the Tigrayans as a neighbouring people,” says Ali. “We don’t want to fight them. If the TPLF withdraws from our territory, denounces their claims to it and stops attacking the Afar people, there can be peace – why not? But as long as there is one metre of Afar under their control, there will not be peace.”

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