Ethiopia – Tigray: Ethiopians fear a full-fledged war ‘like the old days’

By Samuel Getachew

Posted on Friday, 4 December 2020 17:54
Sudan Ethiopia
Tigray refugees who fled the conflict in the Ethiopia's Tigray ride a bus going to the Village 8 temporary shelter, near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

Earlier this week, the UN announced that an agreement was reached with the Ethiopian Government to allow “unimpeded, sustained and secure access” for humanitarian supplies to reach those in need across areas now under its control in Tigray. But until a complete end of hostilities is announced, Ethiopians remain on edge.

Henok Girma, a cab driver living in Addis Ababa, is frustrated. Ever since the war in Tigray started, he has been consumed by worry that the conflict might turn into a full-fledged war like in the old days.

“I believed peace and stability was becoming possible for Ethiopia where dialogue and peaceful co-existence was to have been a solution. Now we are in a situation of which we don’t know what will happen to us with all the uncertainty going on,” he says.

Political uncertainty abounds

With Ethiopia being in conflict for the last four weeks, political uncertainty has reached its peak and it is now spilling into neighbouring countries like Sudan where nearly 50,000 Ethiopians have taken refuge. That number is  expected to grow to 200,000 according to the UN with the number of deaths hitting the hundreds, along with damage to key infrastructure in the region.

READ MORE Will Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict spillover into Eritrea, Egypt and Sudan?

Under the direction of Nobel peace laureate Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s federal government began what it called a law enforcement operation against the forces of Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) in November after the latter attacked the military bases of the country’s National Defense forces and killed soldiers.

While Prime Minister Abiy accuses the TPLF of destabilising the country by arming different rebel groups across the nation and sponsoring conflicts, he continues to defend his administration’s measures, saying peace and negotiation cannot be considered as an option with the TPLF, which he calls a terrorist group.

Therefore, he has refused to engage with them, calling such attempts unfavourable. He refers to the growing international call for peaceful engagement as no different than interference in the affairs of a sovereign country, adding he has already exhausted all mediation mechanisms in the past.

READ MORE Where next for Abiy’s Ethiopia after Tigray operation ‘completed’?

Citing the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states, his administration has rejected any external help.

“We respectfully urge the international community to refrain from any unwelcome and unlawful acts of interference and respect the fundamental principles of non-intervention under international law,” said the the Prime Minister’s office.

Humanitarian crisis

“My son is a student in Mekelle University and I have not heard anything from him since the war began. I am crying every day, fearing he may be killed during the war,” says Mulu Gebreegziaber, a mother of three living in Addis.

More families are being kept in the dark and unsure of what has happened to their family members back in Tigray since a media blackout is remains in effect.

READ MORE Tigray: The AU failed Ethiopia, while US calls the shots

“My son re-joined the army wanting to contribute to the well-being of the nation. He wore the uniform with pride that Ethiopia was finally fulfilling its promise and he was about to retire once again when he was called on for assignment to Tigray a week before the conflict began. I am now not sure if he is dead or alive,” says Alemitu Alemu Gobena, a 68 year-old woman speaking to The Africa Report.

Over the weekend, the federal government announced that Mekelle – the Tigrayan capital – was encircled. More than half a million people live the city.

The UN and its partner organisations have expressed growing concern to Addis Ababa about the safety and welfare of civilians amid growing reports of shortages of fuel, cash (due to the closure of banks), and limited low access to basic services, including food and water. They stress if the current situation continues, it will soon take a toll on civilians, especially the more vulnerable ones.

On Thursday, the European Union called on the Ethiopian government to life the communications blockade.

Frozen assets

The National Bank of Ethiopia had frozen all bank accounts opened in Tigray, though this was partially lifted earlier this week.

“This is a harsh measure and seems like institutional discrimination against ethnic Tigrayans. I, for instance, opened my account in Adwa nine years ago, the city where I was born. And for two weeks, I have been unable to withdraw money for daily expenses as my account was frozen, while I have nothing to do with the war in Tigray,” Kidane Woldu, tells The Africa Report.

READ MORE Why Ethiopia’s conflict in Tigray was avoidable

“I have been borrowing from friends to help me cover my daily expenses for basic needs, including food when I am normally a self-sufficient person with no need to borrow,” add Woldu.

There are also reports that some people with chronic diseases, including kidney failure, are unable to cover their medical expenses since the freezing of accounts. The bank freeze means families outside of Tigray are unable to send money to their loved ones who urgently need medical attention.

Refugees streaming into Sudan

Although the conflict appears to be subsiding, the number of Ethiopian refugees streaming into eastern Sudan is still growing.

“The humanitarian response continues to face logistical challenges and remains overstretched. There is not enough shelter capacity to meet the growing needs,” said UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch.

A Tigray refugee, who fled the conflict in the Ethiopia’s Tigray fills his water jug at Hamdeyat Transition Center near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Sudan, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

Over 600,000 people in Tigray who receive monthly food assistance have not received their ration this month and approximately 96,000 Eritrean refugees have been abandoned with little protection and assistance until this week when the federal government established a humanitarian corridor.

READ MORE Eritrean refugees: Still caught in a game of “political football”

The UN says its supply of food aid had run out and it is rushing to replenish dwindling resources that have been overwhelmed by the demand and donor fatigue from western nations.

Without unconditional humanitarian access for three weeks, stories are beginning to emerge of human rights abuses. Both the UN and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission say these might be considered acts of war crimes.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options