‘God have mercy’: Tigray residents describe life under siege

NAIROBI, Kenya — As food and the means to buy it dwindled in a city under siege, the young mother felt she could do no more. Incapable to feed her family, she committed suicide.

In a Catholic church across town, flour and oil to make communion wafers will soon run out. The flagship hospital of Ethiopia’s Tigray Region, Mekele is deciding whether or not to provide patients with the remaining medications. The soap and bleach have all been thrown out.

A year of war and months of government-enforced deprivation have left the city of a half-million people with rapidly shrinking stocks of food, fuel, medicine and cash. Rural areas are even worse, with thousands living on wild cactus fruits or selling the minimal aid they get. The worst form of hunger in the last decade has been created by man-made famine.

Despite the severing of almost all communication with the outside world, The Associated Press drew on a dozen interviews with people inside Mekele, along with internal aid documents, for the most detailed picture yet of life under the Ethiopian government’s blockade of the Tigray region’s 6 million people.

Amid sputtering electricity supplies, Mekele is often lit by candles that many people can’t afford. Streets are emptying and there is a shortage of baby formula and cooking oil. Beggars have increased in numbers among rural residents and civil servants who went unpaid for many months. The population is getting thinner. Radio broadcasts of funeral announcements have become more frequent.

“The coming weeks will make or break the situation here,” said Mengstu Hailu, vice president for research at Mekele University, where the mother who killed herself worked.

He told the AP about his colleague’s suicide last month as well as the deaths of two acquaintances from hunger and a death from lack of medication. He asked, “Are people going be dying in the hundreds or thousands?”

Pleas from the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and African nations for the warring sides to stop the fighting have failed, even as the U.S. threatens new sanctions targeting individuals in Africa’s second-most populous nation.

Instead, a new offensive by Ethiopian and allied forces has begun in an attempt to crush the Tigray fighters who dominated the national government for nearly three decades before being sidelined by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Ethiopia is one of the top recipients of U.S. humanitarian aid. Fearing that the aid would end up supporting Tigray fighters, the government of Addis Ababa imposed a blockade on June 12th. The war in neighboring Amhara, Afar and Amhara regions was then commenced. There are currently hundreds of thousands who have been forced to flee, thereby escalating the humanitarian crisis.

After the AP last month reported the first starvation deaths under the blockade, and the U.N. humanitarian chief called Ethiopia a “stain on our conscience,” the government expelled seven U.N. officials, accusing them of falsely inflating the scale of the crisis. According to the U.S., these expulsions were unprecedented and troubling. The U.S. stated that the expulsions were “unprecedented and disturbing.”

Just 14% of needed aid has entered Tigray since the blockade began, according to the U.N., and almost no medicine at all.

“There is no other way to define what is happening to the people of Tigray than by ethnic cleansing,” InterAction, an alliance of international aid groups, said this month of the conflict marked by mass detentions, expulsions and gang-rapes.

“The Tigrayan population of 6 million face mass starvation now,” former U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock wrote in a separate statement.

In response to questions, the spokesperson for the Ethiopian prime minister’s office, Billene Seyoum, again blamed Tigray forces for aid disruptions and asserted “the government has worked relentlessly to ensure humanitarian aid reaches those in need.” She did not say when basic services would be allowed to Tigray.

At Tigray’s flagship Ayder referral hospital, Dr. Sintayehu Misgina, a surgeon and the vice chief medical director, watches in horror.

Patients sometimes go without food, and haven’t had meat, eggs or milk since June. The fuel to power ambulances is depleted. Only when there is fuel, a diesel generator can power emergency surgery equipment.

“God have mercy for those who come when it’s off,” he said.

No help is in sight. Sintayehu was told by a World Health Organization employee that there wasn’t much left, even though Afar had a large warehouse of life-saving supplies.

Scores of badly malnourished and ill children have come to the hospital in recent weeks. Some have not survived.

“There are no drugs,” said Mizan Wolde, the mother of a 5-year-old patient. Mehari Tesfa was devastated for Mehari’s 4-year-old daughter. She has a brain abscess, and is slowly wasting away.

“It’s been three months since she came here,” he said. She was fine, but then she stopped taking the medicine. She is now taking only oxygen, nothing else.”

Across Tigray, the number of children hospitalized for severe acute malnutrition has surged, according to the U.N. children’s agency — 18,600 from February to August, compared to 8,900 in 2020. According to the U.N., hospitals in Mekele are running out of food and nutrition supplies.

“According to colleagues in the medical and agricultural sector, hundreds (of people) are dying each day, that’s the estimation,” Mekele University lecturer Nahusenay Belay said. One acquaintance was killed by lack of diabetes medication and another young relative died starving to death in the city’s outskirts.

“I’m surviving by the help of family and friends like anyone else,” he said.

Prices for essential goods are spiking. The U.N. last week said cooking oil in Mekele had shot up more than 400% since June and diesel more than 600%. In the town of Shire, swamped by scores of thousands of displaced people, diesel was up 1,200%, flour 300% and salt more than 500%.

The true toll of the deprivation in rural areas of the largely agricultural region is unknown as the lack of fuel prevents most travel.

One internal aid document dated last month and seen by the AP described thousands of desperate people who had fled “trapped and starved communities” near the border with Eritrea, whose soldiers have been blamed for some of the worst atrocities of the war.

“Most are able to eat at least one meal per day, largely thanks to the availability of cactus fruit,” the document said. “The situation is likely to deteriorate after September when wild fruits are exhausted.”

A document from another part of Tigray described “too many people to count” trying to sell items such as buckets and soap distributed by humanitarian groups. Many people simply walked from the distribution center to the roadside in order to make a sale.

“They have no option as they needed the money to buy food to supplement the inadequate food rations,” the document stated, adding the forecast for famine is “terrifying.”

A Catholic priest in Mekele, the Rev. Taum Berhane described the conditions as echoes of biblical tales. Parts of Tigray were threatened by desert locusts even before war. Then, hostile forces destroyed crops and killed farmers. The blockade has caused people to go hungry, despite the fact that they have money.

“You see lactating mothers with no milk,” he said. We see children dying. I saw myself people eating leaves like goats.”

While the church struggles to support camps for thousands of displaced people, “they are telling us, ‘Let us go back to our villages, even if there’s nothing there. It’s better to die at home.'”

The Catholic bishop in the town of Adigrat told him eight children have died at the hospital there, he said.

The priest, 70 years old and a diabetic, now watches his medication dwindle. The spirits of his congregation are also affected. The collection plate cannot be passed anymore at Mass because Tigray has run out of cash. Soon, the bread needed for communion will run out.

“Even if I survive, am I going to preach to a vacuum if all humans perish?” he asked. “The only hope is, to be frank, these people have to stop fighting and talk for sustainable peace.”

Read More

Related Posts