Ethiopia’s escalating war devastates beleaguered Tigray

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NAIROBI — Even before airstrikes resumed, the hospital in the capital of Ethiopia’s Tigray region was barely holding up.

Electricity at Ayder Referral had been out for weeks, said hospital director Kibrom Gebreselassie. Medical and fuel supplies were dwindling. The doctors and nurses had been working without pay for 16 months.

But an uneasy peace in Ethiopia’s civil war had meant that, at least since March, the flow of casualties had stopped. Then last week, an airstrike that residents, UN officials and local media all blamed on the Ethiopian government destroyed a kindergarten. Gebreselassie said four people, including two children, were pronounced dead on arrival at hospital. As Ayder hospital staff rushed to treat more than a dozen victims, he said, staff were forced to forego care for their usual patients with cancer, kidneys and of heart.

“We can’t keep up,” said Gebreselassie, a 44-year-old surgeon.

Nearly two years after the start of Ethiopia’s devastating civil war, which left millions of people in Tigray on the brink of starvation, intense fighting has resumed between government forces, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The scale of the violence, which included two airstrikes in the region of the regional capital, Mekelle, has dashed hopes of peace talks between the two sides.

Both sides blame each other for launching the attacks. In a statement on the airstrike, the Ethiopian government said its air force only targeted military sites and accused the TPLF of “dumping fake body bags in civilian areas”.

The 5.5 million people living in Tigray, where the Ethiopian government has largely cut communications and banking services, restricted access for journalists and limited fuel distribution, are being left behind. About 9 out of 10 Tigrayans need food aid, according to a recent UN report.

At Ayder, the main hospital in Mekelle, food supplies come mainly from nonprofits operating in the area, according to Gebreselassie, who said he had not been able to see his wife in Addis for more than a year. year and his relatives in Mekelle are hungry. He said the food supply was sporadic and staff sometimes struggled to get enough food to feed patients. Even though many staff are hungry themselves, Gebreselassie said, they continued to come to work.

“The siege is a slow killer,” he said, “slowly you lose loved ones, slowly you see people starve or lose hope.”

“When there is active fighting in addition to the blockade, he added, “it is disastrous for civilians and for everyone”.

They fled hundreds of kilometers to escape the war in Ethiopia. But they fear it is not far enough.

Ethiopia was once a source of stability in the Horn of Africa and a partner of the West. But the nation of 117 million has also long been riven by ethnic divisions.

The TPLF, a guerrilla group from the mountainous north of the country made up mostly of ethnic Tigrayans, was welcomed by many Ethiopians after seizing power in 1991 from an oppressive Marxist regime. But for decades in government, the TPLF suppressed many of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups, including the Amhara and Oromo. Abiy, who is half-Amhara and half-Ormoro, was touted as a liberal figure when he came to power in 2018 and received the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for brokering peace with neighboring Eritrea.

What began as a political dispute between his government and the TPLF turned violent in the fall of 2020, when the TPLF attacked an Ethiopian military base in Tigray – Tigrayans called it a preemptive strike – and Abiy launched a military offensive in Tigray. Abiy called the war “existential” and called the TPLF a “weed” and a “cancer” that must be eliminated. Both sides committed atrocities, according to a UN report last year, including mass executions and rapes.

Despite pressure from Western countries, the peace talks made little progress. At a press conference on Tuesday, TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda said Abiy’s government was able to ‘trick the international community’ into thinking they were serious about peace . The Ethiopian government on Wednesday accused the TPLF of launching an invasion towards the Sudanese border, and the TPLF said on Thursday that the government and Eritrean troops had launched a “massive” offensive against Tigray.

“The escalation risks spiraling the situation out of control,” said International Crisis Group analyst William Davison. “This is a major setback for an already struggling peace process.”

Actions taken by both sides, including allegations that Tigray authorities stole fuel from the World Food Programme, make it unlikely that the federal government will completely end an effective blockade any time soon, he said. declared.

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When the airstrike happened last week, three sonic explosions sounded and an assistant named Liwam and her colleagues rushed into their office for shelter. She said her mind went blank when she realized what was happening. Then she thought of her family and her three children.

After about an hour, Liwam, who asked to be identified by her middle name because her job does not allow her to speak to the media, drove to the scene of the airstrike at RES Kids Paradise. The kindergarten near her home was closed for the summer, she said, but her playground was filling up every day with children clamoring for her colorful games. According to Liwam, medical workers load injured children into ambulances. Women cried looking for their own children. Blood everywhere.

One of the images she says she can’t get out of her head is of two children killed in the strike, their bodies charred.

“For the siege and the blockade, why let us die in front of everyone? “, did she say. ‘ “Our national government tells us, either die or accept… Isn’t our life of interest to the government?”

Tewelde Legesse, a popular entertainment journalist from Tigray who fled to a neighboring country after the outbreak of war, was sitting with friends when he received a WhatsApp message saying there had been an airstrike near his hometown. Legesse opened a local YouTube news channel and saw his cousin with her head covered in blood. She told the local television station that she could not find her children.

He desperately wanted to call her but couldn’t. There was no way to pass.

As he watched the aftermath of the airstrike unfold, he couldn’t help but wonder why it felt like so few people were paying attention. It’s a concern that has been echoed in recent weeks, including by the head of the World Health Organization, who recently called the war “the worst catastrophe on earth” and sharply criticized Western leaders for their silence.

Legesse said he appreciated the focus on the war in Ukraine, but it nonetheless left him wondering, “Why not for Tigray?”

In Mekelle, Liwam said her 7-year-old daughter often begs her not to come home, fearing she will be killed on the long journey home from the office. Her 11-year-old son tells her that Tigray has no choice but to win the war because they have already suffered so much. Her 16-year-old boy wonders when he can go back to school.

This week, a few days after the nursery strike, Liwam and her husband were awakened at dawn by the sound of three loud booms. She realized that another airstrike had just been carried out.

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