I was first in northern Ethiopia in the mid-’80s in the wake of the horrific famine that took the lives of a million people. In the 35 years since then, Ethiopia’s story has been one of remarkable progress. Children in school and jobs created. Roads, railways, factories and power stations built. Addis Ababa became one of the leading African cities; Ethiopia a bulwark of relative stability in the region.
What’s tragic about the current conflict is the danger of all that progress being lost.
As I write, the conflict in and around Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region is well into its fifth week, with hundreds of people reportedly killed, tens of thousands displaced and millions enduring day after day without food, water and power.
Before this conflict, there were already nearly a million people in Tigray, including nearly 100,000 refugees from Eritrea and more than 100,000 people internally displaced by previous violence, who relied on aid to survive.
In the past five weeks, close to 50,000 refugees have arrived in Sudan, bringing with them heart-rending stories of suffering. Others have not made it. We’re receiving disturbing reports that some who are trying to seek safety in Sudan have been prevented from leaving.
As Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, has said, we have corroborated evidence of gross human rights violations and abuses and serious violations of international humanitarian law, including indiscriminate attacks that have resulted in civilian casualties, looting, abductions and sexual violence against women and girls, as well as reports of forced recruitment of Tigrayan youth to fight against their own communities.
We are also receiving disturbing reports of Tigrayans being identified and singled out in their jobs in other parts of the country.
The Red Cross has reported that the main hospital in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, has no supplies, fuel or running water. Doctors and nurses have had to suspend intensive care services and are struggling with routine care, such as delivering babies or providing dialysis treatment. We have also received reports of women dying during childbirth — preventable deaths — due to the lack of adequate services and supplies.
The conflict is escalating and threatens to spiral out of control. There are reports that militias from non-Tigrayan backgrounds, armed with competing agendas, are now involved in the fighting. The last thing needed is external agitators pouring fuel on the fire.
So what can be done?
The United Nations and other humanitarian agencies need immediate and unfettered access so we can scale up urgently needed assistance and protection for vulnerable civilians, and get supplies to our teams on the ground. We’re talking to the federal government of Ethiopia and others on a daily basis to grant safe passage to humanitarian workers and supplies to the affected region, in line with the globally agreed principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and operational independence.
Access needs to go hand in hand with security for aid workers. Humanitarian workers must be able to deliver aid without fear of attack. Tragically, we have received reports of aid workers, who courageously stayed behind to support their communities, being killed during the course of this conflict.
The government of Ethiopia has confirmed that a U.N. convoy was shot at on Dec. 6 as it carried out security assessments in Tigray.
What’s happening in Tigray right now is fundamentally a political problem. It won’t be resolved by violence. In the meantime, it is civilians who are bearing the brunt of the conflict. This must stop.
There’s a lot at stake. People should not be sanguine about the risks. Chaos in the Horn of Africa is in no one’s interest.
The United Nations strongly urges all parties to the Tigray crisis to seize the initiative led by the chairperson of the African Union, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, to facilitate peaceful solutions and de-escalate tensions.
Conflicts like this are hard to stop once they get out of control — the lives they extinguish cannot be brought back, and the grievances they create are long-lasting.
Mark Lowcock is the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs.