The inhabitants of Tigray describe their life under siege

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – As food and the means to buy it dwindled in a besieged town, the young mother felt there was nothing more she could do. She committed suicide, unable to feed her children.

In a Catholic church on the other side of town, the flour and oil for making hosts will soon run out. And the flagship hospital in Mekele, the capital of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, is debating whether to give patients the remaining expired drugs. Her soap and bleach are gone.

One year of war and months of government-imposed deprivation have left the city of half a million people with rapidly dwindling stocks of food, fuel, medicine and cash. In rural areas, life is even darker as thousands of people survive on the fruits of wild cacti or sell the meager aid they receive. Man-made famine, the world’s worst food crisis in a decade, has begun.

Despite the breakdown of nearly all communication with the outside world, the Associated Press relied on a dozen interviews with people inside Mekele, as well as internal help documents, to obtain the most detailed picture to date of life under the Ethiopian government’s blockade of the 6 million inhabitants of the Tigray region. people.

Amid failed electrical supplies, Mekele is often lit with candles that many people cannot afford. Shops and streets are emptying, and cooking oil and formula are running out. Rural people and civil servants unpaid for months swelled the ranks of beggars. People are thinner. The announcements of funerals on the radio have multiplied.

“The coming weeks will make or break the situation here,” said Mengstu Hailu, vice president of research at Mekele University, where the mother who took her own life worked.

He told the AP about his colleague’s suicide last month as well as the death of two acquaintances from starvation and one death from lack of medication. “Are people going to die by the hundreds and thousands? ” He asked.

Calls by the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and African countries for the belligerents to cease the fighting have failed, even as the United States threatens new sanctions targeting individuals in the second-most populated by Africa.

Instead, a new offensive by Ethiopian and allied forces began 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. , winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

Ethiopia is one of the main recipients of US humanitarian aid. The Addis Ababa government, fearing that aid would end up supporting Tigray’s forces, imposed the blockade in June after fighters recaptured much of Tigray and then introduced war to neighboring areas of Tigray. ‘Amhara and Afar. Hundreds of thousands of people are now displaced there, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis.

After the PA reported the first famine deaths last month under the blockade, and the UN humanitarian chief called Ethiopia a “stain on our conscience,” the government expelled seven UN officials, accusing them of falsely inflating the scale of the crisis. The evictions were “unprecedented and disturbing,” the United States said.

According to the UN, only 14% of the aid needed has entered Tigray since the start of the blockade, and almost no medicine.

“There is no other way to define what is happening to the people of Tigray other than through 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 is facing massive famine now,” former UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock wrote in a separate statement.

Responding to questions, spokesperson for the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s office, Billene Seyoum, again blamed Tigray forces for the aid disruption and asserted that “the government has worked tirelessly to ensure that humanitarian aid is reaching those who need it “. She did not say when basic services would be authorized in Tigray.

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

Patients sometimes go without food and have not eaten meat, eggs or milk since June. The fuel to run the ambulances has run out. A diesel generator powers equipment for emergency surgeries only when fuel is available.

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

No help is in sight. A World Health Organization staff member told Sintayehu there was nothing left to donate, even though a warehouse in neighboring Afar was full of life-saving aids.

Dozens of severely malnourished and sick children have come to the hospital in recent weeks. Not all of them survived.

“There are no drugs,” said Mizan Wolde, the mother of a 5-year-old patient. Mehari Tesfa was in despair for her 4-year-old daughter, who has a brain abscess and is wasting away.

“It’s been three months since she came here,” he says. “She was fine, then the medication stopped. Now she only takes oxygen, nothing else.

Across Tigray, the number of children hospitalized for severe acute malnutrition has increased, according to the United Nations Children’s Agency – 18,600 from February to August, up from 8,900 in 2020. The UN says that hospitals outside Mekele are running out of nutritional supplies to treat them. .

“According to colleagues in the medical and agricultural sector, hundreds (of people) die every day, that’s the estimate,” said Nahusenay Belay, lecturer at Mekele University. He said an acquaintance died from lack of diabetes medication and a young relative on the outskirts of town starved to death.

“I am surviving thanks to the help of my family and friends like everyone else,” he said.

The prices of basic necessities are skyrocketing. The UN said last week that cooking oil in Mekele had increased by more than 400% since June and diesel by more than 600%. In the town of Shire, submerged by tens of thousands of displaced people, diesel increased by 1,200%, flour by 300% and salt by more than 500%.

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

An internal aid document dated last month and seen by the PA described thousands of desperate people who had fled “trapped and starving 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 a day, in large part due to the availability of cactus fruits,” the document said. “The situation is likely to deteriorate after September, when the wild fruits will be 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 aid groups. Some people walked directly from the roadside distribution site to sell.

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

A Catholic priest from Mekele, Reverend Taum Berhane, described conditions echoing harsh accounts of Biblical times. Even before the war, parts of Tigray faced an invasion of locusts. Then the hostile forces looted and burned the crops and slaughtered the farmers’ animals. Now the blockade means people are going hungry while they have money in the bank.

“You see breastfeeding mothers without milk,” he said. “We see babies dying. I saw people eating leaves like goats.

As the church struggles to support the camps of thousands of displaced people, “they tell us, ‘Let’s go back to our villages, even if there is nothing there. Better to die at home.

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

The priest, 70 years old and diabetic, is now seeing his medication decreasing. The spirits of his congregation too. The Tigré’s cash being exhausted, the collection plate is no longer spent at mass. The bread for Communion will soon be exhausted.

“Even if I survive, will I preach in a void if all humans perish?” ” He asked. “The only hope is, to be frank, that these people must stop fighting and speak out for lasting peace. “

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