News Highlights Extra No. 7: Conflict in the Horn

EEPA is sending extra news highlights on the conflict in the Horn of Africa: previous highlights extra and EEPA’s situation reports on the Horn crisis.

Starvation and lack of food in Tigray
More than 4.5 million people are facing a humanitarian disaster and are dying of starvation in Tigray, according to the leaked minutes of the Tigray Emergency Coordination Centre (TECC) meeting of 8 January. The meeting included UN and humanitarian aid organisations, as well as administrations from Tigray’s transitional government. Adwa, Adigrat, Axum and other areas are not reached by humanitarian aid. It is reported that 9.2% or about 65,000 children under five years of age in Tigray suffer from acute nutritional deficiency such as wasting. Humanitarian organisations also struggle with a shortage of trucks. The region had previously faced locust outbreaks which led to a food security problem before the start of the conflict on 4 November 2020. The government is accused of a lack of commitment and preventing humanitarian access to rural areas and targeting food supplies during the armed conflict. In the Shire area, a UK research group found, through satellite images, that two warehouse-style structures of the UN World Food Program had been “very specifically destroyed.” According to Mehari Taddele Maru, professor at the European University Institute: “Ethiopian government and Eritrean troops continue to obstruct access to humanitarian aid. The blanket continues and thus first-hand information is almost impossible to get. The restriction of information is in itself a crime of the state to hide other crimes.” Experts fear that on top of the human suffering, starvation could prolong the conflict as occurred in the past.

Major international violations of refugee camps in Tigray region, says UN
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there have been concrete violations of international law at two refugee camps in the Tigray region. Reuters has published satellite images showing fires, signs of destruction and the indication that more than 400 structures have been damaged at the Shimelba and Hitsats camps in Tigray for Eritrean refugees recognised by the UN. After UNHCR’s repeated requests to access both camps, aid agencies remain unable to reach the camps. The lack of access continues to raise concerns as reports of ongoing human rights abuses come in. As stated by Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “I am very worried for the safety and well-being of Eritrean refugees in those camps. They have been without any aid for weeks.” The other two camps in Tigray, Mai Aini and Adi Harush, were accessed by the UNHCR’s humanitarian mission for the first time. The mission found Eritrean refugees in these camps in “desperate need” of supplies and services. 

Military situation
Heavy fighting has been reported on several fronts in Tigray in the last week, including in Daero Hafash (East of Axum), around Wukro and in various other places. Fires have been detected on the outskirts of Humera, within an active combat zone. Tigray forces have reported several victories against Eritrean and Ethiopian Federal forces. In addition, Tigray forces have reportedly destroyed an Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) battalion near Edaga Arbi area, while ENDF forces killed more than 80 youths at Debre Abbay. Increasing concerns are expressed at high political levels in the region that Ethiopia is on the brink of a civil war that may lead to the falling apart of the country. There are reports of Federal Ethiopian military movements from the Gondar Area towards Tekeze, as around 67 trucks with military personnel were reported. Reports confirm fighting in several locations in Tigray in Southern, Eastern, Western and Central Zones. It has been reported that 90% of the Central Zone is currently under control of Tigray regional forces, where ENDF convoy was reportedly ambushed by Tigray forces. 

European response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Tigray
The European Union (EU) has deferred budget support of €88 million until humanitarian agencies are given access to the people in need in the Tigray region. Joseph Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, states that “we are ready to help, but unless there is access for humanitarian aid operators, the EU cannot disburse the planned budget support to the Ethiopian government.” The European Union is sending the Finnish foreign minister, Pekka Haavisto, to negotiate with the Ethiopian government to provide a corridor for humanitarian agencies to reach the people in need. The main priority of the negotiations and the European Union is to provide full humanitarian access not only in government-controlled areas but to give “access to all areas where people need us, and it’s very clear that this is not the case with the current agreement. We have told the Ethiopians that we stand ready to negotiate something different, but what is now on the table is not working” shared the EU officials. A spokesperson for the European Commission’s development department stated that Ethiopia would have to adhere to the following conditions for the EU to distribute future budget support: “Granting full humanitarian access for relief actors to reach people in need in all affected areas, in line with the International Humanitarian Law. Civilians must be able to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Ethnically targeted measures and hate speech must stop. Mechanisms to monitor human rights violations must be in place to investigate allegations of breach of Human Rights. Communication lines and media access to Tigray should be fully re-established.”

Pre-existing agreement between Ethiopia and Sudan to deploy troops at the border before start of war
According to a statement released on 16 January, the head of the Sudanese Sovereign Council, Al-Burhan, deployed troops at the border with Ethiopia before the start of the war in Tigray, aiming to “prevent border infiltration to and from Sudan by an armed party”. The Sudan Tribune reports that this decision was taken after consultation with the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed before the starting of the conflict on 4 November. The news of planning with neighbouring countries ahead of the war contradicts the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s narrative that the war is a domestic law and order operation. Furthermore, on 17 January, seven Sudanese soldiers and one officer were released after having been captured on 12 December during border clashes. The fight occurred in Jebel Abu Teyyour area, where Sudanese soldiers were deployed. The accident for the control of a disputed area was the third in three months, and at least 12 victims were confirmed among civilians. Furthermore, Sudanese media reports that Eritrean troops armed with heavy weapons have entered areas controlled by Ethiopian Federal forces of Wadi al Ghurab and Birkat Noreen inside the disputed Al-Fashaga Triangle. 

Somali presence in Tigray
Abdisalam Guled, a former senior intelligence chief, claimed that 370 Somali soldiers were killed in November in Tigray, during a fight with the Tigray forces. This statement confirms the presence of Somali soldiers in support of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces. Guled added that the young soldiers (between 20 and 30 years old) came from Mogadishu without having informed families. The presence and the deaths of Somalian soldiers were denied by Osman Abukar Dubbe, Somalia’s information minister, in a declaration for the Somali National TV (SNTV) and reported by BBC News. He added that the Ethiopian’s government did not ask for military support and that: “[i]t is unfortunate that people are trying to find political gains from our national army. We are confirming that the fake news, which is meant for politics and business, that claimed Somali troops training in Eritrea took part in fighting in Tigray Region, northern Ethiopia, is not true.” Another report circulating from a Somali MP, speaks of 3,000 Somali troops involved in the war. According to the report, the troops were sent to Asmara in Eritrea to receive their training.

Fighting continues in the Tigray region as images of the damage emerge
Images and confirmations are slowly emerging of widespread destruction, including cultural heritage, in Tigray. A video and pictures have emerged showing the extent of the damage Eritrean and Ethiopian forces caused to Cherkos Church in Zalambessa, Tigray. More pictures from Wukro, 40 km from Mekelle, show buildings, hotels, shops, banks and cars destroyed, allegedly by Eritrean and ENDF allied forces. Other satellite images show that more than 400 structures have been badly damaged in an attack on Shimelba refugee camp, in Tigray. A report by the UK-based NGO DX Open Network, released by AP News, stated that: “[t]he structures, […] match the profile of mud-brick dwellings constructed by the refugees themselves. The attackers likely split into multiple groups going door to door to set fires inside buildings.” 

Federal police request investigation of former TPLF officials
Former high-level officials of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Sebhat Nega and his comrades, including Abay Woldu, former President of Tigray, and Abraham Tekeste, Ex-Minister of Finance, have appeared before the Araba Branch of the Federal First Instance Court. In a court session held on January 15, the federal police requested 14 days to investigate the case brought against 24 people suspected in the involvement in the attack on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) and other crimes. The court accepted the 14 days period for investigation and adjourned the case for January 29.

More proof emerges of Eritrean involvement in Tigray
Pictures are circulating of Ethiopian Federal and Eritrean troops in which the Eritrean troops are recognisable by the typical Eritrean plastic or rubber sandars, ‘congos’ or ‘shida’, and their desert sand coloured uniform or olive-coloured guerilla style camouflage uniform. They carry no insignias. Ethiopian troops are wearing boots, a country flag and ranked insignia on their uniform and their camouflage shading is of a different colour. In addition, some reports stated that Eritrea is claiming a large piece of land in the Tigray region, handing out Eritrean ID-cards to Tigrayans living in the area as far as 36km from the official border towards Adigrad. It was also reported that an Eritrean gunship helicopter was shut down by Tigray regional forces at the Rama front near the area of Enda Semere. 

GERD Dam negotiations unravel
The negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) came to a new halt after the last talks held on January 10 over disagreements “over how to resume negotiations and the procedural aspects of managing the negotiation process” states Al-Monitor. The Sudanese Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok, noted on January 18 that Sudan would not “allow Ethiopia to impose a fait accompli policy regarding the disputed points in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.” Ethiopia’s decision to start building the dam without informing Sudan and Egypt is in violation of the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, states Al-Monitor. The convention states that “any country seeking to construct a dam must notify in advance the co-riparian states and even obtain their approval before taking any steps on the ground.” The official spokesperson for Sudan’s Sovereignty Council of Sudan, Mohamed Al-Faki Suleiman, shared that Sudan’s position is that this matter will not be repeated as the policy of imposing a fait accompli will not proceed and will not be allowed by Sudan.

Ethnic profiling and targeting of Tigrayans continues in Ethiopia
Ethnic profiling of Tigrayans is continuing in Ethiopia. In particular, from amidst the Ethiopian Federal Forces, the Tigrayans soldiers have been purged. The Brigadier-General Tesfaye Ayalew, Head of the ENDF Deployment Department is a witness of this “ethnic cleansing”: “Even if there may be good people amongst them (Tigrayans) we can’t differentiate the good from the bad. To save the country, we made it so that they (Tigrayans) were excluded from doing the work.” Furthermore, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reported that ethnic Tigrayans in Dansha and Humera faced harassment. Humera residents report widespread looting and lack of security. 

Refugees in Sudan border area are to be relocated farther from the border
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), together with other aid organisations, is preparing the relocation of thousands of refugees who fled from Ethiopia and are currently residing in the Sudanese border area. This decision emerged as the disputed Ethiopia-Sudan border area may threaten the safety of refugees. Axel Bisschop, a UNHCR representative in Sudan, confirmed that the UNHCR aims to mobilise capacities and funding for relocation to the new Tunaybdah site, situated about 137km from the border. The new camp is currently hosting 5,000 refugees and “aid agencies are now setting up shelters and infrastructure” for additional 20,000 refugees, said Bisschop. He also called on international actors to provide financial support to secure adequate protection. 

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission carries out investigative mission in Tigray
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) conducted two missions, one to the Western zone and the other one to the Southern zone of Tigray, to investigate the impact of the war on the civilian population in given areas of Humera, Dansha, Bissober and Ullaga. The witnesses confirmed to the EHRC that since the beginning of the conflict, they experienced harassment, insults, looting of property and businesses, and targeting ethnic Tigrayans. According to the report, “92 people, including Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), TPLF forces (Tigray Special Forces) and civilians were killed due to the war”. In Dansha, at least 25 civilians died, and 31 more civilian casualties were reported from Bissober and Ullaga villages. The EHRC called on “the government, humanitarian organisations and the people of Ethiopia” to provide humanitarian assistance to people affected by the war as the needs continue to increase.