News Highlights Extra No. 8: 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.

Food and water shortages in Tigray
According to Reuters, aid agencies that finally entered the remote parts of the Tigray region state that people are dying from lack of healthcare, are suffering food and water shortages, and remain “terrified”. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) emergency programme head, Mari Carmen Vinoles, told Reuters that beyond Mekelle and a handful of cities, there are hardly any healthcare facilities, meaning people are dying without life-saving treatment for conditions such as pneumonia or complications of childbirth. Action Against Hunger’s (AAH) Ethiopia director, Panos Navrozidis, states: “Central Tigray is a black hole” as aid groups only have access to certain towns and many of the people are remaining within rural villages from fear of fighting and are unable to seek food and medical treatment. The Water Resource Management Bureau of Tigray has reported that access to clean water in Tigray is at risk due to “damaged infrastructure, looted offices, stolen equipment and an inoperative dam.” The Economist reports that signs indicate once again that hunger is being used as a weapon in Ethiopia. Aid agencies give an estimate that between 2 and 4.5 million people are in need of urgent care. Mark Lowcock, the UN’s humanitarian chief, states that “for more than two months there has been essentially no access to Tigray. There are 450 tonnes of supplies we’ve been trying to get in that are stuck.”

Military situation
Indications are emerging that Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) and Eritrean forces, who are allies in the fight against Tigray regional forces, are clashing. It was reported that fighting started in Adigrat, where according to sources, Eritrean troops wanted to transport Ethiopian tanks to Eritrea. ENDF soldiers resisted. Further fighting was reported in Kwiha, close to Mekelle. Heavy shooting is reported around Mekelle city. It is reported that ENDF has sent reinforcements to Mekelle. Fighting was also reported among ENDF allied and Tigray regional forces in Endabaguna and May Tsebri surroundings. Further reports have emerged of killing and other atrocities, including rape, being committed upon civilians. Furthermore, it is reported that Eritrea is claiming territory deep into Tigray. Eritrean troops have put their flags in Sheraro. 

Educated Tigrayans threatened
On 26 January, it was reported that Eritrea is allegedly implementing a policy that all educated and “elite” Tigrayans should be ‘forced to flee’ or ‘squashed’ to remove all leadership from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Previously, in mid-November, a list of warrants to arrest TPLF leaders was published. They were accused by the government of Addis Ababa of human rights violations and corruption. Members were also accused of: “attempting to forcefully dismantle the constitution and constitutional order by arming, training and funding OLF-Shene group and other anti-peace elements” as reported in the statement released by the Ethiopian Federal Commission on 12 November 2020. Six persons named on the arrest warrant list have been confirmed as killed thus far; Asmelash Weldesilassie, Daniel Assefa, Seyoum Mesfin, Abay Tsehaye, Zeray Asgedom and Sekoture Getachaw. Six others have been arrested.

International concerns over atrocities in Tigray
The United States (US) secretary of state nominee, Antony Blinken, and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, have expressed grave concern about the humanitarian situation in the ongoing conflict in the Tigray region. An EU envoy will be sent to Ethiopia in the beginning of February. EU Foreign Ministers have been briefed in the EU Council on the situation in Tigray and have agreed to more political pressure. In the US, nominee Blinken states that the US needs to take an active approach, that access to the Tigray region needs to be guaranteed for provision of humanitarian assistance and accountability, and urges the restoration of communications. He expresses concerns that the situation may destabilize the Horn of Africa. The US also issued a statement saying that all Eritrean soldiers should immediately leave the Tigray region. The Louisville Ethiopian community urges that the US intervenes in the Tigray conflict and calls for President Biden to add pressure to help end the humanitarian disaster. Four retired US ambassadors to Ethiopia wrote an open letter to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, which states their concerns about the political developments in the country and their hope that the Ethiopian government “will ensure the protection of civilians, the independent investigation of human rights violations, and unrestricted access for the United Nations and other relief agencies.” Poland has also expressed deep concerns on the massacre of civilians in front of the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zian in Aksum and calls on all parties in the conflict to refrain from violence and respect human rights.

EP AFET and DEVE Committee joint meeting on Tigray
On January 26, Ambassador of Ethiopia to Belgium, Hirut Zemene, spoke at the European Parliament’s Joint Committees on Foreign Affairs (AFET) and Development (DEVE) on the current situation in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia and discussed views with members of the Joint Committees. The meeting came after the EU has stopped budget support to Ethiopia over concerns of human rights abuses. The European Parliament committee members were informed by Ambassador Hirut on what he referred to as the “law and order” operation in Tigray, and on the ongoing efforts to provide humanitarian assistance, as well as the mission of rebuilding damaged infrastructure and restoring public service in Tigray. MEPs repeatedly called for humanitarian access of international NGOs, support to the population who are facing famine and restoration of communication in the Tigray region. They asked for clarifications about the presence of Eritrean troops on the ground as well. The ambassador maintained that the fighting ended three weeks after the start of the conflict on November 4th, and therefore free humanitarian aid access is not an issue and asked the EU to proceed on the cooperation and funds to Ethiopia. 

Regional situation
Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, Dina Mufti, states that:“Ethiopia will only have negotiations with neighboring Sudan after its forces withdraw from Ethiopia’s territory.” Tensions remain high at the Sudan/Ethiopia border as Sudanese officials report that their soldiers came under Ethiopian ENDF mortar fire on Sunday 24 January while patrolling the border. This comes as reports indicate that Ethiopia is starting to fill the reservoir of the GERD dam. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry stated that “Egypt will not allow any attempt to impose the policy of fait accompli and will not allow any party to control the Nile River”. Sudanese officials also expressed their concern. Furthermore, Kenyan and Ethiopian troops have been fighting for control of Beled Xaawo town of Somalia. Ethiopia is assisting militia loyal to President Farmaajo while Kenya is supporting other militia for Abdirashid Janan, Jubaland minister of security.

Damage in Tigray
Massive damage and looting has been reported in Adigrat, Tigray,  by a delegation from the Ethiopian bishops’ conference. According to Father Teshome Fikre Woldetensae, secretary-general of the bishops’ conference, the diocese of Adigrat has been almost destroyed as it was partly used as a military command centre during the clashes. “Adigrat minor seminary building and water tanker (are) partly damaged by the shelling fragments of the explosives, chapel at the cemetery is partly damaged, and windows of the high school are damaged and broken” as shown by the delegation’s report. Catholic and Orthodox churches as well as mosques and other sacred  places have reported damage, including  stealing of manuscripts and treasures. Among the locations, there are the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion and the 7th-century mosque complex at Negash, in Aksum. Experts from the Hiob Ludolf Centre for Ethiopian and Eritrean Studies consider the Tigray’s rich cultural heritage as “highly endangered” and raise the attention on cultural patrimony lost during the fights. Communication remains difficult as all phone lines were again shut off in Tigray.

Presence of Eritrean soldiers reported by local witnesses
Despite Ethiopian Federal Army still denying the presence of Eritrean soldiers in Tigray, witnesses and international diplomats continue to confirm their presence. Eritrean troops have also attended a meeting with humanitarian aid workers and Ethiopian authorities. Zenebu, a health worker, stated that she saw Eritrean soldiers in mid-december. Another person fled from Hawzen and relocated to the U.S. confirmed the looting and killing by the Eritrean army. Similar testimony has been reported by refugees in Sudanese refugee camps who escaped from the Aksum area: “[p]eople from Axum said Eritrean forces killed many young men.” said Tewodros Tefera to AP News. Laetitia Bader, researcher for Human Rights Watch, raises the attention on a wide range of abuses by Eritrean forces and calls for an UN international investigation and scrutiny. A US spokesperson stated that “credible reports of looting, sexual violence, assaults in refugee camps and other human rights abuses” have reached them, and they call for an immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops. 

Somalian families concerned over Somali soldiers in Tigray
Somalian mothers are raising protest in Mogadishu against Somalia’s government over the fear that Somali soldiers have been involved in the conflict in Tigray. Families are concerned about where they have been sent, after they were sent to military centres in Eritrea for training. Fatuma Moallim Abdulle, mother of a young soldier, stated to the Associated Press that: “I heard that our children who were sent to Eritrea for military training have been taken and their responsibility was turned over to (Ethiopian Prime Minister) Abiy Ahmed to fight for him”. Somalia’s information minister, Osman Abokor Dubbe, is denying any involvement of Somalia’s troops in the Tigray region. However, the head of the country’s parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, Abdulqadir Ossoble Ali, asked the president Abdullahi Mohamed Abdullahi to investigate allegations of participation. Meanwhile, Abdishakur Warsame, the opposition’s party leader, called for an independent national commission on the issue.

Allegations of sexual violence in Tigray region
The United Nations states it has received “disturbing” reports of sexual harassment and assault, including of individuals forced to rape members of their own family or have sex in exchange for basic supplies. Pramila Patten, the United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, stated that she is “greatly concerned by serious allegations of sexual violence in the Tigray region in Ethiopia, including a high number of alleged rapes in the capital, Mekelle.” She calls on all parties involved in the hostilities in the Tigray region “ to commit to a zero-tolerance policy for crimes of sexual violence, in line with their respective obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law.” Aid workers said they have received multiple reports of abuse in Tigray stating that women face the impossible choice: “either I kill you or rape you”. Women and girls seem to have been especially targeted in refugee camps within Ethiopia, and medical centers are under pressure for emergency contraceptives and sexually transmitted infection tests, reports Reuters.