News Highlights Extra No. 12: 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.

Regional preparations for the war in Tigray started before 4 November
On Wednesday 10 March 2021, EEPA released its 100th situation report on war in Tigray region, Ethiopia, together with a briefing on the war since its beginning. The report analyses the situation around the commencing of the operation. A picture is emerging that regional actors were involved in the conflict from the start and pre-planned it. The Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy launched the ‘law and order operation’ in the early morning of 4 November, after the attack of the Tigray regional forces on the Northern Command base. Before this, Eritrean soldiers were already in Gerhu-Serenay, a town near the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Tigray People’s Liberation Front states there was a build-up of military forces in Raya, south of Tigray, western Tigray and south-eastern Tigray a few weeks prior. An Amhara police commissioner also indicated that Amhara forces had been well prepared. In addition, Sudanese forces were stationed at the border between Sudan and Ethiopia after prior agreement between both governments ahead of the start of the war.

Briefing on the War in Tigray
The EEPA briefing on the war in Tigray lists violations of human rights committed in the conflict in Tigray, which have been called possible war crimes and crimes against humanity by Amnesty International. Concern is raised about both the visible massacres of Axum and Mai Kadra, but also the fear of hidden killings in smaller villages. This has now led to an estimated 52.000 civilians in the Tigray region, say Tigray opposition parties. The UN Human Rights Chief, Michelle Bachelet, has stated that: “serious violations of international law, possibly amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, may have been committed by multiple actors in the conflict.” An estimated 2.5 million people have been displaced since November and 4.5 million are in urgent need of medical and food supplies. Attacks on refugee camps in Tigay led to at least 20.000 missing Eritrean refugees: Adi Harush and Hitsats refugees camps have been systematically destroyed by Eritrean troops, while the humanitarian access by international aid employees has not yet been restored. The amount of women raped is estimated at 10.000 and medical support can not be provided as 90% of clinics and hospitals have been destroyed. Ethiopian heritage has been seriously looted and damaged and an uncalculated number of religious and historical artefacts and crafts have been lost. Media were prevented from accessing the Tigray region, which leads to incomplete reporting from inside. Intimidation, arrests and threats to local journalists have been reported.

Gender Based Violence in Tigray (Special Report)
Gender based violence (GBV) in Tigray is widespread. Sexual violence, rape and assaults on women have been documented, even though most of them go unreported. An conservatively estimated number of victims of rape in Tigray amounts to ten thousand. In Mekelle alone, 750 rape survivors were admitted to Ayder hospital, according to Dedebit media. Victims range from young girls to grandmothers. This kind of violence goes unreported mainly because of the stigma women have to bear if they testify, but also because they do not believe they will find protection or justice. Furthermore, they are afraid that their families will be punished. Graver cases are reported as a consequence of women seeking medical help. Doctors stated that women are being gang-raped, drugged and gravely injured in the assaults. From the reports, it appears that women are targeted as a collective punishment for the war. Family members have been forced to carry out rapes or watch as soldiers raped women, a practice that destroys the dignity of those involved and the fabric of society as a consequence. Pregnancies resulting from rape are difficult to terminate, since hospitals have been looted. Those who fled to Sudan face obstacles due to Sudanese law, since obtaining an abortion there is difficult. Refugee women are resorting to unsafe abortions. Violence against women is pepetrated by soldiers against the Tigray population, but also  against Eritrean refugees in Tigray. In the last case, Eritrean troops may carry out violence to force Eritrean refugees to submit. There is an urgent need for  investigation of these crimes, including the use of rape as a weapon of war.

International concern over conflict in Tigray
On 4 March, after the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meeting, United States (US) Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, gave a press conference in which she urged “the Ethiopian government to support an immediate end to the fighting in Tigray.” She stated that “prompt withdrawal of Eritrean forces and Amhara regional forces from Tigray are essential steps” to bring peace in Tigray. Mark Lowcock, UN Relief Chief, told the UNSC that “[i]t is now abundantly clear to all […] that Eritrean Defense Forces are operating throughout Tigray” and that “Eritrean Defense Forces must leave Ethiopia”. The 4th of March closed-door UNSC meeting ended without a resolution between member states. According to diplomats, veto-wielding Russia and China and non-permanent member India objected to the joint statement on the grounds that it interfered in Ethiopia’s internal affairs. The Washington Post wrote an opinion in which it suggested US President Biden to be prepared to put sanctions on Ethiopia if necessary. US Senators Jim Risch and Ben Cardin reintroduced a bill calling for the parties to the Tigray conflict to cease hostilities and for belligerents to cooperate with independent investigations. The British government stated it “condemns the destruction of the Hitsats and Shimbella refugee camps in Tigray” and calls for “urgent assistance to those refugees displaced as a result.” It also voiced its concern over humanitarian inaccessibility in Tigray and stated that “[a]lleged violations of international law must be investigated”. The UN Security Council meets again on 11 March.

Humanitarian access and the situation in Tigray
On 3 March, the Ethiopian Office of the Prime Minister stated that humanitarian agencies will have access to operate in Tigray by notification to the Ministry of Peace. This decision has come as a response to the extremely concerning situation in Tigray. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA): “[…] the overall humanitarian response has been deeply inadequate compared to the needs on the ground [of Tigrayan people]”. Intensified fighting, insecurity, bureaucratic operations and restricted funding have limited the reach of humanitarian aid. Rural communities are still largely isolated from assistance with the majority of aid concentrated in cities along the main road from Alamata, Mekelle, Adigrat to Shire and their adjacent woredas. Some areas have been given no assistance since the conflict started, four months ago. Humanitarian efforts have been further impeded by disruptions in communication and distribution mechanisms preventing people from accessing aid. Looting and vandalisation of humanitarian supplies has proved problematic for many national and international organisations. At least 85 incidents of looting of humanitarian vehicles have been documented, and many health centres, water points, warehouses and offices have been ransacked or destroyed. Humanitarian workers are hoping to engage with local authorities to strengthen security of operations. Immediate responses are needed to prevent the situation from worsening. A Humanitarian Needs Overview launched on 5 March estimates that approximately 4.5 million people are currently in need of humanitarian assistance in Tigray. The figure is expected to rise as the number of displaced persons and relocations increase. 

Amhara military involvement in Tigray War
Increasing reports point to the image that Amhara soldiers were deeply involved in inciting incidents at the start of the Tigray war as well as recent forced relocations in Tigray. Commissioner Abere Adamu, Chief Commissioner of the Amhara Regional State Police Commission, stated that before the Tigrayan conflict arose Amhara had already “[..]done [its] homework […] The war started that night after we [Amhara security forces] had already completed our preparations,” he added. Preparations involved ‘deployment of forces’ on the borders between Amhara and Tigray. Amhara troops then further instigated conflict by retrieving members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) stationed near Humera and commanding them to fight the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Since the war began, Amhara regional state Special Forces have been involved in the removal of thousands of Tigrayans off their land. More than 131,000 people have been displaced in the Tigray region and neighboring Afar and Amhara regions since the conflict began last November. This week between 3,500-5,000 people have been relocated from Western Tigray. Dina Mufti, Ethiopian spokesperson on foreign affairs, downplayed the involvement of Amhara troops in Tigray, stating: “We don’t have any Oromo, Amhara, Tigray or other regional forces; rather there is one federal force, which is acting based on the direction given by the federal government.”

Ethiopia and Sudan border dispute
The border dispute between Ethiopia and Sudan continues to escalate. Experts are worried that a small spark could trigger a broader conflict between the two states and their allies. Sudan News Agency (SUNA) reports that the Ethiopian government had supplied weapons and ammunition to a Sudanese rebel group to attack Karmak City, a border town in the Blue Nile State. As a response, Sudan sent reinforcement to the army deployed in the border area. The Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs previously suggested that Ethiopia wants to gain control of some Sudanese lands. There are reports that Eritrea is participating in the military escalation. Furthermore, Egypt and Sudan have recently signed a military cooperation agreement. Tensions are rising around the question of the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Egypt’s President, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, stated that a second filling of the GERD “may threaten [to cause] serious damage to the interests of Egypt and Sudan”, and supports negotiations mediated by the United Nations, the United States, the African Union and the European Union. According to Ethiopia, inviting other parties as mediators “while the AU-led negotiation has not been finalised is demeaning the efforts of the AU”. 

Insurgence among Tigray population
As reported by The Guardian, massacres and atrocities of previous months are causing pushback from  the Tigray population. Although the situation in Mekelle is fairly stable, in rural areas the Ethiopian Army and Eritrean troops are facing clashes and growing opposition by civilians. Even though PM Abiy Ahmed has claimed the victory in December, fighting is continuously reported, including in mid-February in Samre, a village near to Mekelle; clashes have recently been reported in Adigrat, Adwa and in the north-west of Mekelle, but the obstacle to press monitoring prevents a full picture from emerging. Nevertheless, US and EU officials indicated that a new wave of fights has a high chance of occuring in the near future and one official stated that a “complex, dynamic and chaotic” framework is emerging from indicators. The source added that in his opinion, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has “got hit pretty hard in the first months and took some time to recover. Now they seem to have rallied”. According to Wolbert Smidt, a German expert specializing in Ethiopian ethnography and history, the geographical landscape and the secret connection network between locals are the reason why: “[…] governments in the past have never been able to establish effective control without a certain degree of recognition of local autonomy.”