Evidence is growing that starvation is being used as a weapon of war in Ethiopia
Apr 22nd 2021
PEOPLE FLEEING war are often driven by a fear of bullets and shells. But in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, where fighting broke out in November between government forces and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a former ruling party that reverted to being a guerrilla movement, guns are not the only weapons of war. The United Nations has received reports of rape by soldiers. Millions face the threat of starvation, owing in part to the actions of the Ethiopian government’s forces and its allies.
The suffering is widespread. Central and eastern Tigray, as well as parts of the north-west, are facing “crisis”or “emergency” hunger levels, according to the UN’s Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), meaning that households are suffering from acute malnutrition (see map). The next and final phase on the IPC scale is “famine” marked by an extreme lack of food, resulting in starvation or death.
Before the conflict broke out, Tigray was largely free from hunger; now the UN estimates that 4.5m need food aid.
Such food shortages are not simply a case of collateral damage. Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have been looting shops and farms, burning food that they cannot take with them. Water tanks and reservoirs have also been targeted.
In April the World Peace Foundation (WPF), a research organisation based at Tufts University in Massachusetts, published a report alleging systematic “starvation crimes” perpetrated by belligerents. Ethiopia’s government has also been accused of blocking food deliveries to civilians. Between 700,000 and 2.2m people are estimated to be displaced within Tigray, separated from their homes and livelihoods. More than 60,000 have fled into neighbouring Sudan.
Meanwhile, the death toll from the conflict continues to climb. A paper published last month by researchers at Ghent University in Belgium identified 1,942 people killed in the fighting, though the true number may be much higher. Nearly a third of the victims documented by the researchers were killed in point-blank murders or civilian massacres. In most cases, the perpetrators were believed to be Ethiopian or Eritrean soldiers, although in 16% of the deaths identified by the researchers, the killers’ affiliation was unclear. Inadequate health care and food shortages could cause the number of casualties to soar even higher.
The WPF reckons that in central and eastern Tigray alone, between 50 and 100 people are dying every day from causes directly related to hunger. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has promised to investigate allegations of human-rights abuses in Tigray “as soon as possible”. For the families of the many who have already died, that is already too late.