The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Unable to control Tigray, Ethiopia isolates region already beset by famine and war

People celebrate the return of the rebel Tigray Defense Forces in Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region of Ethiopia, on June 29. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)
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Editor's note

An earlier version of this article quoted a U.N. report as saying a key bridge was “blown up” by Amhara Region Special Forces, a paramilitary group. The United Nations’ humanitarian coordination office, which published the report, later removed that language and reference to the group without notice. In response to a question about the changes, UNOCHA public information officer Hayat Abu-Saleh said, “There was no verification of a third party so we had to remove it.” This article has been updated to reflect UNOCHA’s revised report.

The Ethiopian government’s inability to sustain its military offensive in the mountainous northern Tigray region was laid bare this week, as rebel forces chased their adversaries out of key cities and were met, as they triumphantly marched in, with jubilation from locals who see them as liberators.

As much as it looked like defeat, it was not, according to top Ethiopian officials, including Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Instead, they and their allies had vacated the region, and declared a unilateral cease-fire, to allow the beleaguered local population to take advantage of the incoming rainy season to plant crops.

But in the days since the cease-fire, reports from the United Nations and aid groups imply a concerted campaign by government-aligned forces to punish and isolate Tigray, destroying key infrastructure in ways that will complicate the delivery of urgent relief, if not make it impossible, in a region where hundreds of thousands are already estimated to be experiencing war-driven famine.

What’s behind the renewed conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region?

“A cease fire doesn’t mean cutting a region off power or destroying critical infrastructure,” the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said Friday on Twitter. “A credible cease fire means doing everything possible so that aid reaches the millions of children, women and men who urgently need it.”

Aid groups report that there has been no Internet, phone service or electricity in Tigray since Ethiopian troops retreated and that no food or fuel are being allowed in. Both of the latter are essential — millions are depending on food aid for survival, and hospitals are using fuel-dependent generators to keep the power on.

On July 1, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordination office confirmed the destruction of a key bridge spanning a deep river valley that had been the main route for aid to be driven in. Who is responsible for the destruction remains unclear. An initial report by UNOCHA blamed an Amhara paramilitary group, but the report was later revised to remove mention of the group’s responsibility. The Ethiopian government blamed the bridge’s destruction on the rebels.

All roads into the region were effectively closed by troops or impassable, and no flights have been allowed by the government since June 22.

“We need an air bridge badly,” Tommy Thompson, the World Food Program’s emergency coordinator in Tigray’s main city of Mekele, told reporters Friday. Flying all aid in, however, is dramatically more expensive and less efficient than shipping it by road.

Banks remain closed and are, in any case, emptied of money, Thompson said.

U.N. agencies and aid groups also accused the Ethiopian military, or ENDF, of stealing critical equipment from their offices, which echoes previous allegations of government-aligned troops hijacking aid convoys and using both the aid and vehicles for their own purposes. At least 12 aid workers have been killed during the conflict so far.

“On 28 June, partners, including UN Agencies, reported several incidents related to ENDF elements entering their offices and confiscated telecommunications/internet equipment in Mekelle, Dansha, and Abdurafi,” a U.N. report on Thursday said. “VSATs and other communications equipment were also taken from an INGO compound in the South-Eastern zone,” a reference to an international nongovernmental organization.

The U.S. government, which has imposed visa sanctions on top Ethiopian officials and suspended security assistance to the country, tentatively welcomed the cease-fire as a potential “positive step” toward peace. But Samantha Power, who leads the U.S. Agency for International Development, called the current prevention of access to the region “disastrous.” U.S. estimates put the number of people in Tigray experiencing famine at around 900,000.

Ethiopia’s government has pushed back in public and in private against allegations it is using hunger to punish Tigrayans who have largely supported the rebels.

“The insinuation that we are trying to suffocate the Tigrayan people by denying humanitarian access and using hunger as a weapon of war is beyond the pale. There is absolutely no reason for us to do so. These are our people,” Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen told reporters in Addis Ababa. “We have been exerting every possible effort to rebuild damaged infrastructure and restore electricity, telecoms, Internet and banking services.”

In an address to a supportive crowd in a hotel ballroom in the capital, Addis Ababa, on Tuesday, Abiy said his government has spent 20 percent of its annual budget — roughly $2.3 billion — on food and infrastructure for the area.

“After we made all these expenses and efforts, no one, including the international community, commended us and encouraged us to do more,” he said, “Instead, everyone accused us, saying, ‘Famine is about to happen because of you.’"

Pressed on the government’s game plan to allow more aid into Tigray, Deputy Foreign Minister Redwan Hussein told reporters Friday that the government is working to reopen airspace but that rebels, not the government, should be held responsible for any difficulties aid groups might face in delivering aid.

U.N. staff reported a “calm” period in fighting this week, indicating that troops on all sides were in mostly defensive positions. Tigray’s rebel leaders claimed to news outlets that they were pushing west and south into areas of Tigray that had been taken over by Amhara forces.

Rebel forces in Ethiopia’s Tigray region claim to have regained control of the regional capital

The government of Eritrea, which borders Tigray to the north and which lent crucial firepower to the Ethiopian offensive, has not commented on the cease-fire, though Redwan, Ethiopia’s deputy foreign minister, said Eritrean troops were withdrawing from Tigray.

Eritrean troops stand accused of the conflict’s worst atrocities, including mass rapes and door-to-door killings based on ethnicity. But all warring sides are accused of war crimes. The Ethiopian government says it is cooperating with independent investigations and prosecuting soldiers accused of crimes, but it has rejected the findings of major human rights groups and journalists. It also called on the African Union to drop its own investigation.

The war’s new direction may hinge on the Tigrayan rebels’ success in retaking western Tigray, which borders Sudan, from Amhara forces, said William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“Any Tigrayan attempt to remove Amhara control would naturally be followed by an attempt to establish a supply line into Sudan, especially as other supply routes are being blocked,” he said. “It remains a focus of the Ethiopian government to box in Tigray’s leadership, as it has been since even before the war broke out, so there’s a clear logic to the federal government trying to maintain control of the Sudan border and prevent such a supply line.”

In downplaying the turn of events in Tigray over the past week, Abiy indicated that other matters were of more pressing concern, including the filling of an enormous dam on the upper reaches of the Blue Nile, the most voluminous tributary of the Nile that supplies the vast majority of Sudan’s and Egypt’s water.

Tensions over the dam have been ratcheting up and were exacerbated by the war in Tigray, which sent more than 60,000 refugees into Sudan and also provided a window for Sudan to retake control of a disputed border region while Ethiopian troops were engaged elsewhere.

“Fighting moving closer to the international border, or an increased reliance on humanitarian aid coming via Sudan, would risk further escalation between Ethiopia and Sudan. There is also a danger that such humanitarian efforts would be seen by Addis as support for the rebel leadership in Mekele,” said Davison, who noted recent government statements accusing aid agencies of covertly smuggling weapons to the Tigrayan leadership.

The U.N. Security Council, which has not held a public session on Tigray since the war erupted eight months ago, is set to meet Friday to discuss developments in the region and next week to discuss tensions over the dam. Despite a strong push by Western representatives to include Tigray in previous deliberations, many African countries, as well as China and Russia, had argued that the conflict is an internal Ethiopian affair and outside the body’s remit.

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