The 300-mile road, a strip of asphalt that cuts through some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet, is the only way to access a conflict-torn region where millions of Ethiopians are threatened with famine.
But it’s a fragile lifeline, fraught with dangers that have made the road nearly impassable for convoys trying to bring humanitarian supplies to the Tigris region, where local fighters have faced the Ethiopian military for eight months. . Aid workers say the main obstacle is an unofficial Ethiopian government blockade, enforced through obstruction and intimidation tactics, which effectively cut off the road and exacerbated what some have called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in a decade.
An aid convoy heading for the Tigris was shot down on the road on July 18, forcing it to turn around. In the past month, only 1 of 50 UN aid trucks made it through the route. The organization said it needed twice as many vehicles, traveling each day, to avoid a catastrophic shortage of food and medicine in the area. But nothing is progressing.
On Tuesday (27), the World Food Program said 170 aid trucks were stranded in Semera, the capital of neighboring Afar region, awaiting Ethiopia’s permission to cross the desert to at the Tiger. “These trucks need clearance to leave NOW,” agency director David Beasley wrote on Twitter. “People are starving.”
The crisis comes against the backdrop of an escalating war, spilling over into the Tigris and other regions, exacerbating ethnic tensions and heightening fears that Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, could collapses.
In Tigre, the needs are severe and increase rapidly. The UN estimates that 400,000 people in the region live in conditions of hunger and that 4.8 million more are in urgent need of assistance. Ethiopian soldiers and Eritrean allies have stolen grain, burned crops and destroyed farm implements, according to aid groups and local witnesses interviewed by The New York Times. This has caused many farmers to miss the planting season, triggering a food crisis that is expected to peak when harvests fail in September.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, said last week his government was providing “unrestricted humanitarian access” and pledged to “safely deliver essential supplies to its population in the Ethiopian Tiger region “.
But Abiy ministers have publicly accused aid workers of aiding and even arming Tiger fighters, a claim strongly denied by a UN body. And senior officials, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to harm their operations, said the government’s stated commitment to allow aid deliveries was belied by its actions on the ground. Aid workers have been harassed at airports or, in the case of a member of the World Food Program last week, have died in Tigris for lack of medical assistance.
Billene Seyoum Woldeyes, spokesman for Abiy, said federal forces left behind 44,000 tonnes of wheat and 2.5 million liters of edible oil when they withdrew from the Tigris in June. Obstacles to humanitarian access are “closely watched” by the government, she said. But on the ground, vital supplies are running out quickly – not just food and medicine, but also the fuel and money needed to deliver emergency relief.
Many aid agencies have started to scale down their operations in the Tigris, citing impossible working conditions. Beasley said the World Food Program would start to run out of produce on Friday. The struggle is taking place on what was once the main access road to Tigray, forcing aid organizations to turn to the only alternative: the precarious road that connects Tigray to Afar, crossing an arid, high temperature landscape.
When I walked through it on July 4, the war had radically changed direction.
Days earlier, Tiger fighters had invaded the regional capital, Mekelle, hours after besieged Ethiopian soldiers left the city. The local airport being closed, the only way out was the slow UN convoy that took the same desolate road as the fleeing Ethiopian soldiers. We passed 13 checkpoints, the first manned by militiamen and others guarded by Ethiopian government forces. We reach Semera after 12 o’clock.
A few days later, a second UN convoy heading for the Tigris was not so lucky. According to an aid worker in the convoy, Ethiopian federal police subjected Western aid workers to numerous road searches and arrested seven Tiger drivers overnight after seizing their vehicles. The vehicles and drivers were released two days later.
On July 18, a convoy of ten UN vehicles carrying food to the area was attacked nearly 100 kilometers north of Semera when unidentified snipers fired and looted several trucks, the program said. of ONU. The convoy turned around and all aid deliveries on that route have since been suspended.
In a statement, Abiy’s cabinet blamed the attack on the Popular Front on the liberation of the Tigris, the former ruling party in the region being fought by national government forces. But two UN officials, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to worsen relations with Ethiopian authorities, said they believed the attack was carried out by pro-government militia on demand. Ethiopian security forces.
A rare humanitarian flight to Tigre four days later confirmed fears among aid workers that the Ethiopian authorities were pursuing a strategy of formally allowing humanitarian access while working in practice to thwart it.
At Ethiopia’s main airport in Addis Ababa, 30 aid workers boarding the first UN flight to Mekelle in more than a month have been subjected to intense searches and harassment, according to several people on board. Ethiopian authorities have banned workers from bringing in cash over the equivalent of $ 250, satellite phones and personal medication; the last restriction made an official of Médecins Sans Frontières get off the plane. Six hours later, the flight takes off.
The World Food Program publicized the theft but did not mention the delays or harassment – an omission that particularly angered several UN officials and other aid workers, who said it was a standard of UN agencies not to publish criticisms of the Ethiopian authorities.
To further complicate the relief effort, war is now on its way to Afar. Last week, Tiger forces entered the area. In response, Abiy mobilized ethnic militias from other areas to repel the offensive.
Abiy also resorted to increasingly fiery language, calling the Tiger rulers a “cancer” and “weed” that must be eradicated, which foreign officials see as fueling a new wave of ethnic violence across. the country. .
Billene, the spokesperson, called the fears “alarmist”. The Ethiopian leader was “clearly referring to a terrorist organization, not to the people of the Tigris,” she said.