Tigray mothers share shocking accounts of dire famine conditions

Tigray mothers share shocking accounts of dire famine conditions

Testimonies from parents of severely malnourished children, medics, IDPs and residents who beg for food suggest dramatic worsening of situation in Ethiopia’s war-hit region.

Haftom Hailay receives care at Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekelle [Courtesy Al Jazeera]

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Eighteen-month-old Haftom Hailay is too weak to cry. All the boy, weighing three kilogrammes, can do is sigh in pain. His mother, malnourished herself, has no milk to breastfeed him.

Where they came from in Aragure, a village east of Mekelle, the capital Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region, the need for food is desperate.

“One month ago, everything ran out,” Haftom’s mother, Girmanesh Meles, 30 told Al Jazeera.

More than 10 months into the conflict, the famine-like conditions, which up until early July were limited to rural areas of Tigray, have now reached the outskirts of Mekelle.

“It became normal to spend four days eating nothing,” said Girmanesh, who like others tried to survive by eating sparingly whatever crops her relatives from Mekelle could donate.

“I waited for two weeks in the village … hoping someone would help,” she added. “But no was able to help. Everyone was like us.”

Worried about her son’s wellbeing, Girmanesh on September 11 embarked on foot from Aragure to bring Haftom to Tigray’s flagship Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekelle.

“My relatives told me to stay in the village, that there is nothing the hospital can do,” said Girmanesh. “[But] watching my boy getting weaker each day, I could not sit and wait until he dies in my hands.”

During the past two months, the main hospital in Mekelle has received 60 children with severe acute malnutrition. Of those 60, six have died, according to Dr Abrha Gebregzabher, a paediatrician supervising the treatment of malnourished children at Ayder hospital.

‘De facto humanitarian blockade’

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in November 2020 launched a military offensive to remove the governing party of Tigray, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, accusing it of attacking federal forces. The continuing conflict has killed thousands of people and displaced more than two million – and more recently, has expanded to the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar.

Communications have been cut off across Tigray since June 29, when Tigrayan fighters retook most of the region. However, Al Jazeera managed to contact people in Mekelle and gather exclusive footage showing the extent of the humanitarian crisis. Interviews with 12 people in the city – including first-hand testimonies of parents currently caring for severely malnourished children, doctors, nurses, internally displaced people (IDPs) and residents trying to survive by begging for food – as well as videos and images taken from inside Ayder hospital suggest the dire humanitarian conditions are worsening.

In one image, a small emaciated boy is crying, a feeding tube going into his nose, his skeletal feet covered in wounds. The others show similar scenes.

‘De facto humanitarian blockade’

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in November 2020 launched a military offensive to remove the governing party of Tigray, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, accusing it of attacking federal forces. The continuing conflict has killed thousands of people and displaced more than two million – and more recently, has expanded to the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar.

Communications have been cut off across Tigray since June 29, when Tigrayan fighters retook most of the region. However, Al Jazeera managed to contact people in Mekelle and gather exclusive footage showing the extent of the humanitarian crisis. Interviews with 12 people in the city – including first-hand testimonies of parents currently caring for severely malnourished children, doctors, nurses, internally displaced people (IDPs) and residents trying to survive by begging for food – as well as videos and images taken from inside Ayder hospital suggest the dire humanitarian conditions are worsening.

In one image, a small emaciated boy is crying, a feeding tube going into his nose, his skeletal feet covered in wounds. The others show similar scenes.

According to the United Nations, more than 400,000 people are facing famine-like conditions and 1.8 million are on the brink of famine across Tigray. The region of some six million people remains under a “de facto humanitarian blockade”, the UN said earlier this month, warning of a “looming catastrophe” and urging all warring sides to allow and facilitate the unimpeded passage of aid.

The September 2 statement by Grant Leaity, the UN’s acting humanitarian coordinator for Ethiopia, said a minimum of 100 trucks of food, non-food items and fuel must enter the region every day – but access has been extremely difficult. “Stocks of relief aid, cash and fuel are running very low or are completely depleted. Food stocks already ran out on 20 August,” it added.

Separately, the World Food Programme said last week that, since July 12, 445 contracted non-agency trucks have entered Tigray, but only 38 have returned, calling their disappearance “the primary impediment” to stepping up humanitarian response.

Ethiopian authorities and Tigrayan officials have traded the blame for the blocking of aid convoys attempting to enter Tigray. According to the United States officials, less than 10 percent of needed humanitarian supplies reached Tigray over the past month due to obstruction of aid access.

In Mekelle, people interviewed by Al Jazeera said the deteriorating humanitarian situation was due to the blockade following the withdrawal of federal troops from the city in late June.

“Up until the siege, we were in a relatively better condition because the residents of Mekelle used to bring us food,” said Tesfay Gebretsadik, who fled to the capital from Humera, in western Tigray. “After the siege, all donations stopped. The inflation, and everything gets heavy. Residents are focused on saving their own life.”

Al Jazeera reached out to the spokesperson of the Ethiopian prime minister’s office, Billene Seyoum, for a comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

Begging for food

While aid corridors and telecommunications remain shut, Tigray’s banks have also been cut off from the federal system. This means that it is impossible to send remittances into the region, where cash is running out.

“Economic activities are stuck,” Micheal Gebreyesus, 35 a resident in Mekelle told Al Jazeera. “Since early September, we are only allowed to withdraw 1,000 birr (approximately $22; previously 2,000-birr withdrawals were permitted) per month,” he added, lamenting that the sum cannot cover the skyrocketing prices of basic food items.

“Teff (essential grain to bake injera) is 6,000 birr ($130.43) per quintal (220 pounds). Cooking oil is 700 ($15) birr and that is if you are lucky to get it in the market. Essential vegetables like tomato and onion are 100 birr ($2.17) per kilo.”

The crisis is driving residents to beg for food, including those like Worknesh Welday who were better off a few months ago.

The 25-year-old mother-of-two said she was ashamed she had to go from house to house, knocking on strangers’ doors to ask for a loaf of bread or a small portion of injera.

“I am used to spending two days eating nothing. But my children cannot spend more than one day. They cry; I beg so that they stop crying,” said Worknesh.

Since the fighting erupted, thousands of people from across Tigray have fled to Mekelle in search of safety. Sheltered in schools, these IDPs people are waiting for food aid. During the past two weeks, four people in Mai’woyni secondary school have died, residents said.

“They died … after weeks of starvation. Two of them were elderly and the remaining [were] children,” said Tesfay, the IDP from Humera who spends his days begging outside the school.

‘He cries non-stop’

Meanwhile, in Ayder hospital basic medical supplies and medicines are also running out. Doctors and nurses who spoke to Al Jazeera called on regional authorities and international aid group to support them, warning that most services have been suspended and the food stock for patients has finished.

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2 Comments

  1. I was pretty young during the 1984 Famine of Tigray, but I remember how my Dad used to speak about it on occasions with tears in his eyes, which made me feel really sad then!

    Abiy Ahmed is SUCCEEDING in re-creating the same Catastrophe all over again, because the West is more interested in KEEPING this token, “model Black African State” intact, than what happens to its citizens, year after year, decade after decade, on and on; because of the undeniably Imperial, armed Amhara Settler dominated, COLONIAL nature of the country!

    Until the people of the Empire are accorded a right they have been denied when other African nations gained their independence in the 1960’s, to determine their own future and their relationship to each other, the Amhara Settler State will continue its WAR OF CONTROL indefinitely, resulting in the type of the 1984 catastrophic mass starvation and the current famine being unleashed on the people of Tigray!

    I truly grieve for the innocent people of Tigray; who are once more becoming a VICTIM of a famine caused by ANOTHER WAR OF CONTROL instigated by the SAME exact political class from 1984!

  2. Irkoo,

    The 1973-1974 Famine, where Haile Sellasie was recorded feeding Top Sirloin Steak to his dogs while the Tegaru and the Wolloye people died in their thousands daily, became a reason for the Military to remove the King from power! I think something like 200,000 people died during a window of about a year!

    You were probably not even born then to have known about this, but this famine was caused by the Amhara elite’s war against Eritrea! WAR, WAR, WAR, WAR of control and domination! That is how the Amhara Nafxagna elite have finally managed to destroy their own Ethiopia! LOL

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