By Duke Burbridge
Last week should have been a celebration in Tigray. This is the first Orthodox Christmas since the signing of the cessation of hostilities between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF, which included, among other things, commitments from the Ethiopian government to remove foreign forces from Tigray and restore unhindered access to humanitarian assistance for the first time since 2020. For families still living in the areas of Tigray hit hardest by two years of violence and siege warfare, humanitarian aid remains blocked and from all accounts, the Eritrean occupation remains in place.
According to the weekly reports from the Food Security Cluster, only a handful of districts in Northern Tigray began distribution in December, most have been under siege for months, some for years. Tigray is roughly half the size of the US state of Virginia. Distribution should be happening in every district by now. For the past two years, the Ethiopian government used the war as a bad excuse to starve the people of Tigray, but now even that excuse has been removed. The Tigrayan families who were blocked during the war from urgently needed food and medical assistance are now somehow blocked by peace.
From a logistical standpoint, there should be no inaccessible areas of Tigray right now. Two months is enough time to begin to restore stockpiles of food, medicine, and other life-saving aid and to complete the current food distribution round. The districts in red are not just “hard-to-access,” they are being deliberately obstructed. According to UN-OCHA, more than 101,000 metric tons of food has entered Tigray since the signing of the Pretoria Agreement. While the delivery of fuel has been more restricted, around 400,000 liters came into Tigray a couple of weeks ago. If food, fuel, and medicine are coming into the relatively small region of Tigray through four routes split between the western, eastern, and southern borders, then humanitarian delivery should be streamlined.
In areas surrounding the capital that were still in the hands of the local government when the peace agreement was signed, food distribution does appear to be streamlined. However, in areas held by Ethio-Eritrean forces, which includes most of Northern Tigray, progress has been weak and inconsistent. For example, Tigray’s Central Zone is currently host to the largest concentration of households in need of food assistance in the region. Of the 1.4 million people in urgent need, around 236,000 should be receiving food every week. Last week, only 3,180 people received food. Astonishingly this is only the third lowest level of food distribution recorded in a week in the Central Zone since the “lifting” of the blockade.
Last week’s report was not all bad news in Tigray. It showed that at the end of 2022, the Southern and Southeastern zones, as well as Mekelle nearly finished the second round of food distribution. Due to their proximity to the capital, it is likely that they received something close to a standard six-week ration. Most areas of the Eastern zone have received food distribution, though reports from Adigrat indicate that food distribution is still extremely limited. Distribution appears to have also begun in Tahtay Adiyabo and Sheraro in the Northwestern Zone. If true, it would be the first time in several months.
However, according to sources from Adigrat, Adwa, and Shire as well as reports from BBC Tigrinya and screenshots of the most recent Emergency Coordination Council report from Tigray, Eritrean soldiers are still on the ground throughout Northern Tigray, they are still blocking humanitarian assistance, still looting anything that has not already been stolen and still targeting Tigrayan civilians for violence, including murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault. When Ethiopian federal soldiers are present, they do not intervene.
Non-intervention looks like the glue holding the peace process together. If Tigrayan civilians are being slaughtered, starved, sexually abused, displaced, or just left to languish in prison camps no one can intervene on any level. This includes the US or the United Nations, the African Union, the government of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian soldiers in Tigray, the peace agreement, even the peace process itself. These were the Ethiopian government’s preconditions for peace talks, and these are the terms of peace. It is difficult to imagine how a formal peace process could place a lower priority on civilian life.
It is impossible to say what will happen next with the humanitarian response in Tigray. There are obvious areas where physical access is being denied for the delivery of food, medicine, and other urgently needed supplies. Even if physical access is resolved, the delivery of food into Tigray has slowed considerably in recent weeks and not enough fuel is coming in for a sustained response.
Last week the UN spokesperson for the Secretary General downplayed the blockade of Northern Tigray, saying only that “some areas remain challenging to reach.” Ambiguous statements like these reflect the weak commitment of the United Nations to peace and the weak determination to open humanitarian access for civilians. The humanitarian response will always face “challenges.” The UN does not need a spokesman to deliver that news. The UN needs leadership that is prepared to confront the “challenges.”
No one wants a return to violence. No one wants to see peace fail. But supporting peace in Tigray has to mean supporting the security and survival of Tigrayan families… because that’s what “peace” means.