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Right now, there are two Tigrays. In one Tigray, the humanitarian response is picking up momentum and many families who have survived two and a half years of genocidal collective punishment are finally receiving aid. However, in the other Tigray, families are still starving to death under a military occupation, blocked from humanitarian access, and hidden from the entire world.
After two strong weeks for food assistance in Tigray, where distribution has approached or exceeded weekly goals, progress in humanitarian access should have reached nearly everyone in the region currently at the greatest risk of starvation-related death. However, due to undisclosed obstructions, the famine response in Tigray is still so sporadic that many of the worst hit areas in the region received no food in the past month. When food distribution returns to one zone, it does not ease the starvation in the other zones.
Tigrayan families who needed food urgently in February, need it more urgently now. It has been four months since the Cessation of Hostilities was signed in Pretoria, South Africa. The terms of this treaty called all parties to facilitate unhindered humanitarian access to anywhere in Tigray where the need is present. Yet there are still vast areas of Tigray that remain occupied by Eritrean soldiers and Fano militia, or are otherwise unreachable by aid agencies.
Pitfalls and Progress in February
By the middle of February, aid distribution in Tigray was only reaching half the number of households that were receiving food aid during the conflict. Note that the data labels in the chart mark the week prior to the collapse of the TDF defense in the Northwest and Central zones of Tigray and the week ending February 15. The overall total dropped nearly 30 percentage points and the reach of food assistance outside of the capital had been halved. A post-conflict decline in aid access is not supposed to happen. It’s common to measure aid access before and after conflict, it is assumed to be worse during conflict.
The decline in access to food assistance was felt in every zone outside of the capital. Prior to the fall of Shire and subsequent collapse of the Tigrayan defense, food aid had been distributed to a majority of people-in-need in each zone. By February 15, the distribution of food aid had fallen by at least 40 percentage points in four out of five zones. As shown in the table below, in mid-October, the largest gap between the need and delivery of food assistance was 35% in the Southern Zone. By February 15, the 35% gap in the Central zone was by far the smallest.
In the last two weeks of February, the humanitarian response has roared back to action in half of the region, while the other half is still stalled. In the last reported week, according to the Ethiopia Food Cluster, more people received food assistance in the Central Zone than any other single week for the past two years. This did not have a severe impact on the six-week rolling total, because it has now been more than six weeks since the last time food was distributed in Mekelle. While half a million people finally received food in the Central Zone, another half a million people in the Mekelle have crossed the threshold of six weeks without food assistance. As shown in the chart below, the progress in the Central zone is also offset by a sharp decline in distribution in the Northwestern Zone.
Collapse of the World Food Programme’s (WFP) Famine Response
The most dramatic difference is between the areas administered by the WFP and the Joint Emergency Operating Program (JEOP). In the past five weeks since February 1, the JEOP distributed nearly two million rations in the Central, Eastern, Southeastern, and Southern zones of Tigray. During that same period, WFP only distributed nearly 53,000 rations to the Northwestern and Southern zone.
Nearly all of the 588,333 rations distributed by WFP in the current round since December went to people in Mekelle. It is undeniable that this aid is urgently needed in Mekelle, but distributing aid in the same city where most of their supplies are stored is a modest institutional achievement. This suggests that WFP’s operations are currently (or as recently as last week) in such a severe state of meltdown that the lives of 1.6 million people in the Northwestern and Southern zones of Tigray are at an even greater risk now than during the active conflict.
There has been no word from the WFP about why their operations have nearly shut down in Tigray. WFP distributed less food in February than they did at any other month in the past year, which includes several months where all fuel and food assistance was banned from entering the region.
Today there are no reported restrictions on fuel and the previous supply route has been open for months now, along with three additional access points into the Northwestern zone, where nearly 1.1 million people urgently need food. Yet almost no food was distributed in the Northwest zone in February. Many of the households in the Northwestern zone that need food assistance are displaced or just now returning to find conditions similar to what has been documented recently in the Central and Eastern zones, where returnees found their homes destroyed, crops and livestock looted, their farm equipment stolen, and everything from their seed stock, irrigation schemes, and agricultural offices ransacked and destroyed.
Human survival has to be the priority
These households were in no condition to survive February without outside food assistance, just like anyone in Tigray living in an area that was (or is still) occupied by Eritrean soldiers, Amhara Regional forces, or Fano militia. If they can get enough agricultural and food assistance to return to their homes and plant their fields, they should have food by the November harvest, but outside assistance will be critical to survival until then. If food and other lifesaving supplies cannot reach people in the Northwestern zone, they may not survive March.
The people of the Northwest zone and Tigray more broadly must be allowed to rebuild, to plant their fields, harvest their crops, restart their economy. They cannot do these things without food. It is only one part of the humanitarian need in Tigray, but it is essential for life and must be delivered until the region is once again self-sufficient. Every obstacle blocking the delivery of aid to Tigrayan families must be recognized and removed without delays. Mitigating these challenges effectively requires that the priority is shifted from maintaining the narrative to feeding the hungry.
The bad excuses made during the conflict for starving the people of Tigray were not supposed to see the dawn of peace. These excuses provide no comfort to starving families but will persist so long as they provide cover for senior humanitarian officials and diplomats.
Progress in half of Tigray can no longer be called progress in Tigray. The progress that is needed today can only be realized by eliminating the invisible line that demarcates the part of Tigray where the international community recognizes the humanity of Tigrayan families from the areas where this same humanity continues to be denied.