– August 18 2021
Civilians in Tigray face famine, poverty and violence
Binyam Asfaw, the national humanitarian response program coordinator at SOS Children’s Villages Ethiopia, talks about the crisis in Ethiopia.
After fights between government troops and other armies, hundreds of thousands of civilians in Tigray face famine, poverty and violence against women and children.
What are the current problems in the Tigray region?
Since the phone and internet connection in the area broke down in June, we had no contact with our staff in Tigray. Now, they are able to use the phone and internet at the UN office in the region’s capital Mekelle for two hours a week. The information we have now is that banks in Tigray are not fully functional. Everything is cash-based: People have to carry cash around. People use what they have since they can’t withdraw much money from the banks. The amount individuals are allowed to withdraw from functioning banks is the equivalent of $234 per month. For institutions, it is $468. In practice, it is much lower than this amount. Our staff works on a credit basis. They try to implement activities and support people affected by the conflict.
According to our current information, the town of Mekelle is more or less peaceful. People are trying to get back to their normal lives as much as possible. Conflicts keep becoming more severe in areas bordering Eritrea in the north and around the borders with Amhara and Afar regions in the south.
The biggest problem for us is that there is no road or air access into Tigray from the rest of the country; we do not know which side is blocking the roads. Two weeks ago, 54 UN trucks with food supplies made it into the area. But the need in Tigray is for 60 trucks per day, according to UN OCHA.
It is estimated that more than two million people have been displaced (OCHA Update, accessed on July 27, 2021). Electricity has been on and off. For the past week, there has been no electricity in Mekelle. Everything is rationed: fuel, cash withdrawals and the markets are restricted. Vendors sell what they have, and prices go up every day because they are running out of supplies.
What is needed to support the people in Tigray?
We need bank services and access to the internet. We need guarantees that our places will not be attacked by any side and that we can help the civilians of Tigray. We hope both sides finish this conflict. We need to be allowed to bring commodities and supplies into the region in order to support those who have been affected by this terrible conflict.
According to a recent UN report, 400,000 people are threatened by famine. What is SOS Children’s Villages doing to help?
The colleagues in the area have started to support malnourished children and pregnant and lactating women with supplementary therapeutic food. We also help victims of gender-based violence by providing blankets, nightgowns and nutritious food for a survivor support center run by regional authorities. We are maintaining health facilities that were damaged, enabling the local people to get medicine and medical assistance there. We provide people with chronic illnesses with the drugs they need, which were in very short supply before our intervention. In the programs, the colleagues support sexual and gender-based survivors and provide psychosocial support for children and adults traumatized by war and other forms of violence.
Farmers in the rural parts of Tigray had their last harvest over six months ago. Even in a normal situation, they would have run out of supplies by now. Due to the war, the situation is even more dire now, as agricultural products that usually would have been brought in from other regions to supplement demand (in addition to the local production) are not coming in. We plan to distribute seeds to families in need, but the road blockings make everything difficult.
Are the programs of SOS Children's Villages in Tigray affected?
We have contact with the colleagues—all children in the villages and staff are safe. Before the war, the location office had procured food and supplies for the village, as a precautionary measure in case of COVID-19 related movement restrictions. They stockpiled some amount of food. When war broke out, they didn’t have to go to the market, as they used the supplies they collected. After some weeks, the federal army took over Mekelle, the road was free and SOS Children’s Villages Ethiopia‘s national office replenished supplies by purchasing consumable items from Addis Ababa and transporting them to Mekelle using UN World Food Program trucks. This measure helped create access to much needed supplies.
Since armed forces took over Mekelle, all contacts between the federal government and administrative structures in the Tigray region have been broken once again. Banks stopped functioning normally. Since then, cash has become a problem—teachers and staff cannot receive their salaries.
In addition, procurement of goods and services needed to implement planned emergency programs has become difficult. Procuring goods and services on a credit basis cannot continue indefinitely, as vendors will soon run out of cash if they don’t get paid. The national office is also having difficulties monitoring the progress of projects and sending updates to donors, as the communication with SOS staff in the Tigray region is limited.
As to the cash problem, SOS Children's Villages Ethiopia's National Office is considering temporary solutions such as sending money to the national office staff to secure seats in humanitarian flights from Addis Ababa to Mekelle. There are humanitarian agencies and donors who have suspended their activities in the region due to security reasons and the difficulty of project implementation and monitoring—such as cash, communication and mobility problems.
Could the conflict spread to regions in Ethiopia other than Tigray?
The armed conflict has recently spread to the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar, as well as towns close to the regional borders. This is a spiraling effect. It is hard to say what happens next. We don‘t know. Different parties have interests in this conflict.