ETHIOPIA is heading into a full-scale humanitarian crisis, the United Nations has warned, after two weeks of fighting and reports of a massacre in the Tigray region have sent thousands of civilians fleeing for safety.
The UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, reported on Tuesday that more than 27,000 people had crossed the border into Sudan, overwhelming the efforts of humanitarian response teams, and tens of thousands more people are believed to be on the move.
There are also concerns for thousands of Eritrean refugees in Tigray, as the distance shrinks between their camp and the fighting between government forces and forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling group in the region. A priest of the eparchy of Asmara, the Eritrean capital, Abba Mussie Zerai, appealed for the protection of refugees.
“In Tigray, there are thousands of Eritreans who are often hungry and exposed to all forms of exploitation and abuse. This [current] situation increases the despair of these people and drives them into the hands of human traffickers,” Abba Zerai told a Roman Catholic news agency.
Amnesty International reported that scores — and possibly hundreds — of civilians were killed in a massacre in the south-west of the region on Monday of last week.
“We have confirmed the massacre of a very large number of civilians, who appear to have been day labourers in no way involved in the ongoing military offensive,” Amnesty International’s director for East and Southern Africa, Deprose Muchena, said. “This is a horrific tragedy whose true extent only time will tell, as communication in Tigray remains shut down.” Witnesses told Amnesty that forces loyal to the TPLF had carried out the massacre.
The Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, launched a military offensive two weeks ago against the TPLF, after it went ahead with regional elections that Mr Abiy’s government deemed illegal. His forces are now marching on the region’s capital, and violence is escalating.
Communications with the region have been severed, which has meant that accounts have been difficult to verify, and aid agencies are unable to get humanitarian assistance into the region.
Ethnic tensions across Ethiopia had been heightening for months, even before the clash between the TPLF and Mr Abiy’s government, with escalating attacks on Christian communities and churches in different areas of the country.
In a statement this week, the executive committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) condemned “the numerous brutally violent attacks against churches and communities, especially affecting the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, on the members of any community defined by religion or ethnicity, on churches and holy places, and on civilians by armed groups”. The WCC mourned “the deaths of so many people”.
The chairman of the Association of Episcopal Conferences of Eastern Africa, Bishop Charles Kasonde, of Solwezi RC diocese, in Zambia, warned of the wider risks if the conflict was not ended immediately. “Without quickly doing so, this discord between the federal government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, in a political landscape which is already characterised by ethnic alliances, is likely to result in more casualties on the troops, more bloodshed among the civilians, destruction of properties, and displacement of millions of the people.”
The UN, appealing for talks and an immediate cessation of hostilities, has warned that the conflict could spill over and destabilise the whole region.
Last year, Mr Abyi won the Nobel Peace Prize for the agreement that he struck with neighbouring Eritrea to end the two countries’ border conflict.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is one of the oldest organised Christian bodies in the world, and Christians make up nearly two-thirds of the population of the country. Most are Orthodox, followed by Protestants and Roman Catholics. One third of the population is Muslim.