Of the 50,000 people who fled their homes after violence erupted in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, nearly half are children.
Ethiopia’s government is rejecting calls for independent investigations into the deadly conflict in its Tigray region, saying it “doesn’t need a babysitter”.
The declaration by senior government official Redwan Hussein came amid international calls for more transparency into the month-long fighting between Ethiopian forces and those of the fugitive Tigray regional government that is thought to have killed thousands, including civilians.
At least one large-scale massacre has been documented, and others are feared.
Hussein told reporters on Tuesday evening that Ethiopia will invite others for assistance only if it feels that “it failed to investigate”.
To assume the government cannot carry out such probes “is belittling the government,” he said.
Ethiopia’s government has pushed back against what it calls outside “interference” from efforts at dialogue to delivering aid, drawing on its history as the rare African country never colonised, a source of deep national pride.
But frustration is growing as the northern Tigray region remains largely cut off from the outside world, with food and medicines desperately needed by the population of six million – nearly a million of them now thought to be displaced.
The lack of transparency, as most communications and transport links remain severed, has complicated efforts to verify the warring side’s claims.
It also hurts efforts to understand the extent of atrocities that have been committed since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on November 4 announced that fighting had begun with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated Ethiopia’s government and military for nearly three decades before he came to power and sidelined it.
The federal and the regional governments regard each other as illegal, as the TPLF objects to the postponement of national elections until next year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and sees Abiy’s mandate as expired.
Meanwhile, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said the situation in Ethiopia is “worrying and volatile” amid reports of ethnic profiling of Tigrayans including in Addis Ababa.
“We have reports that particularly areas surrounding towns like Mekelle, Sherero, Axum, Abiy Addi, and the borders between the Amhara and Tigray regions, fighting continues between federal forces and the TPLF, and affiliated militias on both sides,” Bachelet told a news conference in Geneva on Wednesday.
“There is an urgent need for independent monitoring of the human rights situation in the Tigray region, all necessary measures to protect civilians, and accountability for violations.”
Abiy’s government has made it clear it wants to manage aid delivery. On Tuesday, it said its forces had shot at and detained United Nations staffers who allegedly broke through two checkpoints while trying to reach areas where “they were not supposed to go”.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said four people were in a convoy trying to assess the roads, which “needs to be done before a larger UN aid convoys go in”.
The staffers have since been released, according to Redwan.
An alarmed UN said it is “engaging at the highest level with the federal government to express our concerns” more than a week after it and the government signed a deal to allow humanitarian access. The deal, crucially, allows aid only in areas under federal government control.
While Ethiopia’s government says the fighting has stopped, the leaders of the rebellious TPLF have asserted that the conflict continues.
Sporadic shooting remains in Tigray and humanitarian assistance must be escorted by defence forces, Redwan said.
Amid growing allegations of massacres and attacks on refugee camps inside Tigray, the UN human rights office has not responded to a question about whether it has begun investigating possible war crimes.
Meanwhile, the need for aid is being called critical.
The Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, a city of half a million people, is “basically today without medical care,” the director-general of the International Committee for the Red Cross, Robert Mardini, told reporters on Tuesday.
In a Twitter post on Wednesday, Mardini said the city’s Ayder Referral Hospital has run out of supplies, including fuel for power generators.
Ayder, the main hospital in #Mekelle #Tigray is paralyzed. No supplies, no fuel, no running water. Doctors & nurses have suspended intensive care services and are struggling to do routine care like delivering babies or providing dialysis treatment.
Working to resupply hospitals. https://t.co/cem4uuWQe6
— Robert Mardini (@RMardiniICRC) December 9, 2020
“Doctors and nurses have suspended intensive care services and are struggling to do routine care like delivering babies or providing dialysis treatment,” he said.
A joint ICRC-Ethiopian Red Cross convoy with supplies for hundreds of wounded people is ready to go to Mekelle, pending approval, he said. It would be the first international convoy to reach the city since the fighting began.
While the risk of insecurity remains in the Tigrayan capital, there is no active fighting, Mardini said.
“People in Tigray have been cut off from services for nearly a month. They have had no phone, no internet, no electricity and no fuel. Cash is running out. This, of course, adds to the tension,” he said.