Almost five months on since the start of the conflict in Tigray, the humanitarian situation on the ground is extremely dire and far from improving, despite very significant efforts from the UN and its partners to scale up assistance. The ongoing hostilities, with clashes and ambushes reported in most parts of the region, not only impact safety and wellbeing of millions of civilians but also constrain humanitarian actors’ ability to operate and support people affected. In parts of Southern and South Eastern Tigray, for example, access has been curtailed for over a month and the road from Alamata to Mekelle remains closed, blocking humanitarian operations in the area.
The UN and humanitarians on the ground continue to receive concerning reports of attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure, including looting and vandalization of health centres, schools, as well as several cases of sexual and gender-based violence. Since the start of the fighting, there has been a pattern of retaliatory and targeted attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure by armed forces linked to all parties to the conflict. In one of the latest developments, the international NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres, in a statement issued on 24 March, detailed how three aid workers were attacked in a clearly marked MSF vehicle, after they witnessed the extrajudicial killings of four unarmed men, allegedly by Ethiopian soldiers.
On the same day, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) released preliminary findings of its investigation on human rights abuses in the historic town of Axum at the end of November 2020. The report indicates that over 100 civilians were killed, allegedly by Eritrean soldiers, validating separate investigations shared earlier by rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch into the same killings. Evidence on attacks and damaged civilian property was also gathered. The report, however, does not include investigations into allegations of gender-based violence and other human rights violations. The EHRC called on the authorities to immediately stop disproportionate measures by security forces and increase health response.
There are also several reports about the continued prevalence of gender-based violence (GBV), including rapes and other formers of sexual violence, perpetrate by different armed actors since the start of the conflict, including in displacement camps. According to humanitarians in Tigray, at least 516 rape cases had been reported over the last five months by five medical facilities in Mekelle, Adigrat, Wukro, Shire and Axum. The actual numbers might be even higher, as stigma and the destruction or closure of several health facilities prevent survivors from seeking assistance. In a joint statement released on 22 March, multiple heads of UN agencies including OCHA, IOM, OHCHR, UNHCR and ICVA; the NGO network called on all parties to the conflict to ensure the protection of civilians from human rights abuses. The statement explicitly condemned all sexual violence and strongly urged all parties to ensure that their forces respect and protect civilian populations, particularly women and children, from all human rights abuses and that where such abuses occurred, perpetrators would be brought to justice. EHRC and the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) agreed on cooperate on a joint investigation on the allegations of human rights violations and abuses committed in Tigray.
Cases of vandalism and looting of civilian infrastructure, including health centres and schools, are still surfacing. Findings from recent Ministry of Education reports show that at least 25 per cent of schools in Tigray have been damaged, ranging from partial to complete destruction of classrooms, office blocks and water and sanitation facilities, among others. Reports of looting of drugs and equipment from health facilities are persistent with mobile health teams in some areas prevented from transporting medical materials and medications. According to the WHO-led Health Resources and Services Availability System (HeRAMS), 51 per cent of hospitals and health centers in the region might be functional. However, due to no or limited woreda-level health administration structures and lack of communication and reporting, this data cannot be verified by the Regional Health Bureau (RHB). Thus, there is no system in place to continuously monitor and update the functionality status of the health facilities due to the complex and dynamic nature of the situation.
Overall, with the deteriorating situation and continued disruption of basic services, the UN and humanitarian partners are in a race against time to respond to the rapidly rising needs. More funding is urgently needed to make sure aid organizations can assist every single people impacted by the conflict.
ERITREAN PRESENCE AND ITS HUMANITARIAN IMPACT
On 23 March, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, in a parliamentary address, acknowledged that Eritrean troops had crossed the border into Tigray during the conflict. Later on 26 March, the Prime Minister issued a statement informing that Eritrea had agreed on withdraw its troops from Tigray. The Prime Minister also acknowledged for the first time that atrocities, including rape, had been committed and promised that the perpetrators would be held to account.