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Starvation Haunts Ethiopia's Tigray    01/17 09:28

   

   NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) -- From "emaciated" refugees to crops burned on the 
brink of harvest, starvation threatens the survivors of more than two months of 
fighting in Ethiopia's Tigray region.

   The first humanitarian workers to arrive after pleading with the Ethiopian 
government for access describe weakened children dying from diarrhea after 
drinking from rivers. Shops were looted or depleted weeks ago. A local official 
told a Jan. 1 crisis meeting of government and aid workers that hungry people 
had asked for "a single biscuit."

   More than 4.5 million people, nearly the region's entire population, need 
emergency food, participants say. At their next meeting on Jan. 8, a Tigray 
administrator warned that without aid, "hundreds of thousands might starve to 
death" and some already had, according to minutes obtained by The Associated 
Press.

   "There is an extreme urgent need --- I don't know what more words in English 
to use --- to rapidly scale up the humanitarian response because the population 
is dying every day as we speak," Mari Carmen Vinoles, head of the emergency 
unit for Doctors Without Borders, told the AP.

   But pockets of fighting, resistance from some officials and sheer 
destruction stand in the way of a massive food delivery effort. To send 
15-kilogram (33-pound) rations to 4.5 million people would require more than 
2,000 trucks, the meeting's minutes said, while some local responders are 
reduced to getting around on foot.

   The specter of hunger is sensitive in Ethiopia, which transformed into one 
of the world's fastest-growing economies in the decades since images of 
starvation there in the 1980s led to a global outcry. Drought, conflict and 
government denial contributed to the famine, which swept through Tigray and 
killed an estimated 1 million people.

   The largely agricultural Tigray region of about 5 million people already had 
a food security problem amid a locust outbreak when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed 
on Nov. 4 announced fighting between his forces and those of the defiant 
regional government. Tigray leaders dominated Ethiopia for almost three decades 
but were sidelined after Abiy introduced reforms that won him the Nobel Peace 
Prize in 2019.

   Thousands of people have been killed in the conflict. More than 50,000 have 
fled into Sudan, where one doctor has said newer arrivals show signs of 
starvation. Others shelter in rugged terrain. A woman who recently left Tigray 
described sleeping in caves with people who brought cattle, goats and the grain 
they had managed to harvest.

   "It is a daily reality to hear people dying with the fighting consequences, 
lack of food," a letter by the Catholic bishop of Adigrat said this month.

   Hospitals and other health centers, crucial in treating malnutrition, have 
been destroyed. In markets, food is "not available or extremely limited," the 
United Nations says.

   Though Ethiopia's prime minister declared victory in late November, its 
military and allied fighters remain active amid the presence of troops from 
neighboring Eritrea, a bitter enemy of the now-fugitive officials who once led 
the region.

   Fear keeps many people from venturing out. Others flee. Tigray's new 
officials say more than 2 million people have been displaced, a number the U.S. 
government's Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance calls "staggering." The U.N. 
says the number of people reached with aid is "extremely low."

   A senior Ethiopian government official, Redwan Hussein, did not respond to a 
request for comment on Tigray colleagues warning of starvation.

   In the northern Shire area near Eritrea, which has seen some of the worst 
fighting, up to 10% of the children whose arms were measured met the diagnostic 
criteria for severe acute malnutrition, with scores of children affected, a 
U.N. source said. Sharing the concern of many humanitarian workers about 
jeopardizing access, the source spoke on condition of anonymity.

   Near Shire town are camps housing nearly 100,000 refugees who have fled over 
the years from Eritrea. Some who have walked into town "are emaciated, begging 
for aid that is not available," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo 
Grandi said Thursday.

   Food has been a target. Analyzing satellite imagery of the Shire area, a 
U.K.-based research group found two warehouse-style structures in the U.N. 
World Food Program compound at one refugee camp had been "very specifically 
destroyed." The DX Open Network could not tell by whom. It reported a new 
attack Saturday.

   It's challenging to verify events in Tigray as communications links remain 
poor and almost no journalists are allowed.

   In the towns of Adigrat, Adwa and Axum, "the level of civilian casualties is 
extremely high in the places we have been able to access," the Doctors Without 
Borders emergency official Vinoles said. She cited the fighting and lack of 
health care.

   Hunger is "very concerning," she said, and even water is scarce: Just two of 
21 wells still work in Adigrat, a city of more than 140,000, forcing many 
people to drink from the river. With sanitation suffering, disease follows.

   "You go 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the city and it's a complete disaster," 
with no food, Vinoles said.

   Humanitarian workers struggle to gauge the extent of need.

   "Not being able to travel off main highways, it always poses the question of 
what's happening with people still off-limits," said Panos Navrozidis, Action 
Against Hunger's director in Ethiopia.

   Before the conflict, Ethiopia's national disaster management body classified 
some Tigray woredas, or administrative areas, as priority one hotspots for food 
insecurity. If some already had high malnutrition numbers, "two-and-a-half 
months into the crisis, it's a safe assumption that thousands of children and 
mothers are in immediate need," Navrozidis said.

   The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, funded and managed by the U.S., 
says parts of central and eastern Tigray are likely in Emergency Phase 4, a 
step below famine.

   The next few months are critical, John Shumlansky, the Catholic Relief 
Services representative in Ethiopia, said. His group so far has given up to 
70,000 people in Tigray a three-month food supply, he said.

   Asked whether combatants use hunger as a weapon, one concern among aid 
workers, Shumlansky dismissed it by Ethiopian defense forces and police. With 
others, he didn't know.

   "I don't think they have food either, though," he said.

 
 
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