In Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the scars of fighting are multiple and clear: buildings pocked by bullet holes, burnt carcasses of military vehicles abandoned by the side of the road, frozen construction sites and long rows of padlocked shops. Six months after the beginning of the crisis, the violence shows no sign of abating.
In fact, it spread to other parts of the country and intensified in the past weeks. Last month, a state of emergency was declared in Amhara after hundreds of people were reportedly killed there, and only last week, dozens were killed in Oromia. As pockets of fighting multiply throughout the country, my biggest fear is to see even more death, destruction and displacement than what we have witnessed in the past six months.
The violence that threw Tigray into the international media spotlight and sparked heated and often bitter debates on social media affects every part of everyday lives.
An estimated one million people are displaced within the region, and their number continues to grow. Schools turned into temporary shelters for those who fled their homes. Every grain of food and every drop of water counts there, and dozens of families sleep side by side on classroom floors amid the growing threat of the Covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, 1.4 million children who are supposed to use these classrooms to learn and prepare for their future stay out of school.
The region that prided itself for its health services is now facing preventable deaths, as the few ambulances spared by the conflict cannot operate during curfew hours and many health facilities stopped functioning after they were looted and destroyed. Pregnant women are the most at risk.
While food supplies dwindle, farmers risk losing the only agricultural season of the year, as credits for buying seeds and fertiliser are no longer available, and insecurity cut many of them off their land. Factories and businesses came to a standstill, leaving thousands of people out of work and unable to provide for their families.
The economic impact of the violence is severe, but the economy can be repaired. Even today, while fighting continues, the noise of daily life is breaking through the silence left by violence and fear. In some villages, shops reopen, displaying clothes and toys and kitchen utensils among shattered glass and bullet-ridden walls. Farmers with plots of land adjacent to the main roads try to resume their work.
What cannot be repaired is the pain endured, and the lives lost cannot be recovered. Amid appalling accounts of sexual violence, of killings, of utter disrespect for health facilities and personnel, amid the fear and despair that consumes people throughout the region, this return to a semblance of normality will remain fragile and superficial. If there is no accountability, if the violence against civilians continues, it will deepen the divides and the suffering, making any prospect of a return to stability and economic growth difficult to imagine.
In my role as the director for Africa Region at the International Committee of the Red Cross, I have seen many protracted crises. I have also seen the incredible amount of suffering they inflict. Throughout the continent, I have met people who spent years depending on humanitarian assistance and who all but lost hope of regaining their lives and building a better future.
Humanitarian needs are huge and continue to grow. To be able to avert the worst we must be able to act now and work together with the key players on the ground, like the Ethiopian Red Cross Society and the Ministry of health. This is the only way to ensure that people have access to vital services. To achieve this goal it is imperative that humanitarian action is separate from politics.
I firmly believe that ensuring respect for civilian life and property, providing security and access to essential services is the only way to reduce the disastrous impact of the ongoing violence and limit the long-lasting consequences of the humanitarian emergency Ethiopia is facing.
Patrick Youssef is director for Africa region at the International Committee of the Red Cross