Ethiopia: empty stomachs, Afar people watch aid trucks pass by towards Tigray
From a makeshift camp down a road in the Afar region, Abdu Robso, a herder displaced by war in northern Ethiopia, watches with hunger as food aid trucks roll by to Tigray, the source of his misfortunes.
“Why is all this food going to Tigray and not feeding us?” asks this 50-year-old man wearing a kofia, with an emaciated face adorned with a white goatee, pointing to some 350 white World Food Program (WFP) trucks winding their way slowly.
The axis connects Djibouti – where international aid lands – to Tigray, a region where a conflict broke out in November 2020 between the rebel authorities of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian federal government. Cut off from the rest of the country, the region is on the verge of famine.
Like dozens of men, women and children from Abala, a border town of Tigray, Abdu Robso survives with almost nothing in Erebti, a locality about sixty km from his home, by more than 40°C, sheltered tarpaulins stretched under trees.
Abala’s tens of thousands of residents fled in haste one January night when Tigrayan forces bombarded it from the heights and invaded northern Afar.
Days of walking and then hours in a truck took Abdu Robso, his wife and several of his 22 children to a camp for displaced people hundreds of kilometers away.
But since the TPLF evacuated Afar at the end of April, the authorities in the region have been urging the displaced to return, promising help. “We accepted and here we are with nothing,” notes Abdu Robso.
– “The Afar are starving” –
At the end of the morning, nothing cooks on the hearths of the camp remained extinguished. The weakest sleep. The children eat some fruit picked from the trees.
“Trucks bringing aid to Tigray pass here. What about us? What have we done wrong? Why is no aid coming here? We are also hungry,” complains Aldim Abdela, a 28-year-old shepherd.
“The reason is that Tigray has strong leaders and not us,” believes Moustapha Ali Boko, 45, who “feels immense discrimination from the international community”.
According to him, the TPLF knows how to mobilize the strong Tigrayan diaspora and the networks woven in international diplomacy during the 27 years that the party has governed Ethiopia.
The director of the WFP in Ethiopia, Claude Jibidar, assures him: in addition to Tigray, “the WFP has always distributed food in Afar (…) we talk about it less, but it continues”.
However, in Erebti “some sleep on an empty stomach” and “there is no medicine”, underlines Moustapha Ali Boko: “We have received nothing from the authorities, only from Apda”, a local NGO.
For one of the leaders of this organization, Valerie Browning, who criticizes the action of the WFP in the region while admitting a recent improvement, “the Afar have never been taken into account in the calculations of anyone, nor of the government of Ethiopia, nor of the world”.
“No Afar wants the Tigrayans to starve, that’s obvious. But on the other hand, the world, the Tigrayans and the government of Ethiopia should not want the Afar to starve… and unfortunately that is what is happening.”
– Weevils –
This Australian nurse says “never seen such extreme problems” in this region where she has lived for 33 years, where “the humanitarian situation is beyond the crisis”, an unprecedented drought adding to the consequences of the war .
At the end of July, the UN reported “particularly alarming food insecurity and malnutrition rates” in Afar, particularly among the displaced.
But how to go home when there is nothing left?
Moustapha Ali Boko and Abdu Robso return from Abala. “Our houses are destroyed and our cattle have disappeared”, explains the first. “The whole city has been looted”, returning “it’s impossible”, adds the second.
Abala is a ghost town shrouded in macabre silence, AFP journalists have noted. The shops are all completely empty. What has not been removed litters the main street.
The hospital is devastated. Resuscitation and radiology devices, incubators and beds are wasting away outside. Windows, doors, equipment were destroyed, the mattresses taken away. The storeroom has been looted, the generator torn to pieces.
Only about ten families live in the city. Including that of Ali Mohammed. His daughter injured during the fighting, he could not flee very far and he found his house where the rebels “took a lot of things”.
“The conditions are very harsh. The flour is full of weevils, we sift, but (…) it tastes sour. We have no oil or onions, we eat berbéré (local mixture of spices) mixed to water”, explains this 45-year-old farmer.
“I have no reason to go anywhere else, this is my home”, he says, but “there is no medicine, no water, we drink water from the river and we get sick”.
Counting on the help promised by the government, he wants the other inhabitants to return because “here, we live with monkeys and stray dogs”.
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