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Ethiopia Says Tigray Back to 'Normalcy,' but Witnesses See Disaster

FILE - An Ethiopian girl stands at the window of a temporary shelter at the Village 8 refugees transit camp, which houses Ethiopian refugees fleeing the fighting in the Tigray region, near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, Sudan, Dec. 2, 2020.

Ethiopia's government has privately told Biden administration staffers its embattled Tigray region has "returned to normalcy," but new witness accounts describe terrified Tigray residents hiding in bullet-marked homes and a vast rural area where effects of the fighting and food shortages are yet unknown.

The conflict that began in November between Ethiopian forces and those of the Tigray region that dominated the government for nearly three decades continues largely in shadow. Some communications links are severed, residents are scared to give details by phone and almost all journalists are blocked. Thousands of people are believed to have died.

Ethiopia's deputy prime minister, Demeke Mekonnen, and colleagues briefed a private gathering Friday hosted by the Atlantic Council think tank. They said nearly 1.5 million people in Tigray have been reached with humanitarian aid, and they expressed unease at "false and politically motivated allegations" of mistreatment of refugees from neighboring Eritrea, the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate reported. It said Biden administration staffers attended the meeting.

The refugees have been targeted by soldiers from Eritrea, who are fighting alongside Ethiopian troops against the Tigray forces. The Biden administration has pressed Eritrea to immediately withdraw them, citing credible accounts of looting, sexual assault and other abuses.

Despite Ethiopia's latest assertions, its recently appointed administrators in Tigray have estimated that more than 4.5 million people, or close to the region's entire population, need emergency food aid and some people have begun dying of starvation. That's according to leaked documents from a crisis meeting of government and aid workers in early January.

A new account by a Doctors Without Borders emergency coordinator in Tigray, Albert Vinas, says "we are very concerned about what may be happening in rural areas," with many places inaccessible because of fighting or difficulties in obtaining permission.

Map locates key cities in Ethiopia's Tigray region. Millions of Tigray residents, still largely cut off from the world, live in fear of Eritrean soldiers.
Map locates key cities in Ethiopia's Tigray region. Millions of Tigray residents, still largely cut off from the world, live in fear of Eritrean soldiers.

"But we know, because community elders and traditional authorities have told us, that the situation in these places is very bad," he said in the account posted online Friday.

He described Tigray residents handing his colleagues pieces of paper with phone numbers and asking for help in reaching their families, whom they hadn't heard from for weeks.

"We saw a population locked in their homes and living in great fear," he wrote after visiting the city of Adigrat and the towns of Axum and Adwa starting in late December.

In Adigrat, one of Tigray's largest cities, "the situation was very tense, and its hospital was in a terrible condition," Vinas added, with "no food, no water and no money. Some patients who had been admitted with traumatic injuries were malnourished." One woman had been in labor for a week.

Beyond hospitals, up to 90% of health centers between the Tigray capital, Mekelle, and Axum to the north toward Eritrea were not functioning, he said.

"There is a large population suffering, surely with fatal consequences. ... There have been no vaccinations in almost three months, so we fear there will be epidemics soon," Vinas added.

In a separate account posted by the World Peace Foundation on Friday, former senior Ethiopian official Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe in a phone interview from rural Tigray told director Alex de Waal that "hunger among peasantry is crippling" in areas bordering Eritrea after Eritrean forces burned or looted crops just before the harvest.

"Soon, we might see a massive humanitarian crisis," Mulugeta said.

Eritrean officials have not responded to questions nor confirmed their soldiers' involvement, and Ethiopia has denied their presence despite witness accounts.

The food situation in Tigray was "extremely bad" before the fighting began because of a locust outbreak and the COVID-19 pandemic, the Oxfam country director in Ethiopia, Gezahegn Kebede Gebrehana, has told The Associated Press.

"When the fighting took place, a lot of people fled into the bush. But when they came back, most found their houses destroyed or all belongings looted," he said after an assessment in southern Tigray, by some accounts the most accessible part of the region. "Food is a very, very prominent necessity, from what we saw."

International pressure continues on Ethiopia to allow unrestricted humanitarian access to Tigray, now a complicated patchwork of local authorities, but Gezahegn warned against suspending aid to the government as the European Union recently did.

"The donor community might think they will push the Ethiopian government, but the Ethiopian government will never surrender," he said. He acknowledged the "good intentions" but said "it's the people who suffer."