With a yearlong conflict taking an increasing toll in northern Ethiopia, the U.N. World Food Program, Human Rights Watch and other organizations are intensifying their appeals for combatants to halt abuses and permit the delivery of emergency aid to millions of at-risk civilians.
Meanwhile, people displaced by fighting in the eastern Amhara region say that beyond the immediate violence of war, they also are battling hunger and unmet critical medical needs.
Residents interviewed by VOA’s Horn of Africa Service at a refugee camp in the Amhara regional capital of Bahir Dar spoke this week of frequent deaths and funerals for individuals who died in recent weeks from hunger or a lack of medicine.
The Amhara region lies just south of the Tigray region, where Ethiopian federal forces and their allies began fighting in November 2020 to put down a rebellion by the once politically dominant Tigray People's Liberation Front and its fighters. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and has spread to neighboring regions, including Amhara and Afar.
Zelalem Lijalem, commissioner of coordination for the Amhara regional disaster prevention and food security program, said roughly a third of the region's more than 21 million residents need emergency humanitarian assistance. Zelalem said at a Monday press conference in Bahir Dar that the needy included 2.1 million internally displaced people and another 5 million in areas still controlled by the TPLF.
Fighting has "closed the main corridors into Tigray and Amhara [regions], substantially cutting access," WFP spokesperson Tomson Phiri said at a news briefing Tuesday in Geneva. Despite that, he said, the organization has delivered food and nutritional aid to 2.6 million people in Tigray, 220,000 in Amhara and another 124,000 in Afar.
Responding Wednesday to written questions from VOA, another WFP spokesperson, Kyle Wilkinson, said about 1.7 million people have been displaced in the Amhara region, according to government estimates, and 3.7 million people in the region “are in urgent need of food assistance.”
Phiri said his agency has begun a two-week "major food assistance operation to serve more than 450,000 people" in the northern Ethiopian towns of Kombolcha and Dessie.
"For WFP to scale up the delivery of food assistance to save 3.7 million lives in northern Ethiopia, all parties must cooperate to facilitate movement of supplies across battle lines and allow access to affected populations, wherever and whenever needed," Phiri said.
He also said the agency faces a $546 million shortfall for its efforts throughout Ethiopia "to save and change the lives of 12 million people over the next six months."
Evidence of looting
The availability of relief supplies has been hampered by looting and destruction. Phiri said the WFP last week was able to access humanitarian warehouses in Kombolcha, in the Amhara region, only to find "damaged equipment, vandalized storage units and substantial amounts of food looted from the facilities. The loss of this food means fewer people in need can be reached by WFP and its partners."
He did not indicate when the vandalism took place or who might be responsible.
The U.S. Agency for International Development's mission chief in Ethiopia, Sean Jones, said in a late-August interview with Ethiopian state TV that TPLF fighters were culpable for looting and destroying humanitarian goods in at least some Amhara locations.
TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda denied his organization was culpable, saying in a Sept. 1 tweet that "while we cannot vouch for every unacceptable behavior of off-grid fighters in such matters, we have evidence that such looting is mainly orchestrated by local individuals & groups." He called for an independent investigation.
Fighting, TPLF attacks and a federal government blockade on Tigray imposed in June have deterred aid. But, as The Associated Press reported, a joint investigation by the U.N. Human Rights Council and the government-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission "could not confirm deliberate or willful denial of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population in Tigray or the use of starvation as a weapon of war."
'Investigative mechanism' sought
On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch cited the joint investigation, saying in a statement that the UNHRC should "urgently establish an independent international investigative mechanism" to document abuses, "to ensure accountability and to prevent impunity."
Human Rights Watch said its own research "found serious violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law" on a range of fronts, including "obstruction of humanitarian assistance, leaving millions at risk of famine and disease."
In mid-November, Martin Griffiths, the U.N. humanitarian chief, announced $40 million in new humanitarian aid for Ethiopia. The funding aims to provide aid and civilian protection in a country beset by conflict and drought.
This report originated in VOA's Horn of Africa Service.