Food access is being turned into a weapon of war as hundreds of thousands of people in Ethiopia’s troubled Tigray region face famine, reporters have claimed.
The United Nations and other humanitarian groups have warned that more than 350,000 people could be at risk of famine in the war-torn area.
Associated Press reporters have found that the issue is not just a matter of people starving – it is that many are being deliberately starved.
In rural areas in Tigray, farmers, aid workers and local officials confirmed that Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers are blocking food aid and even stealing it.
Meanwhile, an AP team observed convoys with food and medical aid being turned back by Ethiopian military officials as fighting resumed in the town of Hawzen.
The soldiers are also accused of stopping farmers from harvesting or ploughing, stealing the seeds for planting, killing livestock and looting farm equipment.
More than two million of Tigray’s six million people have already fled, unable to harvest their crops. And those who stayed often cannot plant new crops or till the land because they fear for their lives.
One humanitarian worker in the area said: “If things don’t change soon, mass starvation is inevitable.
“This is a man-made disaster.”
The full extent of the hunger is hard to pin down because officials – and food aid – still cannot get into the remotest parts of a region known for its rugged inaccessibility even in the best of times.
The UN World Food Programme said on Thursday it had transported aid to 1.4 million people in Tigray, “barely half of the number we should be reaching”, in part because armed groups are blocking the way.
For every mother who makes it out of the area, hundreds, possibly thousands, are trapped behind the front lines or military roadblocks in rural areas.
“Most of the malnourished children, they die there,” said Dr Kibrom Gebreselassie, chief medical director of Ayder Hospital in Mekele. “This is the tip of the iceberg.”
The war in Tigray started in early November, shortly before the harvest season, as an attempt by Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed to disarm the region’s rebellious leaders.
On one side are guerrillas loyal to the ousted and now-fugitive leaders of Tigray.
On the other are Ethiopian government troops, allied troops from neighbouring Eritrea and militias from the Amhara ethnic group. Trapped in the middle are the civilians of Tigray.
The war has spawned massacres, gang rapes and the widespread expulsion of people from their homes, and the United States has declared “ethnic cleansing” has taken place in western Tigray. Now, on top of those atrocities, Tigrayans face another urgent problem: hunger and starvation.
The deputy chief of the region, Abebe Gebrehiwot, echoed the assessment of ethnic cleansing and said combatants are blocking food aid from reaching those who need it.
He said the region’s interim administration, appointed by Mr Abiy, is desperately trying to forestall a famine, including in the areas where Eritrean forces remain in charge.
Mr Gebrehiwot said in a recent interview: “There are some players who don’t want us to plough the land. There are some players who (prevent) us from distributing the seeds.”
Ethiopia’s government strongly disputes that starvation is being used as a weapon of war.
Mitiku Kassa, an official with the National Disaster Risk Management Commission, said on Wednesday that the UN and charity groups have “unfettered access” to Tigray, and that food aid worth about 135 million dollars (£95 million) has been distributed.
“We don’t have any food shortage,” he declared.
However, in Tigray, farmer Teklemariam Gebremichael said he and his neighbours were no longer allowed to carry out their work. When Eritrean soldiers came upon him looking after his cattle and harvesting crops, they shot both him and his cows.
He survived, but the cows did not. With food in short supply, his wound is slow to heal.
“I call on the world has to take immediate action to help Tigray, because we can’t live on our own land any more,” he pleaded.
Another farmer, Gebremariam Hadush, and his five children said they were taking their chances anyway, racing against time as the wet season approached.
“We should be tilling this land for the second or third time,” he said. “But we couldn’t till at all until now because we haven’t had peace. So now all we can do is just scrape the surface.”
Hunger is particularly sensitive for Ethiopia, where images of starving children in the 1980s led to a global outcry.
Drought, conflict and government denial all played a part in that famine, which killed an estimated one million people.
The situation is also drawing concern from the world – but not enough of it, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the UN, said on Thursday.
She called for the UN Security Council to hold a meeting on Tigray, saying: “Famine may already be happening in certain areas … It’s unconscionable, especially in the very place that woke the world up to the scourge of hunger.
“I ask those who refuse to address this issue publicly: Do African lives not matter?”