Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis: Deaths from starvation after aid halted – official
Approximately 1,400 individuals have lost their lives to starvation in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region after food assistance was suspended due to theft, according to an official statement.
The World Food Programme (WFP) of the United Nations and the principal US aid agency ceased delivering food aid to Tigray around four months ago.
An investigation by Tigrayan authorities subsequently revealed that nearly 500 individuals were implicated in the theft, as shared with the BBC by the official.
Tigray faced a harsh conflict in 2020, leading to conditions resembling famine. The conflict concluded in November of the same year through a peace deal brokered by the African Union (AU) between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), with Eritrean troops supporting the Ethiopian army during the conflict.
Humanitarian aid was greatly hindered during the war due to a blockade on the region. Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, an AU envoy, estimated that around 600,000 lives were lost during the two-year conflict, attributed to fighting, starvation, and inadequate healthcare.
WFP and USAid had initially extended aid to approximately six million Tigrayans but put a temporary hold on food assistance in April after discovering that their contributions were being diverted to local markets.
The culprits behind the diversion were not specified. A spokesperson from WFP stated to the BBC that they could not ignore the criminal activity and continue providing aid.
The BBC observed food products with labels of aid agencies like WFP and USAid being sold in markets across Tigray, including the capital, Mekelle. It remains uncertain whether the food aid was fraudulently “diverted” or if aid recipients in dire need sold it to market owners for cash.
In June, WFP and USAid also announced the suspension of food aid to the rest of Ethiopia.
USAid is the country’s largest food donor, helping millions of people struggling because of conflict, drought, and the high cost of living.
A leaked memo by an independent donor group, quoted by several media outlets in June, said there had been a “coordinated and criminal scheme” apparently orchestrated by federal and regional government entities, with military units across the country benefiting.
Ethiopia’s government has said it is investigating the allegations, but its findings have not yet been released.
Ethiopia’s army has denied its troops benefited from any stolen food aid.
The Tigray interim government’s commissioner for disaster risk management, Gebrehiwet Gebrezgabher, told the BBC that since food aid had been halted, 1,411 people had starved to death in three zones alone – the east, north-west, and south-east.
Data from Tigray’s other three zones had not yet been collated, and the death toll would prove to be much higher once this was done, Dr Gebrehiwet said.
He added that 492 suspects were under investigation, and 198 had so far been charged for their alleged involvement in the scam.
Among the suspects were government officials, staff of non-governmental organizations, coordinators at camps built for people displaced by conflict, and “partners who are distributors of the food aid”, Dr. Gebrehiwet said.
“Business people, especially those who own food stores and mills, are also involved,” he added, pointing out that their investigation had almost concluded.
The BBC visited Shire, one of the biggest towns in Tigray, to see the effects of hunger.
An anemic mother of three, Mebrhit Hailay, said she was now forced to beg because of a lack of food.
“Most days, we eat injera [a pancake-like fermented bread] with salt. The doctors advise me to have a balanced diet, but from where do I get it?” the 28-year-old said.
Her two children, aged five and two-and-a-half years, looked thin, their eyes sunken and their bony limbs stuck out from their clothes.
If lucky, they ate one meal a day, but on other days they went to bed hungry, Ms Mebrhit said.
Ms. Mebrhit was heavily pregnant when the BBC met her. A few days later, she told the BBC she had given birth to a baby girl who, fortunately, was healthy.
At the local hospital, nurse Kibra Mebrahtu said that many mothers could not breastfeed because of hunger, and “many children are near death when they are brought to this hospital”.
“We lost four this month only. The effects of the conflict, lack of food, lack of transport, are quite evident,” she said.
The BBC saw eight-year-old Rahel Tewelde, with ribs exposed, at the hospital. She weighed only 10kg (22lb), the weight of an average one-year-old.
Her mother, Hiwet Lebasi, said she believed that corruption led to the suspension of food aid.
“Had it been distributed properly, it wouldn’t have stopped,” she said.
In June, USAid said it would resume food aid only when it was “confident that assistance will reach the intended vulnerable populations”.
The WFP spokesperson said the agency was speeding up efforts to resume food aid. It had, in fact, started distributing a limited amount of food in some areas to test stringent new measures being put in place to “make sure food will not fall into the wrong hands again”.
“WFP is deeply concerned about the impact any pause in assistance may have on the lives of the families it assists. Therefore, we’re putting every practical safeguard in place to ensure food assistance reaches and is used by the intended beneficiaries,” the spokesperson added.