An Ethiopian Road Is a Lifeline for Millions. Now It’s Blocked.
AFAR, Ethiopia – The road, a 300-mile strip of tarmac that cuts through some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet, is the only way to access a conflict-torn region where millions of Ethiopians are threatened with famine .
But it’s a fragile lifeline, fraught with dangers that have made the road barely passable for aid convoys trying to get humanitarian supplies to the Tigray region, where local fighters are fighting the Ethiopian army. for eight months.
Aid workers say the main obstacle is an unofficial Ethiopian government blockade, enforced through obstruction and intimidation tactics, which effectively cut off the road and exacerbated what some are calling the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since a decade.
A rescue convoy heading to Tigray came under fire on the road on July 18, forcing it to turn around.
In the past month, only one United Nations aid convoy of 50 trucks managed to use this route. The UN says it needs twice as many trucks, traveling every day, to avoid catastrophic shortages of food and medicine inside Tigray.
Yet nothing is moving.
On Tuesday, the World Food Program said 170 trucks loaded with humanitarian aid were stranded in Semera, the capital of neighboring Afar region, awaiting Ethiopia’s permission to travel to the Tigray Desert.
“These trucks need to be cleared NOW,” said agency director David Beasley. wrote on Twitter. “People are starving. “
The crisis comes against the backdrop of an escalating war from Tigray to other regions, exacerbating ethnic tensions and stoking fears that Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, is tearing itself apart.
In the interior of Tigray, the needs are crying and are increasing rapidly. The United Nations estimates that 400,000 people live there in near starvation conditions, and 4.8 million more are in urgent need of assistance.
Ethiopian and Eritrean allied soldiers have stolen grain, burnt crops and destroyed farm implements, according to local aid groups and witnesses interviewed by The New York Times. This has caused many farmers to miss the planting season, triggering a food crisis that is expected to peak when harvests fail in September.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, said last week his government was providing “unhindered humanitarian access” and pledging to “safely deliver essential supplies to his population in the Tigray region ”.
But Mr. Abiy’s ministers have publicly accused aid workers of aiding and even arming Tigrayan fighters, drawing strong denial from a UN agency. And senior aid officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing their operations, said the government’s stated commitment to allow aid to flow was belied by its actions on the ground. .
Aid workers have been harassed at airports or, in the case of a World Food Program official last weekend, have died inside Tigray for lack of immediate medical attention.
Billene Seyoum Woldeyes, spokesman for Mr. Abiy, said federal forces left behind 44,000 tonnes of wheat and 2.5 million liters of edible oil when they pulled out of Tigray in June. Any obstacle to humanitarian access was “closely watched” by the government, she said.
But on the ground, vital supplies are running out quickly – not just food and medicine, but also the fuel and money needed to distribute emergency aid. Many aid agencies have started to scale down their operations in Tigray, citing impossible working conditions. Mr Beasley said the World Food Program would start to run out of food on Friday.
Fighting rages along what was once the main road to Tigray, forcing aid groups to turn to the only alternative: the isolated Tigray-Afar road that cuts through a stark landscape of scorching temperatures. .
When I drove the road on July 4, the Tigray War had radically changed direction.
Days earlier, Tigrayan fighters had entered the regional capital, Mekelle, hours after besieged Ethiopian soldiers left the city. With the city’s airport closed, the only way out of Tigray was a slow UN convoy that took the same desolate road as the fleeing Ethiopian soldiers.
We descended a rocky escarpment on a road marked by traces of tanks. As we descended into the Afar Plains, the temperature quickly rose.
The road ran along the western edge of the Danakil Depression, a vast area below sea level with an active volcano, the saltiest lake on the planet, and vibrantly colored surreal rock formations that are often compared to a landscape. from another world.
Our minibus drove through a barren field of dried lava that stretched for miles. The sand drifted onto the road in places and the roof of the pickup truck became too hot to touch.
Our driver chewed leaves of sweet narcotic khat as he gripped the steering wheel, frequently guiding us to the wrong side of the road. It didn’t matter – the only vehicles we passed were broken down trucks, their sweaty drivers bending over greasy guts.
In the handful of villages crossed, people sheltered from the sun inside buildings covered with sheets and thick blankets. My weather app told me it was 115 degrees outside. Then my phone sent a warning message that it was overheating.
We passed 13 checkpoints, the first manned by militia fighters and later guarded by Ethiopian government forces. We reached Semera after 12 o’clock.
A few days later, a second UN convoy leaving from Tigray was not so lucky.
According to an aid worker in the convoy, Ethiopian federal police subjected Western aid workers to extensive searches along the way and then arrested seven Tigrayan drivers overnight after seizing their vehicles. The drivers and vehicles were released after two days.
On July 18, a convoy of 10 UN vehicles carrying food to Tigray was attacked 60 miles north of Semera when unidentified gunmen opened fire and looted several trucks, according to the World Food Program. . The convoy turned around and all aid deliveries along the route have since been suspended.
In a statement, Mr. Abiy’s office blamed the attack on the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray, the former ruling party in the Tigray region that national government forces are fighting.
But two senior UN officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid worsening relations with the Ethiopian authorities, said they believed the attack was carried out by pro-government militia in the Ethiopian security forces demand.
A rare humanitarian flight to Tigray four days later confirmed fears among aid workers that the Ethiopian authorities were pursuing a strategy of formally allowing humanitarian access while working in practice to thwart it.
At Addis Ababa’s main airport, 30 aid workers boarding the UN’s first flight to Mekelle in more than a month were subjected to intensive searches and harassment, several people said. on board. Ethiopian officials have banned aid workers from taking cash over the equivalent of $ 250, satellite phones and personal medicines – the latest restriction forced a Doctors Without Borders official to get off the flight. Six hours late, the flight takes off.
The World Food Program went public with the theft, but made no mention of the delays or harassment – an omission that privately angered several UN officials and other aid workers who said the ‘he was following a model of UN agencies refusing to publicly criticize the Ethiopian authorities.
To further complicate the aid effort: war is now spreading in Afar.
Last week, Tigrayan forces broke into the area. In response, Mr. Abiy mobilized ethnic militias from other areas to counter the offensive.
Mr Abiy also resorted to increasingly inflammatory language – calling the Tigrayan leaders a “cancer” and “weed” to be eradicated – which foreign authorities see as the start of a new wave of violence. ethnic across the country.
Ms. Billene, her spokesperson, called these fears “alarmist”. The Ethiopian leader had “clearly referred to a terrorist organization and not to the people of Tigray,” she said.
In the interior of Tigray, the most pressing priority is to reopen the road to Afar.
“It is a desperate, desperate situation,” said Lorraine Sweeney of the Support Africa Foundation, a charity that is home to around 100 pregnant women displaced by the fighting in the Tigray town of Adigrat.
Ms Sweeney, who is based in Ireland, said she had responded to calls from panicked staff members asking for help feeding the women, who are all at least eight months pregnant.
“It takes me back to the days of the famine in Ireland,” Ms. Sweeney said. “This is crazy stuff these days. “
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