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Dhaka Tribune

Hunger devastates Ethiopia's Tigray as food aid halted

A region of six million people, Tigray has been in the grip of food shortages for over two years

Update : 23 Jun 2023, 01:30 PM

The 45-year-old mother of five had not eaten in days and begged for a sip of water as she lay dying in a hospital in Ethiopia's war-scarred Tigray region.

She struggled to swallow, her muscles weakened from prolonged starvation, as droplets dribbled down her chin, he said.

She died four days later – the victim of a hunger crisis expected to worsen after the World Food Programme and USAID suspended food aid to Ethiopia this month, citing the diversion of supplies from those in need.

The exact circumstances of her death cannot be independently verified because journalists are not permitted to visit Tigray.

Her children — the youngest just five years old — are now orphans, and dependent on relatives who are themselves unable to make ends meet.

"We don't have the capacity to look after her children," said her nephew Desta Hailu, not his real name, speaking to AFP by phone. 

A university lecturer in Adigrat, a town bordering Eritrea, Hailu said he had consumed his last meal — a slice of bread with tea — 48 hours earlier.

He and his wife often skip meals, he said, prioritizing the needs of their young children.

But it is never enough.

"My son is always complaining of hunger and wants to eat his little sister's portion too," the 40-year-old said.

Begging on the streets 

A region of six million people, Tigray has been in the grip of food shortages for over two years.

During the war, UN investigators accused Ethiopia's government of deliberately starving civilians by imposing a de facto blockade on the northern region.

Aid deliveries slowed to a trickle and humanitarian organisations warned of famine-like conditions.

The government denied the allegations, accusing Tigray's rebel authorities of commandeering food aid for their war effort.

A peace agreement signed in November sparked cautious optimism as fighting ceased and electricity, banking and communications slowly returned to Tigray.

But "the number of people coming to the feeding centres has gone up", said Nigisti Solomon, a volunteer at one food bank funded by US-based non-profit and lobbying group Tigray Action Committee. 

Supplies are so limited that many are turned away, back to the streets where malnourished people begging for food are a common sight, she said.

'People are desperate' 

Prior to the countrywide halt, USAID and WFP froze food aid to Tigray last month after discovering that shipments were being diverted to local markets. 

Neither WFP nor USAID have identified those responsible for taking and selling the aid.

Solomon and Hailu said they had previously seen donated supplies such as blankets being sold, with sellers saying they needed cash to buy food, medicines or soap.

"People are desperate, they want to survive... they want to fill their stomachs," said Hailu.

WFP declined AFP requests for an interview, while spokespersons for USAID and Ethiopia's government did not respond to messages.

Doctors say malnourished patients have succumbed to treatable conditions, their bodies too weak to recover from surgery. 

Gaym Gebreselassie, a surgeon in Adigrat, said one of his patients died a month ago during a routine operation because of sepsis exacerbated by his starved state.

"You cannot operate with confidence under such conditions," he told AFP.

"We tell patients to eat better but they say there is no food."

'Death sentence' 

With no salaries paid for months on end, Gebreselassie himself relies on aid to feed his family.

Yet the trickle of supplies meant that his sons, aged six and two, both contracted fungal infections exacerbated by poor nutrition.

Under such circumstances, the decision to suspend food aid -- even partially, as WFP has done -- "is a death sentence" for many, he said.

"When mothers are malnourished, this has a devastating impact on the community," he added.

"We are seeing infants who are significantly underweight, who cannot breathe well... there is a risk of many complications, because underweight children do not develop properly."

For Hailu, each day brings more stress. 

Before the war erupted in November 2020, his life was comfortable, he said. 

During the conflict, his mother's cousin died of malnutrition, followed by his aunt in January. Both women were in their forties.

Today, he is constantly on the hunt for food, he said, to ensure his children eat at least once a day.

"If this situation continues, I am afraid I will lose my children to hunger -- that they will die before my eyes."

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