Workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross deliver medical supplies into Mekele, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, in this Jan. 26 file photo. CNS photo/International Committee of the Red Cross/handout via Reuters

Ethiopia in crisis: the forgotten war

  • May 14, 2022

With much of the world’s focus on the war in Ukraine, Ethiopian Catholic leaders world-wide have been calling on the international community not to forget the thousands of people impacted by conflict in the East African nation’s Tigray region.

Alemayehu Zenebe, program coordinator and office manager at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of Canada’s St. Mary Cathedral in Toronto, says his community has been frustrated by the lack of mainstream media attention and help towards Ethiopia’s crisis. The war in Tigray broke out in November 2020 after months of tensions between the government and regional leaders and according to reports as many as half a million people have died from violence and famine.

Reports suggest 40 per cent of the region’s six million people face extreme food shortages largely induced by closure of borders and the conflict limiting access to resources. The nation is also in the middle of a prolonged drought following three consecutive failed rainy seasons since late 2020, affecting millions across the country and neighbouring Somalia. With starvation threatening millions, no relief aid reached the region for a period of several months, according to officials in the Diocese of Adigrat in Eastern Tigray.

“There is a drought now and it’s all over the country,” said Zenebe. “Because of the virus and the war in Ukraine (a lot) is at a standstill. Ethiopia needs help. Also because of the drought and the environment, there is a famine. But the people are becoming more self-reliant and helping each other to rebuild the nation.”

Updates from the Ethiopian Foreign Minister’s Office say that since the government of Ethiopia announced the indefinite and immediate truce on March 24 and urged the Tigray defence forces to abstain from all acts of aggression, nine heavy trucks carrying fuel oil and 146 heavy trucks carrying emergency aid items have arrived in Mekele, the capital of the Tigray.

Argaw Fantu, Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s (CNEWA) regional director in Ethiopia, has been in direct communication with Catholic leaders in the region. Though they are in the midst of a very challenging humanitarian crisis, they are striving to survive, he said.

Over the past two weeks large trucks carrying emergency food aid arrived in Mekele, and 64 more trucks are on the way, according to a recent update from the World Food Program. And reports from the International Red Cross Association on May 1 said 20 trucks carrying food items, seed for farmers and medical items had arrived.

It is questionable whether these emergency aid items will reach Church institutions in the most remote areas as the situation on the ground is very complex, said Fantu. There has also been blockades curtailing access to services, including banks, which have been closed since July 2021. Since then, CNEWA has not been able to directly transfer funds to beneficiary institutions.   

“It is not only the humanitarian aid access to Tigray region that matters, but other unnoticed areas in Ethiopia are also in need of humanitarian support,” said Fantu. “Drought in the south and eastern parts of the country is heavily costing farmers. Infrequent attacks on civilians in the western and south-western parts of the country is displacing thousands of ethnic families. High rising cost of living in many urban areas, continued migration of young people from rural to urban areas are unresolved and unforeseen challenges of the country.”

Ethiopia is living in a war-time-economy, he said.

“All these are the heavy challenges the country is passing through for survival at the moment,” said Fantu. “All these challenging situations are compelling needs for continued support to Ethiopia not only to Tigray region, but also to other needy areas in the country that are not yet the focus of attention by international humanitarian agencies.”

Over the years CNEWA has been actively involved with several initiatives supporting Catholic schools in Ethiopia, providing food to students and their families, helping schools acquire wells and working to ensure girls and boys are able to get an education. That work in the northern zones had to stop abruptly due to the conflict, which also impacts their work in the Amhara and Afar region. Though in some areas primary schools have recently started up again, in the Tigray region Catholic schools are still not fully functional, said Fantu.

Schools are being supported primarily by the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services, the Ethiopian Catholic Church Social Development office and as much as possible through CNEWA’s food aid program. In Amhara and Afar regions, schools were partially damaged by Tigray forces during attacks from July to October of last year and CNEWA has been working to support these schools under its subsidy program.

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