(Independence) — Ethiopia is on course to suffer a famine last seen in the 1980s, when mass starvation killed about a million people.
The UN’s human rights chief Mark Lowcock has implored warring parties in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region to agree to an immediate ceasefire or face one of the greatest tragedies of this century.
“People need to wake up,” he said. “There is now a risk of a loss of life running into the hundreds of thousands or worse.
“Businesses have been destroyed. The economy has been destroyed. Crops have been destroyed. Farms have been destroyed. There are no banking services any more, there are no telecommunications services any more.”
Mr Lowcock said food aid was being blocked in particular by Eritrean forces also operating in Tigray, saying starvation was being used as a weapon of war.
“We are hearing of starvation-related deaths already,” he said. “The access (for aid workers) is not there because of what men with guns and bombs are doing and what their political masters are telling them to do.”
The cry for action comes after the World Food Programme said 90pc of Tigray’s six million people needed emergency food aid.
In the past week, the UK, the US, Canada, France and Germany have presented a united diplomatic front pushing for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and full access for aid groups to avert the impending disaster. However, despite accounts of appalling atrocities against civilians, both the UN Security Council and the African Union have yet to take a firm stance on Tigray.
In the 1980s, Ethiopia’s Marxist dictatorship fought a scorched-earth campaign against guerrilla fighters in the country’s rugged north.
The conflict, combined with record low rainfall, created a famine that killed hundreds of thousands. A landmark BBC report showing children’s emaciated bodies being carried in cloth sacks shocked the world, and led to Bob Geldof creating LiveAid, resulting in a vast outpouring of international donations.
After the famine, the vast east African nation of 110 million people became one of the most promising economies in Sub-Saharan Africa.
But for the past six months, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and allied ethnic Amhara militias have been battling forces loyal to the Tigrayan regional government. Any hopes that Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister, may have had of a quick victory have evaporated.
Instead the conflict has morphed into a guerrilla civil war, including a systematic campaign of rape, the indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas, ethnic cleansing and dozens of reported massacres.
Last week, it was reported that civilians in Tigray had suffered horrific burns consistent with the use of white phosphorus, a potential war crime.
Since then, the World Health Organisation, the UK and Mr Lowcock’s UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs have all launched investigations to see whether incendiary weapons have been used in civilian areas.
The situation on the ground is difficult to confirm but multiple sources have said they believe the Ethiopian government controls most urban areas in southern Tigray, while Eritrean troops hold most towns in the northern half of the mountainous territory.
Eritrean soldiers have been reportedly stealing food aid at roadblocks and stopping farmers from planting their crops in an attempt to starve the guerrilla fighters into submission.