Aid organizations in Ethiopia demand that phone lines and internet be restored in troubled northern Tigray province, warning that the ceasefire declared by Addis Ababa this week will only help alleviate famine if aid workers can operate safely.
Since the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) withdrew from Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, on Monday, all telecommunications have been down, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha). Unicef said ENDF staff entered their office and dismantled essential satellite equipment.
“It put enormous strain on our ability to communicate,” said Hayat Abu-Saleh, spokesperson for Ocha, speaking from Mekelle during a brief period of satellite Internet connection. “Telecommunications must be restored. We need to have access to fuel [and] cash flow to continue our humanitarian operations.
Adele Khodr, UNICEF representative in Ethiopia, said there was an urgent need for aid supplies to reach parts of Tigray that had not been accessible for months.
“We know that we have 33,000 children at high risk of morbidity and mortality, of being very seriously ill and eventually of dying. We need to reach these children as quickly as possible, ”she said. A lack of telephone or internet, however, would hamper any aid effort.
“If we don’t have telecommunications equipment, we can’t send people out into the field and keep them safe. It’s very simple, ”she said.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed deployed federal troops to Tigray last November after the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (TPLF) forces attacked military bases. Since then, the northern province has been locked in a deadly conflict, which has claimed thousands of lives and displaced more than two million people. The UN said about 350,000 people are now on the verge of famine.
This week’s unilateral ceasefire declaration by the national government, which came as troops retreated not only from Mekelle but from several other nearby towns, was greeted with glee by locals.
But humanitarian organizations, while cautiously hoping that this could give workers access to areas that have long been inaccessible, reserve their judgment. Observers fear that Addis Ababa is considering some form of blockade of the province, a “containment strategy” that would seek to keep the province away and slowly deprive it of resources.
“For us, [the ceasefire declaration] is an important step, but we have to see how it is operationalized, ”said Khodr. “This is the most important thing. For example, we have to make sure that all the roads are open.
“We need to make sure humanitarian flights are allowed so that we can send supplies [to Tigray]. We must also combine the ceasefire with the reconnection of telecommunications – the Internet and the telephone. “
The TPLF rejected the ceasefire, promising instead to recover “every square inch of territory” in Tigray.
Fisseha Tekle of Amnesty International said he feared this could lead to further conflict with troops loyal to the neighboring Amhara region of Tigray. “I think there will be more bloodshed and civilian casualties because these are very controversial areas,” he said.
Tekle also warned of the possibility of retaliatory attacks amid the unrest. He remained uncertain of the potential of the ceasefire to help alleviate the suffering of Tigrayans.
“If it’s a strict ceasefire that holds, it will be better for the people there, especially if it comes with humanitarian access,” Tekle said, adding, “But in the absence of any information on this access, and faced with the TPLF rejecting the ceasefire, the future looks more negative than optimistic.
Gezahegn Kebede Gebrehana, Director of Oxfam in Ethiopia, called on all parties to the conflict to “make effective use” of the ceasefire. “This is a crucial time for farmers to plant crops, and if they are not sure whether to do so, it will continue the cycle of hunger and have deadly consequences for months to come.
“Oxfam calls on all parties to use the ceasefire effectively, to prioritize the safety of civilians and to allow humanitarian workers safe access to those in urgent need,” he said. he declares.
At least 11 aid workers – most recently three Médecins Sans Frontières employees – have been killed in Tigray during the eight months of conflict, while an airstrike on a market in Mekelle last week killed at least 64 people and left more injured about 180.