Ethiopia’s ‘sophisticated campaign’ to withhold food, fuel and other aid from Tigray

Wednesday in the United Nations Security Council, the secretary general criticized the Ethiopian government for recently kicking out UN aid workers. He urged the government to allow aid to flow into the northern region of Tigray, where for nearly the last year, Ethiopia and its allies have been fighting an ethnic, regional force. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, before the U.N. Security Council, the secretary-general criticized the Ethiopian government for recently kicking out U.N. aid workers. He urged the government to allow aid to flow into the northern region of Tiananmen, where, for almost the past year, Ethiopia and its allies have been fighting an ethnic regional force.

    And now a warning: From the very beginning of this story, the images are disturbing. Hundreds of thousands in Tigray are starving.

    And, as Nick Schifrin reports, as fighting continues, the very real specter of famine looms.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Tigray, children are dying.

  • Dr. Hayelom Kebede, Ayder University Hospital:

    When you see malnourished children, you will see a very distended abdomen, and you will see some swelling also in the extremity.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Until a few months ago, Dr. Hayelom Kebede was the acting director of Ayder University Hospital in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. He shared photos that were taken last month.

  • Dr. Hayelom Kebede:

    The one in the ventilator is unable to breathe properly because he is getting weak and weak. You see a very pronounced head. And the other kid, if he cannot get a continuing supplement, then the kid will die.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Kids are dying already. In the last three weeks, Tigray TV, which is run by the Tigrayan government, broadcast these videos from outside Mekelle. The children are in rural Tigray, where conditions are even worse. The U.N. says 400,000 are facing famine.

    The crisis began late last year, when Tigrayan forces who used to run the country attacked a federal outpost. Federal forces and their allies from neighboring Eritrea and the Amhara region waged a scorched-earth campaign and occupied parts of Tigray. But, in late June, Tigrayan forces pushed federal Ethiopian soldiers out of Tigray. That's when senior U.S. officials say the Ethiopian government and its allies effectively blockaded Tigray.

    In September, five convoys of food entered Tigray. The U.N. says it is one-tenth of what's needed. The U.N. has been blocked from bringing in any fuel or medicine.

  • Dr. Hayelom Kebede:

    Medicine is running out of stock. And we used to give also food and also some supplements.

    Now we have around 60 intensive care malnourished children in our hospital. And out of these, six has been died in the last week because we don't have anything that we can give them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Will those other 54 children die?

  • Dr. Hayelom Kebede:

    Yes, definitely, they will die.

  • Martin Griffiths, U.N. Undersecretary For Humanitarian Affairs:

    So, the combination of lack of medical care — most of the health institutions there are inoperable — and lack of food will mean that people will start to die.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last week, the U.N.'s top humanitarian official, Martin Griffiths, sat down with the Associated Press for a rare interview. After it aired, Ethiopia kicked seven U.N. aid workers out of the country.

    And U.N. officials say, whenever aid workers arrive, Ethiopian government officials take away their phones and cameras, anything that can record.

    Kebede was able to speak to us because he now lives in Baltimore.

    Is the government, is the federal government blocking Tigrayans from sharing these images with the world?

  • Dr. Hayelom Kebede:

    Yes. The government is blocking all communication. The reason is just not to reveal what's happening in Tigray.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Can you hear me?

    Over a sketchy Zoom line to Mekelle, I spoke with Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe.

    We're just going to have to be patient, I think, because we lost you for a few minutes there.

    He is a former Tigrayan fighter turned academic and U.N. mediator.

  • Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe, Tufts University:

    We're seeing that peasants are surviving on weeds and flowers that they have never used before, because they have literally nothing to eat.

    If the world doesn't act properly, it could be witnessing another disaster similar to that of 1985 in a very short period of time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the 1980s, famine killed a million Ethiopians. It too was manmade. And Tigrayans warn this one could be worse.

  • Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe:

    The encirclement was not 360 degrees, as it is today. This time, the siege is completed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Ethiopian government accuses Tigrayan military forces of fueling the conflict by sending soldiers from Tigray into neighboring Amhara and afar and blocking aid delivery.

    They call Tigrayan forces and their political arm, the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front that used to run the country, terrorists. And Human Rights Watch accused Tigrayan forces of killing civilians indiscriminately.

    Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen spoke at last month's U.N. General Assembly.

  • Demeke Mekonnen Hassen, Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister:

    In Ethiopia, groups that consider equality as subjugation are making their best effort to create and prolong anarchy. At this stage, we are merely convinced humanitarian assistance is a pretext for advancing political considerations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tigrayan forces admit they have crossed borders. But Berhe, who says he is now a member of what he calls the resistance, is unapologetic.

  • Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe:

    There is massive mobilization of the people. They're just saying, nobody's going to save us. The world, it has forgotten us.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And to talk about to cry, I'm joined by Mark Lowcock, who, until July, was the U.N.'s top humanitarian official and was outspoken on Ethiopia. He's now a fellow at the Center for Global Development.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour," Mark Lowcock.

    Is the Ethiopian government trying to starve Tigray?

    Mark Lowcock, Former U.N. Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs: Yes, that's what's happening.

    And your piece — thank you for doing your piece, because there's a not just an attempt to starve six million people but an attempt to cover up what's going on. What we're seeing play out, I think, is potentially the worst famine the world has seen in the 21st century.

    And everything that you have said in that piece is corroborated by what I'm seeing privately and what I'm hearing from lots of other people who have insight and who are able to extrapolate from the limited information there is about what's really going on in the places we can't see.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You use the word cover-up.

    The Ethiopian government accuses Tigrayan forces of blocking aid and committing abuses in neighboring regions. Are either of those claims true?

  • Mark Lowcock:

    One of the things that needs to happen is, the Tigrayans do need to pull back from some of the advanced positions they have taken up.

    But it is not true that the Tigrayans are trying to block aid. What's happening is that Ethiopian authorities are running a sophisticated campaign to stop aid getting in by, for example, making it impossible for truck drivers to operate by setting up checkpoints with official and with militia people, by preventing fuel getting in.

    And what they are trying to do is starve the population of Tigray into subjugation or out of existence, but to avoid the opprobrium that would still be associated with a deliberate, successful attempt to create a famine taking the lives of millions of people.

    The Tigrayans definitely want — desperately want assistance. And there — it is not being allowed to get into them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. is threatening further sanctions on the Ethiopian government. Is Europe doing enough to pressure Prime Minister Abiy?

  • Mark Lowcock:

    I think it would be a good idea for European countries and others, in fact, to stand more clearly behind what the U.S. is doing and work with them and the African Union on the mediation effort led by President Obasanjo.

    What is in danger of happening is not just a total catastrophe in Tigray, but the disintegration of the whole of the Ethiopian state, the loss of 30 years of development progress, and throwing the whole region into turmoil.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In 10 years of war in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has evicted three U.N. aid workers. Last week, in one day, Prime Minister Abiy evicted seven aid workers.

    How concerned are you? And could it exacerbate the famine?

  • Mark Lowcock:

    Well, the reason those people were thrown out was because the Ethiopian authorities did not want them to be able to see what was going on.

    And it is a very unusual thing, as you have said, to throw people out like that. And the secretary-general of the United Nations has made clear, speaking to the Security Council, that what happened is not acceptable.

    But we just need to understand why this has happened. It is part of the cover-up. And what that tells us is, the Ethiopian authorities do not want the world to see what's going on. And that's why it's so important to keep describing the events that are playing out.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As you said, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres this afternoon criticized the Ethiopian government, but he in fact has been criticized for not doing enough.

    Do you believe the U.N. should be doing more?

  • Mark Lowcock:

    Well, I know how hard Antonio Guterres has worked on trying to persuade the Ethiopians in their best interests to serve by getting into a mediation and dialogue process.

    The U.N. has to do two things always in these circumstances, firstly persuade people in power and authority to give them access to people who need help, and, secondly, to raise money. Now, in this case, the money is not a problem. There is money available. And so the U.N. has to keep trying to persuade the Ethiopians that their best interests is served, as well as their legal obligations are best discharged, have to be discharged by letting aid into Northern Ethiopia.

    And I know they will keep working on that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you believe it's possible to pressure Prime Minister Abiy, when, at least in the capital, the war is popular, and he and other Ethiopian leaders historically have been much more concerned about domestic politics than international opinion?

  • Mark Lowcock:

    Every country has to pay attention to what the wider world thinks.

    What I think is particularly interesting is how sentiment has swung against Ethiopian authorities over the last three months or so in Africa. The statement we heard from the Kenyan ambassador to the U.N. basically said to the Ethiopian authorities, you're making a big mistake. You need to step back. You need to allow aid in. You need to get into a dialogue process. And you need to stop listening to those people, those siren voices who are telling you to give war a chance, because war will destroy your country.

    That's the message from the rest of Africa to the Ethiopian authorities. And, ultimately, I think they're going to have to pay attention to those kind of voices.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mark Lowcock, thank you very much.

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