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Thousands flee war-torn Ethiopia as Tigray crisis escalates

More than 60,000 Ethiopians from the northern war-torn Tigray region have fled to Sudan and several thousands are struggling to access basic needs like electricity, water and medical help as the military conflict between the government and Tigray People’s Liberation Front continues to escalate. Stephen Cornish, Director General of Doctors Without Borders-Geneva joins from Geneva, Switzerland to discuss the humanitarian crisis.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The ongoing military confrontation between the Ethiopian government and the northern region of Tigray continues to escalate, months after the Tigray People's Liberation Front attacked a military base there.

    Since then, there have been reports of civilians being massacred, destruction of health facilities and the displacement of at least a million people. Tens of thousands have fled to refugee camps in neighboring Sudan.

    I spoke with Stephen Cornish, Director General of Doctors Without Borders-Geneva about the situation on the ground.

    Stephen, first, you were recently in the region. Tell us, what did you see?

  • Stephen Cornish:

    So on the ground, I was just at the border region where Doctors Without Borders is running two transit camps and two regular refugee camps, providing health care and water and sanitation services.

    And what we saw was that there is a real lack of basic services, tents, food protection for those who are arriving now from Ethiopia and in the refugee camps where they're transiting people to those camps have been put up very, very quickly. And so conditions are substandard.

    And there's a lot of work to do that we need to do as well as other organizations need to do in order to scale up, bring the proper level of service before the rainy season comes and makes life really much more miserable.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Give us a sense of the humanitarian crisis that we're looking at already and what could get worse.

  • Stephen Cornish:

    Along the Tigran side in Ethiopia, we have hundreds of thousands of people that have been forcibly displaced and tens of thousands of those are still cut off in hiding or in areas where there is no access to assistance. Power lines, water lines, communication lines have been cut in some areas that we visited.

    The health system itself has collapsed. Many clinics that we visited have been looted or destroyed. Some have been taken over by armed doctors and are now serving their patients, but not the civilian population. So we are fast approaching a very, very serious humanitarian crisis affecting hundreds of thousands of people, both inside Ethiopia and the 60,000 refugees that have been fortunate enough to flee to Sudan.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    There have been multiple reports of at this point, war crimes, but there is still denial by the governments.

  • Stephen Cornish:

    So as a medical and humanitarian organization, our primary concern is to access the populations and to work on their medical humanitarian needs. And what we're seeing is, is a scale of need that truly has to be stepped up. We have been fortunate to get greater access in these last weeks into Sheely Micheli and into some of the outlying areas. And that's where we've witnessed really very high level of need, high level of insecurity and very low level of basic needs being met.

    And we absolutely have to scale those needs up and the response up. So we need more actors and greater services. The government and some aid organizations have brought in some food stuffs in these last weeks, but there are many people that have not had access to those supplies and so many other needs that we see that are still going unmet with the collapse of the health system and with the basic services in many areas still being cut off.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What is a day in the life of somebody who is trying to get by, and what are these camps like?

  • Stephen Cornish:

    Well, the first thing is that many of these people really struggled even to be able to leave the conflict zone and to make it to safety inside Sudan. Many of them witnessed violence, shelling on civilian areas, killings and other forms of abuse, including sexual and gender based violence on their way out.

    So people are traumatized. They've lost touch with loved ones. And in many areas, the communications are still cut down so they can't find loved ones that they've been separated from. Then they arrived in these camps on the border in these camps should have all the basic needs, including protection. And unfortunately, we're still not there.

    So we really have to make sure that we're able to to scale up across the board to meet the basic needs of this population. And that includes not only physical health, but also mental health. And we're supplying mental health and counseling in the camps in order to meet that other need.

    I sat with dozens of refugees to speak about their situation. The trauma that they had recently was front of mind, sometimes before even the basic needs that were obvious, that still had to be met. And they wanted the world to know and they wanted to know if the world knew what was happening there and if there was anything they could do.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Has Doctors Without Borders or any of the other aid agencies on the ground seen a difference now that we have different administrations?

  • Stephen Cornish:

    We're not in a position to say whether different political actors or U.N. actors, what has made the changes on the ground. We have seen some opening of additional access. We've seen other actors, aid actors, now arriving on the ground. So there is some progress being made to supply assistance, but we still have a long way to go to ensure the protection of the civilian population.

    We still don't have access to all areas of Tigray. So there are areas that are still cut off. And so there's real concern for the nutritional and food situation. There's real concern that the access to basic services be reconnected. We've seen areas where power lines, water lines, banks, all of these things are closed and hospitals are destroyed. And we've been able to do some basic renovations and some clinics to run mobile clinics in some areas to start bringing very basic modicum of health. But there's so much more work that has to be done.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Stephen Cornish of Doctors Without Borders joining us from Geneva. Thanks so much.

  • Stephen Cornish:

    Thank you for having us.

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