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Understanding the fragile ceasefire and humanitarian crisis in Tigray

There is fragile ceasefire in Northern Ethiopia's Tigray after Ethiopian and allied forces withdrew after an occupation late in 2020. It's a dramatic turn in conflict that has killed thousands, uprooted millions and featured atrocities the global community attributes to the government of a Nobel Prize winning prime minister. On Tuesday, Tigrayan rebels were claiming victory. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, there is a fragile cease-fire in Tigray in Northern Ethiopia, after Ethiopian forces and their allies withdrew from the region they largely occupied late last year.

    It is, for now, a dramatic turn in a conflict that has killed thousands, uprooted millions, and featured atrocities the international community say were committed by the government of a Nobel-prize winning prime minister.

    As Nick Schifrin tells us, now Tigray rebels are claiming victory.

  • And a warning:

    Images and accounts in this report may upset some viewers.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today in Tigray, celebration for what Tigrayans are calling liberation day.

    In the city of Shire, residents posted cell phone videos of Tigrayan rebels entering the city, flying the Tigrayan flag. Just hours before, Tigray's capital, Mekelle, erupted in fireworks, after Ethiopian soldiers retreated.

    For the last eight months those Ethiopian soldiers, with allies from neighboring Eritrea, left a trail of scorched earth. They occupied much of Tigray in a conflict with Tigrayan military and political forces, who used to run the country, and recently defied Nobel peace-prize winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

    Ahmed and the military responded with what international humanitarian groups call widespread atrocities, the most violent, just last week children and more than 60 civilians, killed while they shopped at a market bombed by Ethiopian planes.

    Families wailed and waited for 27 hours for international health care workers to arrive, after Ethiopian ground troops blocked access. When a convoy of ambulances finally carried away the wounded, so many arrived at a hospital 20 miles away, the rooms overflowed, and the lobby became a triage center, the victims barely older than this civil war.

    A mother looked on as Dr. Kinfe Radae tries to save a young life.

  • Kinfe Radae:

    You can see this patient has been — sustained an injury to the abdomen and the chest.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ethiopian soldiers are accused of systematic rape. This teenager is six months pregnant. She says nowhere in Tigray was safe.

  • Teenager (through translator):

    If you stay home, you will die. If you go out there, you will die. If I'm going to die anyway, I would rather die fighting.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And Ethiopia used hunger as a weapon of war. They pushed Tigray to the brink of famine. USAID says 900,000 face famine conditions. The U.N. says five million urgently need assistance.

    And Ethiopian troops are believed to have targeted the very organizations trying to help, including the offices of Doctors Without Borders. Last week, Spaniard Maria Hernandez's car was ambushed, and she and two colleagues were murdered.

    The fighting produced an exodus; 1.7 million Tigrayans fled their homes. The government's critics called the conflict an attempt to repress an entire region and ethnicity, as they admitted earlier this year to E.U. envoy Pekka Haavisto.

  • Pekka Haavisto:

    They really used this kind of language that they are going to destroy the Tigrayans, they are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years and so forth.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Until today, the government had been defiant. The military said it only targets rebels, not civilians.

    Abiy denied Tigray was experiencing famine. And during recent parliamentary elections, he said promised to unite the country. Today, the government described its retreat as a humanitarian cease-fire. But Ethiopian forces have recently lost ground to regrouped Tigrayan rebels. And international pressure and punishment has increased.

    Just today, the State Department warned of further sanctions if Ethiopia and its allies' withdrawal wasn't permanent.

  • Robert Godec:

    If the government's announcement of a cessation of hostilities does not result in improvements and the situation continues to worsen, Ethiopia and Eritrea should anticipate further actions. We will not stand by in the face of horrors in Tigray.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And for more on today's events and where we go from here, we turn to Aly Verjee, a senior adviser to the Africa Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a nonprofit founded by Congress dedicated to resolving conflict abroad.

    Aly Verjee, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Tigrayan forces have captured the capital of Tigray, but they are not accepting this unilateral cease-fire. And they do not control all of Tigray. So, do you expect this fighting to continue. And you expect Tigrayan forces to continue to be — or try and be on the offensive?

  • Aly Verjee:

    I think so.

    There's still some parts of the region that they don't have full control over. There's still other forces present in the region. And the rhetoric at least is suggesting that they aren't ready to have a cease-fire just yet or a pause in their combat activities.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, of course, part of the reason is that there's other forces involved in this. It's not just Ethiopians. It's not clear whether the Eritrean forces will withdraw. It's not clear whether there are ethnic Amharans who will also withdraw.

    Do you fear, bottom line, that this fighting actually is not over?

  • Aly Verjee:

    Unfortunately, I think the potential for more fighting is certainly there.

    The cease-fire is a good step. It's a necessary step. But it doesn't mean that fighting will end conclusively. That's for certain.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's talk about why today.

    Ethiopia's prime minister is on the verge of declaring victory in recent elections. He's under diplomatic, economic pressure from the international community. And his forces, frankly, were routed by some Tigrayan forces on the ground.

    Are those the reasons why you're — why we're seeing the cease-fire today?

  • Aly Verjee:

    I think, broadly, those are the reasons.

    Clearly, the military advances of the Tigrayan in the last few days have been rather rapid, have been rather decisive in terms of their effect. And that has put the government of Ethiopia, the forces of the federal government under significant pressure.

    But, at the same time, it's probably not the only factor. There's been pressure building for some time on the prime minister to halt the hostilities, to withdraw forces. That's international pressure. That's also pressure from the region.

    And the fact that the elections are now out of the way also perhaps plays a role, because, prior to the elections, there was a great deal of discussion within Ethiopia and other parts of the country about just how necessary it was to continue this conflict. A lot of people thought the war was necessary, and, actually, there was a degree of popularity attached to it.

    So, clearly, acting before the elections might have been more difficult for the prime minister, but with the elections out of way, that's no longer the same consideration it once was.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    How important is this moment for the future of Ethiopia? What's the risk if the prime minister doesn't start a genuine political dialogue with Tigray?

    There are other nationalist movements in Ethiopia who are certainly watching this moment closely.

  • Aly Verjee:

    There are implications on two levels.

    First, in Tigray itself, as we have discussed, there's by no means a certainty that the violence will end definitively. And even if it were, the very dramatic humanitarian situation that exists isn't going to be reversed overnight.

    If people are on the verge of famine, that won't change by tomorrow. As you say, elsewhere in Ethiopia, there are also plenty of problems, of insecurity agreements. They aren't necessarily directly related to Tigray. In most cases, they're not. But the reality is that the grievances have many commonalities, in terms of how people feel about being governed from the center, about how effective that government is, of what the vision for the future of the country will be.

    So, in that sense, people are certainly looking at what's happening in Tigray.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And on the humanitarian side, finally, how dire is the situation for the displaced and for refugees? Are they getting what they need?

  • Aly Verjee:

    There seem to be around two million people who are internally displaced. The number of refugees is much smaller, but still a significant one.

    What we know at the moment is that humanitarian access has been a severe challenge, and that most people who are in need of assistance haven't been getting the sufficient assistance that's required.

    So, one real test now will be to see if the cease-fire actually changes the humanitarian access questions. If you look at what happened as the federal forces withdrew, with attacks on the offices of U.N. agencies, for example, the looting of some equipment, it wasn't a very promising sign.

    We will have to see if, in the next few days and weeks, that improves, and if there's a genuine attempt to allow humanitarian access and humanitarian assistance to come into where it's needed most.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Aly Verjee of the USIP, thank you very much.

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