„We need to get commodities and food supplies into the Tigray region“

Binyam Asfaw, the national humanitarian response programme coordinator at SOS Children’s Villages Ethiopia, talks about the crisis in the conflict-ridden region of Tigray.

After fights between government troops and rebel armies, hundreds of thousands of civilians in Tigray face famine, violence against women and children, and poverty.

What are the current problems in the Tigray region?

Since the phone and internet connection in the area broke down in June, we had no contact with our staff in Tigray. Now, they are able to use the phone and internet at the UN office in the region’s capital Mekelle for two hours a week. The information we have now is that banks in Tigray are not fully functional. Everything is cash-based − people have to carry cash around. People use what they have since they can’t withdraw much money from the banks. The amount individuals are allowed to withdraw from functioning banks is the equivalent of 200 euros per month. For institutions, it is 400 euros. In practice, it is much lower than this amount. Our staff works on a credit basis. They try to implement activities and support people affected by the conflict.

According to our current information, the town of Mekelle is more or less peaceful. People are trying to get back to their normal lives as much as possible. Conflicts keep being more severe in areas bordering Eritrea in the north and around the borders with Amhara and Afar regions in the south.

The biggest problem for us is that there is no road or air access into Tigray from the rest of the country. We do not know which side is blocking the roads. Two weeks ago, 54 UN trucks with food supplies made it into the area. But the need in Tigray is for 60 trucks per day, according to UN OCHA.

It is estimated that more than 2 million people have been displaced (OCHA Update, accessed on 27 July 2021). Electricity has been on and off. For the whole past week, there was no electricity in Mekelle. Everything is rationed: fuel, cash withdrawals; the markets are restricted. Vendors sell what they have, and prices go up every day because they are running out of supplies.

What is needed to support people in Tigray?

We need bank services and access to the internet. We need guarantees that our places will not be attacked by any side and that we can help the civilians of Tigray. We hope both sides finish this conflict. We need to be allowed to bring commodities and supplies into the region in order to support those who have been affected by this terrible conflict.

According to a recent UN report, 400.000 people are threatened by famine. What is SOS-Children’s Villages doing to help?

The colleagues in the area have started to support malnourished children and pregnant and lactating women with supplementary therapeutic food. We also help victims of gender-based violence, i.e. by providing blankets, nightgowns, and nutritious food for a survivors support centre run by regional authorities. We are maintaining health facilities that were damaged, enabling the local people to get medicine and medical assistance there. We provide people with chronic illnesses with the drugs they need, which were in very short supply before our intervention. In the programmes, the colleagues support SGBV survivors and provide psychosocial support for children and adults traumatized by war and other forms of violence.

Farmers in the rural parts of Tigray had their last harvest over six months ago. Even in a normal situation, they would have run out of supplies by now. Due to the war, the situation is direr now, as agricultural products that usually would have been brought from other regions to supplement demand (in addition to the local production) are not coming in. We plan to distribute seeds to families in need, but the road blockings make everything difficult.

Are the programmes of SOS CV in Tigray affected?

We have contact with the colleagues, all children in the villages and staff are safe. Before the war, the location office had procured food and supplies for the village, as a precautionary measure in case of COVID-19 related movement restrictions. They stockpiled some amount of food. When war broke out, they didn’t have to go to the market, as they used the supplies they collected. After some weeks, the federal army took over Mekelle, the road was free, and SOS Children’s Villages Ethiopia‘s national office replenished supplies by purchasing consumable items from Addis Ababa and transporting them to Mekelle using WFP trucks. This measure helped create access to much-needed supplies.

Since the rebels took over Mekelle, all contacts between the federal government and administrative structures in the Tigray region are once again broken. Banks stopped functioning normally, and since then, cash is a problem: teachers and staff cannot receive their salaries.

In addition, procurement of goods and services needed to implement planned emergency programmes has become difficult. Procuring goods and services on a credit basis cannot continue indefinitely, as vendors will soon run out of cash if they don’t get paid. The national office is also having difficulties monitoring the progress of projects and sending updates to donors, as the communication with SOS staff in the Tigray region is only a little better than totally non-existent.

As to the cash problem, SOS National Office is considering temporary solutions such as sending money in the hands of national office staff, if we can secure seats in humanitarian flights from Addis Ababa to Mekelle. There are humanitarian agencies and donors who have suspended their activities in the region due to security reasons and the difficulty of project implementation and monitoring (cash, communication and mobility problems).

Could the conflict spread to regions in Ethiopia other than Tigray?

The armed conflict has recently spread to the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar, and People living in towns close to the regional borders have been displaced. This is a spiralling effect. It is hard to say what happens next. We don‘t know. Different parties have interests in this conflict.