New satellite images shared with VICE World News shed new light on the extent of the damage caused by the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia, adding to fears from international aid agencies of a looming humanitarian crisis.
Analysis of images taken in the first three weeks of January shows suspected attacks on two refugee camps in the north of Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia that since November has been a battleground between the local ruling party and the federal government.
Satellite photos taken at the northern side of the Hitsats refugee camp show the aftermath of a suspected attack. Photo: Planet Labs Inc.
Fighting broke out between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and government forces on the 4th of November, after the TPLF allegedly attacked a government military base in the region.
The satellite images appear to show the aftermath of scorched earth-style attacks that targeted a World Food Programme storage site, a school, health care facilities, and refugee shelters, according to DX Open Network, a UK-based human security research, and analysis non-profit. The images were provided by Planet Labs Inc., which has a partnership with DX Open Network. Access to the region for international media and humanitarian workers is restricted, and it is not clear who is responsible for the suspected attack.
It comes nearly two months after the Ethiopian federal government claimed victory and marched into the region's capital. The TPLF has since taken up guerrilla tactics in the mountainous region, however. There are also reports of armed forces from neighbouring Eritrea and the Ethiopian region of Amhara supporting the federal forces, which shows the complexity of the conflict and the number of actors involved.
It can also be revealed that aid agencies are expressing fears of a monumental humanitarian crisis in the region. Minutes from an 8th of January meeting involving the Tigray Emergency Coordination Centre of the U.N. and other humanitarian organisations, seen by VICE World News, detail how aid agencies raised the alarm that an estimated 4.5 million people needed emergency food assistance and warned hundreds of thousands could starve to death if action is not taken swiftly. Local authorities put the number of people needing urgent humanitarian assistance at 2.2 million.
Even if access was granted now, the logistical challenge is immense. The minutes show the aid agencies, including Médecins Sans Frontières, the Red Cross, and Norwegian Church Aid, estimating a need for at least 2,000 trucks each with 40 metric tons, to provide a 15kg ration for 4.5 million people.
In addition to the volatile situation on the ground, the international NGOs are worried about dispatching items quickly due to the lack of a functioning regional government and fear of looting breaking out.
Before 1991, the TPLF and Eritrean rebels fought alongside each other to topple the Ethiopian communist government. Two years later, following a referendum, Eritrea gained independence and a TPLF-led coalition government came to power in Ethiopia. However, relations between the former wartime allies deteriorated massively, culminating in a two-year conflict between 1998 and 2000 that led to the death of an estimated 80,000 people. The two countries were effectively in a military stalemate until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in Ethiopia in 2018, ending decades of TPLF-led rule in the country. Abiy subsequently won the Nobel Peace Prize for moves towards resolving the conflict with Eritrea.
The TPLF was gradually sidelined and tensions escalated in 2020 after Tigray went ahead with regional elections in defiance of the federal government’s ruling to postpone elections on account of the coronavirus pandemic.
The satellite images show at least 405 structures extensively damaged by fire in Shimelba camp, one of two camps in Tigray that between them hosted around 33,000 mostly Eritrean refugees prior to the current conflict. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) still has no access to these camps.
Nearly 58,000 Ethiopians in Tigray have fled to neighbouring Sudan since the conflict broke out. Ethiopia hosted nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees even before the current conflict between Tigray and the Ethiopian government began, escaping Eritrea’s repressive government.
Some 5,000 Eritrean refugees are living in dire conditions in Tigray, many sleeping in an open field on the outskirts of the town of Shire, some 50km from the two refugee camps in Northern Tigray, with no water and no food, according to the UNHCR.
International aid agencies are still waiting for permission from the Ethiopian government to access some parts of Tigray. Journalists are also restricted from accessing some parts of the region. There is a “need to ensure unconditional and sustained access for humanitarian actors and for affected civilians to goods and services through life-saving humanitarian aid,” UNICEF said in a statement issued this week. Withholding aid itself is a war crime.
“If the international community can’t at least get food to my people, we will die,” said Salem, a resident of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, told VICE World News via phone. “The only priority, the only thing that matters is getting food and medication and trying to save as many people as possible. Nothing else matters right now.” Fearing repercussions from authorities, Salem agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity.
The independent Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has reported how in the first two months of the conflict, houses and businesses were looted and burned, women raped, and mothers lost their babies in roadside childbirth. Lack of water, electricity, medicine, vaccines, ambulances, and financial services are all compounding the crisis.
Crops in the region are ravaged by one of the worst desert locust outbreaks in decades, yet some of the harvests were looted or burned by armed groups, and grain storages emptied. One resident in Humera, a town in the northwest of Tigray, says that his full-grain storage was completely burned down, and his 15 goats stolen.
Some food aid was provided to all residents of Humera, but it was grossly insufficient, the EHRC reported. The Ethiopian Ministry of Peace on Tuesday said it had distributed food for 1.8 million people and more supplies are expected in the coming days.
According to the EHRC, in Humera hospitals received many injured and 92 dead including federal forces, TPLF fighters, Eritrean forces, Amhara militia and civilians, many with shrapnel fragments,in mid-November.
In Bissober village, 80km south of Tigray’s capital, one mother said her husband and her son were killed by government troops after being wrongly accused of “being TPLF Informants.” Fighting between the government and TPLF broke out on the 14th of November for three days, the EHRC reported.
If there are war crimes being committed, it is not clear who is responsible. The EU has called for unfettered access to humanitarian agencies and recently suspended €88 million (about £78 million) in budgetary support to Ethiopia. The incoming U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also reiterated the need to give access to humanitarian agencies. In Maikadra, a town in western Tigray, the EHRC and Amnesty International found that members of the Samari youth group, a group loyal to the TPLF, orchestrated and carried out a massacre in early November against Amharas, the predominant ethnic group from a neighbouring region.
As long as the Ethiopian government prevents access to the whole of Tigray, information will only trickle out about who is behind the attacks. There is still a communications blackout in much of Tigray and in a conflict environment, this could increase the likelihood of more violence.