Ethiopia Denies There’s a Famine in Tigray. We Obtained Photos of Starving Children.

Images and video footage obtained by VICE World News show multiple young children suffering from severe malnutrition in an overcrowded hospital.
June 18, 2021, 3:08pm
Ethiopia Denies There’s a Famine in Tigray. We Obtained Photos Of Starving Children
A cropped version of a photo of a visibly-emaciated youth being treated for severe acute malnutrition in Tigray's Shere Hospital. Photo: Obtained by VICE World News

Ethiopia’s government denies there is a famine in the northern Tigray region, claiming aid is being delivered to people in need of food. But video footage, photos, and testimonies from patients and medics obtained from a hospital in Tigray by VICE World News show that people from the region were being treated for severe acute malnutrition at least as far back as early May.

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Videos and images taken in May at the Shere Hospital, run by the interim Tigray authorities installed by the federal government, in northwestern Tigray show emaciated young children, including babies, lying on hospital beds, as they receive treatment for severe malnutrition. The photos, verified with multiple sources from the hospital, paint a grim picture of the situation on the ground in the embattled region after months of conflict and the Ethiopian government preventing access to international aid agencies and media.

VICE World News has reviewed the images but is not publishing them in full due to their distressing nature, and because the children are all identifiable.

Haftom Tesfay, 13, said he had gone hungry for two months before he was brought to the hospital on the 11th of May. He said Ethiopian and Eritrean troops had blocked aid to his home village of Zana. “There is no food in our village,” a visibly emaciated Haftom said. “My parents died. There were also other people dying.” 

Doctors at the hospital he’s in told VICE World that they’ve treated thousands of similar patients since the main fighting in Tigray ended. Haftom has been lucky to get medical help, because in Shere Hospital not all patients with severe acute malnutrition meet the criteria for admission. Due to a shortage of medical supplies, the hospital is only admitting patients who have serious underlying health issues along with severe acute malnutrition, doctors at the hospital said. 

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Last week the United Nations warned that there is a famine in Tigray, with an analysis by the UN and aid agencies concluding 350,000 people are living in famine conditions.

The Ethiopian government rejected the assessment by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, saying that food aid has been delivered to 5.2 million people.

Among the patients at Shere Hospital in May was a six-month-old boy being treated for severe acute malnutrition. The baby’s mother said she had fled her home village in northwestern Tigray after Eritrean troops burned all of her crops and killed her husband. “I could hardly find food,” the 25-year-old, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “Before this we had land in our village. We had enough crops to feed us for one year. My husband was a rich farmer. But the Eritrean troops destroyed everything. They burned the crops and broke our plough equipment. They want us to starve to death.” 

The woman was unable to get to the hospital for a month as roads were frequently closed due to fighting, she said. “It was difficult to get here. My son was terribly sick before we made it here. He lost his appetite at all. He had diarrhoea and swelling. I was so scared he would die.”

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Seven other patients from separate villages with complicated severe acute malnutrition being treated at the hospital said their rural villages in northwestern Tigray had run out of food. 

Doctors at the hospital said they feared that what they were seeing was only the tip of the iceberg.

“We should keep in mind we are only admitting patients with complicated severe malnutrition,” said a doctor at the hospital who requested to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal. “There are thousands of others suffering from severe acute malnutrition and still we could not help. This means the number of cases and deaths could be much higher than we know. I fear there can be a lot more unreported deaths especially in the villages.”

Units of Ethiopian army patrol the streets of Mekelle city of the Tigray region, in northern Ethiopia.

Units of Ethiopian army patrol the streets of Mekelle city of the Tigray region, in northern Ethiopia. Photo: Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Ethiopian Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Abiy Ahmed sent troops to the Tigray region last November, to remove the now-ousted regional government, TPLF.  On the 28th of November, Abiy declared the end of the war, but fighting has continued. Mounting evidence suggests gross human rights violations, extrajudicial killings, ethnic cleansing, looting, burning of crops, gruesome acts of sexual violence as a weapon of war and suspected use of prohibited weapons on civilians by government forces. The Ethiopian army is allied with troops from its former bitter foe Eritrea, and militias from the Ethiopian region of Amhara, which neighbours Tigray. In April, after months of denials, the Eritrean government finally admitted that its troops were fighting in Tigray alongside Ethiopian forces. 

The ongoing conflict in Tigray has driven more than 2 million people to flee their homes. According to a spokesperson for the interim Tigray government, out of 1.7 million people who are internally displaced, 60 percent of them are from Western Tigray. Over the months, Amhara forces in control of Western Tigray have been forcefully displacing ethnic Tigrayans in these territories, which they claim to be theirs. Ordered to flee, the majority of them are reportedly exposed to starvation.  

Hiwot Teklit is one of them. The 29-year-old mother said she fled her hometown of Kafta Humera in Western Tigray after she received an order from the Amhara militias.    

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“We were forced to flee empty-handed,” Teklit said. “I came to Shere in March. Throughout these months I received no aid. There are many internally displaced people here. They all try to share the little food they get. I survived by the help of these displaced people. You help each other until no food remains. At last, nothing was left to share.”  

Teklit’s 9-month-old boy is among the many children currently receiving nutritional support in Shere hospital for complicated severe acute malnutrition. According to doctors at the hospital, many patients who are released later return. 

“We release the patients after they show some good improvement,” another doctor, who works in the malnutrition department and asked to remain anonymous due to fear of reprisal, told VICE World News. “But when they leave the hospital they return to the same situation. There is no food in their villages. So they come malnourished again. Some have been here several times.”

2-year-old Filmon Hiluf is in the hospital for the third time. Filmon was first admitted in February, from the rural village of May’hanse in the Tigray town of Selekleka, his mother said.

“We kept coming to the hospital because we have no food to give to our son. Our crops are looted by the Eritrean soldiers. They took our cattle and everything. We have nothing to eat in the village,” said Wengel Teshome, Filmon’s mother.

VICE World News reached out to the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments for comment but neither responded. Eritrea has only just begun withdrawing troops from Tigray, according to Ethiopia. In a series of statements this week, the Ethiopian government acknowledged a “food gap” but claimed that the current situation will be rectified by an uptick in expected farming as farmers who fled as a result of the war return to their lands.

For now, 13-year-old Haftom is receiving nutritional support in the hospital. According to his doctor, there is a chance he will survive. But after losing his parents to the famine, he has no idea where he will go next.