International aid workers who have left Ethiopia’s Tigray region in recent days have described a chaotic and dynamic situation with large numbers on the move to avoid fighting, choking roads already full of military vehicles.
Federal troops are involved in a massive offensive aimed at removing the Tigray People’s Liberation Front from power in the northern region, and intensifying rhetoric from both sides has reinforced fears of a long and bloody conflict.
One aid worker, who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, said: “There are thousands of people trying to get away from the fighting, and the local administration is trying to house them in schools and public buildings, or disperse them into villages or wherever they might have relatives.”
“There is a strong nationalistic fervour among the Tigrayans so I don’t think the Tigrayans are just going to yield. There is a big ethnic element here that is clearly escalating,” said a second aid worker.
One flashpoint is between Tigrayans and Amharans from the neighbouring province. Amharan security forces and militia are fighting alongside government troops as they advance into Tigray.
In a statement issued on Wednesday headlined “Distinguishing [the] TPLF from the People of Tigray”, the Ethiopian government denounced “mischaracterisations” suggesting that the military operation had any ethnic bias, and was simply aimed at maintaining the unity of Africa’s second most populous country.
“Our vision of Ethiopia is of a multinational society … Our common heritage and destiny is strong enough to overcome the threat posed by the divisive, sinister and toxic machinations of the TPLF clique,” it said.
However, Reuters reported that Ethiopian peacekeepers stationed in Somalia have disarmed between 200 and 300 of their Tigrayan colleagues.
Tigray’s leadership said on Wednesday it would never surrender to federal troops. “Tigray is now a hell to its enemies,” said Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of the TPLF. “Let us mobilise our entire capacity … As long as the army of the invaders is in our land, the fight will continue.”
A statement from the office of the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, promised to put an end to the “deadly crime spree” of Tigray’s “disgruntled, reactionary and rogue” leaders.
Officials said federal forces controlled multiple towns in southern Tigray and had advanced to within roughly 80 miles of Mekelle, but with communications cut to the region and no media allowed access it is impossible to confirm the claims.
Eyewitnesses described government air raids around Mekelle and elsewhere in Tigray, though were unable to say which targets had been hit. There have been reports of civilian casualties from the air strikes and artillery bombardments, with hundreds feared dead.
Abiy launched military operations two weeks ago after he accused the TPLF of attacking a military camp and attempting to seize military hardware. The TPLF denies the charge and has accused the prime minister of concocting the story to justify the offensive.
The open hostilities are the culmination of months, even years, of rising tensions between the TPLF’s leadership and the ruling coalition in Addis Ababa, the national capital.
Analysts say that many Tigrayans appear to support their leaders for the moment.
“The TPLF appears more popular among Tigrayans than it has been for a long time … Tigrayans are rallying around the flag,” said Will Davison, an Ethiopia expert with the International Crisis Group, which is based in Addis Ababa.
The UN, the African Union and others have called for talks, but Abiy has resisted despite fears of a humanitarian catastrophe.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has visited healthcare facilities in Tigray and Amhara and found them in need of medical supplies to care for an influx of wounded. One hospital in Gondar, the capital of Asmara, had treated more than 400 critically injured patients, the organisation said.
The Ethiopia Red Cross Society has transported hundreds of injured people and more than 1,000 people have contacted the ICRC’s hotline and visited its office in Mekelle and Addis Ababa looking for help to reach their families, said Katia Sorin, ICRC’s head of delegation in Addis Ababa.
“The telecommunications blackout in Tigray has made it practically impossible for people to contact their family members, causing fear and anguish on the whereabouts and safety of their loved ones,” Sorin said.
The UN and the African Union have called for a ceasefire. So too has the US, and the pope.
An open letter signed by 33 former British members of parliament and the European parliament, including four former ministers, called on the UK government to end its “woeful inertia” and threaten sanctions unless Ethiopia, Eritrea and other state actors pull back from the conflict.
“This is a unique moment in the history of a deeply conflicted part of the world…. We urge the government to give a stronger voice … to the need for peace,” the letter reads.
Abiy was appointed leader of the ruling coalition of Ethiopia and so prime minister in 2018. Though his sweeping reforms won widespread praise, they have allowed old ethnic and other grievances to surface.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s governing coalition for decades before Abiy came to power, and Tigrayan leaders complained of being unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions.
The postponement of national elections owing to the Covid-19 pandemic aggravated tensions, and when parliamentarians in Addis Ababa voted to extend officials’ mandates Tigrayan leaders went ahead with regional elections in September that Abiy’s government deemed illegal, an act which some analysts say made a confrontation inevitable.