Tesfaye Berhe looked on with worry as his farmhands stripped leaves from sorghum stalks dried brown by the blaring sun, wondering how he could salvage a harvest disrupted by heavy fighting in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.
The portly, grey-bearded 60-year-old ran for cover when shells started flying around him a month ago — launched from the east by the military and from the west by forces loyal to the dissident regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The chaos forced Tesfaye to abandon this year’s crop of teff — a staple grain used to make injera flatbread — mid-harvest. Now he fears it could happen again with the sorghum, despite claims from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that the fighting is all but over.
“We are still hearing that there are combatants in both directions. We are concerned about whether or not we can eat what we’re harvesting now, if they come back,” he said at his farm near the village of Ayasu Gebriel.
Tigray, an impoverished region of about six million people, faced formidable food security challenges before the conflict began, compounded this year by the coronavirus pandemic and the worst desert locust infestation in decades.
Now aid agencies fear the fighting — which has reportedly killed thousands and displaced many thousands more — could tip the region into catastrophe.
The UN says it does not have humanitarian access to Tigray, making it difficult to assess how badly the hostilities have upended the lives of civilians.
But AFP recently obtained exclusive access to southern Tigray, where some residents said they were growing desperate, begging from neighbours and serving their children boiled water just to get something warm in their stomachs.
The hardship could last long after the guns are silenced, especially if farmers like Tesfaye see an entire season’s worth of grains wiped out.
“The potential loss of the harvest inside Tigray, which was about to start when the conflict began, could have major implications for food insecurity in the region,” said Saviano Abreu, spokesman for the UN’s humanitarian coordination office.
– Region ‘not stable’ –
Tensions over aid access have been mounting in recent weeks between Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, and humanitarian officials.
Abiy’s government has stressed its commitment to getting aid to “vulnerable communities,” saying it will take the lead while coordinating access for outsiders, partly because of persistent insecurity.
But that process has not gone smoothly.
A week after the UN inked a deal ostensibly allowing some access, security forces fired on a UN assessment team trying to visit a camp for Eritrean refugees, claiming they had ignored instructions and driven through checkpoints.
On Monday UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric complained anew about lack of access, saying “we have not been able to reach people that we know are in need.”
Negotiations continued Tuesday in Addis Ababa between UN officials and Demeke Mekonnen, Ethiopia’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister.
The government, meanwhile, has been touting its own efforts to provide assistance.
In the Tigray town of Alamata on Friday, officials distributed 50-kilogramme (110-pound) sacks of wheat — branded with the Ethiopian flag — to hundreds of residents who queued outside a warehouse, some using umbrellas to block the sun.
But Alamata has not seen much combat, nor is it home to many displaced Ethiopians.
An official with the federal disaster commission, Solomon Admasu, acknowledged he and his colleagues were struggling to reach areas hit harder by the fighting.
“The resources are there, but there are places that are not stable and places that have security problems,” Solomon said.
Another issue is that many local officials in Tigray are feared to have fled their posts, potentially complicating food distribution once federal officials make it deeper into the region, said Assefa Mulugeta, a peace ministry official coordinating the government aid effort in Alamata.
“The government needs help, it is obvious,” he said, “because the demands are very high.”
– ‘Living with God’s help’ –
Some international aid is getting into Tigray.
Over the weekend the International Committee of the Red Cross announced that seven trucks of medicines and medical equipment had reached the regional capital Mekele — the first foreign aid convoy to make it there.
Catholic Relief Services has worked with local church partners to get food aid into western Tigray and to thousands of displaced people along Tigray’s border with the Amhara region, said Ethiopia country representative John Shumlansky.
Yet in towns and villages throughout southern Tigray, residents said what little aid they have seen is not nearly enough.
“People don’t have anything to eat or drink, they need aid. Even the wealthy people, the importers and exporters,” said Asene Hailu, a resident of Mehoni, about 120 kilometres (75 miles) south of Mekele.
He added that “there are no medical supplies” for civilians injured in shelling.
The needs extend well beyond food, as many in Tigray went weeks without water and electricity, meaning “sanitation and health services have been seriously disrupted,” the UN’s Abreu said.
But food is the most immediate concern, said one construction worker in the town of Korem who requested anonymity.
The extended closure of banks meant even those who could afford rapidly-rising food prices have struggled to provide for their families, he said.
“The low-income people are ashamed to beg but they need swift, easy aid at the moment. They are eating what they have on hand and that’s almost finished,” he said.
“They are living with God’s help.”