Tigray mortality: has war and hunger cost 500,000 lives? Professor Jan Nyssen, Ghent University

  1. Tigray war mortality: half a million people?

We often get questions on numbers of deaths due to this war. It is very difficult to know due to near-absence of communication as well as the blackmailing of NGOs who have a partial view of the situation, but do not speak out for fear of being banned from working in Ethiopia.

With the assistance of citizen scientist Tim Vanden Bempt, we made the assessment that so far there are between 150,000 and 200,000 starvation deaths, 50,000 to 100,000 victims of direct killings, and more than 100,000 additional deaths due to lack of health care.

The starvation deaths are based on the figures of the IPC – Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (400,000 people in famine, May/June 2021) and USAID (900,000 in famine, June 2021). The situation is probably much more extreme now than it was then, but humanitarian aid during the summer months and the autumn harvests have apparently provided a welcome respite. The WFP was able to do a fairly extensive study that is downright terrifying. The harvest would be exhausted by April and if the humanitarian blockade remains, up to 50% of the population could be left without access to food.

The number of deaths due to lack of health care is based on the excess mortality that it generates. In normal circumstances, an average of  6 people per 1000 inhabitants die in Ethiopia in a year, according to according to an instructive curveprepared by the World Bank.

During the conflict months of November 2020 to June 2021, we estimated that there were 20 deaths per 1000 people and starting with the total blockade 32 per 1000. Twenty out of 1000 was the rate of health-related deaths in 1984-85, before the improvements in the Ethiopian health system.  According to Dr. Tony Magaña, this number has risen to 32 deaths per 1,000 since the blockade started.  The excess mortality was then calculated, not on the entire population but on the total of 3.9 million people in need of medical care according to OCHA.

Of the number of soldiers killed we have no idea. The tallied number of civilian direct casualties is at least 10,000. Probably they amount to 50,000 – 100,000, as there are many reports of civilian corpses “seen along the way when fleeing”, without mentioning location, date, numbers,…

There is a possible partial overlap between the categories. Yet, in the worst-case scenario there would be half a million civilian deaths.

The fact that the UN was not allowed to transport documentation material (USB drives, phones, cameras, etc.) from and to Tigray for a very long time (and even now), has meant that the situation in Tigray is very poorly documented. Journalists who could report about the situation on the ground are not allowed to travel to Tigray.

Farmers are really nearing the margin. Individual accounts witness that in many parts of Tigray people have run out of food, sold their valuables, and now abandon their homes in search of food. There is no clear view of where they go. In normal times people would go to urban areas, which is not possible these days as the situation is even worse in urban areas. Sadly, human trafficking including to Addis Ababa, is also emerging as a business. The desperation is to the level that people have started crossing the borders to Amhara region in search of food for survival. That sounds like the toughest decision to make, as the Amhara region is considered a stronghold for interests conflicting those of the Tigrayan people.

ACAPS (www.acaps.org) has published a very detailed thematic report: Tigray Region: Drivers of Food Insecurity and Outlook (1 March 2022). If not yet received, it is available upon request.

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  1. Example of a small rural area – Hagere Selam and surroundings

We received this overview of the situation in the Mekelle-Hagere Selam area from people working on the betterment of the humanitarian situation, as well as a historical document on the battle for Hagere Selam.

Right now, the condition is as follows:

  • No schooling. All the children would like to be trained, but most of the school materials are destroyed. Every child thinks about the drone and airstrike. They never feel safe.
  • More than 90% of health care facilities are destroyed.
  • Families are in disarray. No salary for the last eight months. Everybody is looking for aid but can’t get it. They are losing their children due to hunger and starvation. They are unable to save their families.
  • No medicine. Due to lack of medicine thousands of people are dying. The death rate is extremely high.
  • No communication. Instead of calling and messaging through phone, we go back to the old way of communication. We write a letter and ask someone to take it. Most of the time it gets lost somewhere and sometimes it arrives very late.
  • No bank. Even if people have money in their account, they are not able to withdraw because there is lack of cash in the bank – any bank communication is blocked and the cash has been looted by Ethiopian troops, when withdrawing from Mekelle, back in June 2021.
  • No electricity. The main power line was from Addis Ababa and they cut it off. After they cut it, the Tigray electric power was connected to Tekeze Hydropower. The substation was then hit by drone strike. Again it was repaired. Then the main station in Mekelle was hit. Again they repaired it and so on. Very tiresome.
  • No fuel. Transportation costs have increased tremendously.
  • Farmers did not harvest as usual. Because the farmlands were not properly ploughed on time and lacked fertilizer.
  • Even if you have cash at hand things are quite expensive to buy.
  • Every week there is high inflation. For example early February, the EthioTrees project bought food for the communities. We paid 2800 birr for one quintal (100 kg) of wheat and 4300 birr for 1 quintal of flour but early Marchit is 3700 birr and 5200 birr for the same amount.
  • See a tabulated view of price increases: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.6344845

Then, in one of our earlier circular letters we informed the outside world about the Hagere Selam massacre; recently Tigrai TV has been to the place and made this report: https://twitter.com/GuaGuaTigray/status/1469063607023554564

A video has also emerged, showing the strong cooperation between Ethiopian and Eritrean armies in the battle against the Tigray Defence Forces, on the road between Mekelle and Hagere Selam, back in late 2020.

The introduction to the video is in Tigrinya language, as it was broadcast by an Eritrean opposition YouTube channel. They mention that the film looks professionally prepared, not just filmed by an individual with a smartphone. The film was on a video cassette found near a dead soldier in the battle for Lalibela.

In the talk between the Ethiopian and Eritrean commanders, the target of the attack is mentioned several times: Hagere Selam mountain pass, which they eventually conquered.

Amongst the commanders that are extensively filmed, there are most probably also the Ethiopian and Eritrean defence personnel responsible for the massacre in Hagere Selam and surroundings in December 2020, and destruction of the town, as well as massacres in the wider Ala’isa-Addilal-May Leiba area. One Eritrean commander is identified as Brig-Gen. Haddish Ephrem (who belongs to the Eritrean president Isayas Afewerki’s inner circle) and from the Ethiopian side Major-Gen. Zewdu Belay.

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  1. Help women and girls survivors of rape and sexual violence in Tigray.

The ongoing genocidal war in Tigray has subjected over 100,000 women and girls to systematic rape and sexual violence. Tseday, 17, told Amnesty International that she was abducted by eight Eritrean soldiers in Zebangedena and held captive for two weeks. She said: “They took me to a rural area, in a field. There were many soldiers; I was raped by eight of them… Usually, they went out to guard the area in two shifts. When four of them went out, the rest stayed and raped me.” This is a story of tens of thousands of girls and women.

Survivors of rape and sexual violence are not getting necessary medical and other support due to the ongoing siege and de-facto humanitarian blockage.

“Kvinner for Kvinner i Tigray (KFK-Women to Women)”, a nonprofit organization based in Norway is currently fundraising to help women and girls survivors restore their lives. KFK is partnering with the Women’s Association of Tigray (WAT), an organization on the ground supporting survivors of sexual violence. WAT plans to organize and provide a training to 205 young women volunteers who will help the survivors in different ways.

Crowdfunding in Norwegian: https://www.spleis.no/project/214602

Bank transfers: KVINNER FOR KVINNER, bank account number 1506 74 23000, IBAN NO0212345678910

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  1. New scientific publications related to the Tigray War
  1. Scientists on Tigray and on Ukraine

The international community has rapidly taken a strong stance in opposing Ukraine’s invasion. Both Ukraine and Tigray are victims of war crimes committed by governments. We hope now that the international community will also stand up for the7 million Tigrayans besieged by the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies.

We have noticed how Russian scientists immediately reacted against the war on Ukraine:https://www.researchgate.net/post/Letter_of_Russian_Scientists

Unfortunately, we have not seen a similar move by Ethiopian scientists when the war on Tigray was launched. Ethiopian academic institutions rather actively participated in the war. See this database: the Ethiopian public universities during the Tigray war.

Also in Russia, universities are supporting Putin’s war.

In a reaction, on 10 March, the rector of Ghent University (Belgium) mentions that, “Institutional cooperation with Russian universities that support the invasion in Ukraine, and student exchange or cooperation between academics that takes place within that framework, is no longer possible.” Let us hope that universities worldwide take a similar stand, also in relation toEthiopian universities actively supporting the war on Tigray.

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  1. In the media
  • During the Tigray war, we had intense communications with Eritrean generals, including with general Filipos, who was stationed in Wukro
  • It is not true that the Ethiopian government spent 100 Billion birr to rebuild Tigray in the first half of 2021, like PM Abiy claims
  • The Tigray war was not law enforcement, but power struggle
  • Abiy Ahmed promised several times that the Amhara and Eritrean troops would leave Western Tigray but this has not happened
  • The Eritrean army blocked the movement of humanitarian aid inside Tigray
  1. Opinion pieces


Jan Nyssen
Professor of Physical Geography
Department of Geography
Ghent University


  1. Abiy says “Pray for me to serve you all in loyalty” as he is elected chairman

    “And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood” (Isaiah 1:15).
    “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2).

    Isaiah 1:15 When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

    Wicked and crooked Abiy whose hands are full of blood of innocent Tegaru, Amhara, Oromos and other temple of God will not be heard at all.
    It will be a mockery and belittling our religion if we pray before God for Abiy Ahmed, what he needs is to stay in power for ages- what chickens seek is fragmented cereals fitting their beaks(Doro bitalim tirewan. We must primarily pray for those who are suffering and enduring unspeakable agony , people of Tigray, Oromos, KImant , Agew, Amhara and all other civilians but not to those deliberately destroy humanity and burn the house of God. Abiy and all his accomplices must step down!!Peace and stability for all humanity and Amhara elites to jail with Abiy Ahmed!!!
    Stop Genocide , deliberate mass starvation in Tigray and elsewhere in Ethiopia.

  2. TPLF has always held the keys to peace between Tigrayans and the rest of Ethiopians. The Abiy regime will do what regimes do, but TPLF convinced Tigrayans that Ethiopia is out to exterminate them and that they are capable of defeating Ethiopia.
    The rest of Ethiopia only wanted TPLF to come to justice, and most didn’t even have formed opinion about the Abiy regime by 2020, let alone to want war with the Tigrayan population (then considered as just any other Ethiopian).

    The fact that TPLF/TDF, which by then was celebrated by Tigrayans as being their representative force, came to Afar and Amhara regions and inflicted the exact heinous crimes the regime and allied forces have inflicted on Tigray, is a glaring reason why the rest of Ethiopia decided to withhold their voice for Tigray.

    TPLF was especially responsible for making sure that Tigrayan people’s relation was kept amicable with the Amhara people. It did the opposite, and worse: not only did TPLF label amhras as the ultimate enemy but also went in and destroyed their livelihood and lives (Wollo of all places!)

    The best thing Tigrayans could do now is appeal to the rest of Ethiopia, this is the only way. It will probably not work because TPLF/TDF is still their voice, and their supporters in diaspora calling for the destruction of Ethiopia. But popular support for defense of Ethiopia warns that Tigray will be destroyed first before Ethiopia.

    Still, Tigrayans are the only ones that can change the course of this humanitarian disaster by reaching out to the rest of Ethiopia.

    1. You say this is the fault of Tigrayans. But they didn’t start this war: Ethiopian and Eritrean troops backed by Somali forces invaded Tigray in November 2020

      1. The world is silent on purpose, but not for the sake of finding sufficient proof, invoking a decisive measure toward bringing  culprits to justice-ICC. Children are left to die  from treatable diseases and man-made starvation  only because their land have no cultural, linguistic, and social ties with  past colonial masterswho observed no chance to  become a target of their economic interest-zero petrol or uranium to expand  their nuclear plant.  Unwilling  to respond to such kind of horrendous  act against humanity, a guilty/troubled conscience  seem to get a grip on the international community.

        Stop genocide and mass starvation in Tigray and Oromia and elsewhere in Ethiopia against any unarmed civilian.

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