Ethiopia collapses, but Abiy still has a choice | Conflict

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Helping the hungry in Ethiopia’s Tigray region is not just about saving lives, it’s about whether Ethiopia will remain united as a country or disintegrate.

When the Ethiopian army escape from the Tigrayan capital Mekelle on Monday, he left the region in the hands of fighters from the Tigray Defense Forces or TDF (the armed wing of the former ruling party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray or TPLF). Of the six million inhabitants of Tigray, more than five million are in need of emergency aid and, according to the United Nations, 350,000 are already in a situation of famine. Preschoolers are most at risk because their tiny bodies cannot last long without essential nutrients.

It is estimated that 30,000 children could starve in the coming months. And if the aid effort is not resumed – and stepped up – the death toll could easily be 10 times higher.

Before abandoning Mekelle, retreating Ethiopian troops ransacked the aid premises and took all the money from the banks. They too has stolen communication materials from aid agencies. The incoming TDF found a town without even a day’s supply of in-store food.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ad what he called a “humanitarian ceasefire”. It made a good headline, but his statements over the past few weeks have made it clear that it is not. In fact, he plans to continue the war by other means – the blockade.

In a speech, reported on June 25, he accused aid agencies of having a hidden rebel resupply program. Almost immediately, three staff members of the international medical association Médecins Sans Frontières (Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF) were murdered. The killers are not known but the finger of suspicion points to the government.

The announcement of the “humanitarian ceasefire” limited the break in the army’s offensive action to the agricultural season, which only lasts three months. It’s just time to buy new weapons and – Abiy promised – to return to Tigray by force of arms. A ceasefire is usually an agreement between the warring parties, but the announcement called the TPLF a “criminal junta”.

And speaking on June 30, Abiy said frankly that the war was now waged against the people of Tigray, who he said stabbed the army in the back, siding with the TDF. They will now have time to understand their situation, he said. What he means is that he will block Tigray and starve the people until they submit.

Hunger is a particularly hideous weapon. The anguish of parents watching helplessly as their young children wither away is almost as terrible as the pains of famine suffered by these children themselves. The memory of starvation haunts people for generations thereafter, leaving a long smoldering hatred of those who inflicted the pain. The great hunger of Ireland of 1845-51 fueled the struggle for the independence of that country. The Holodomor in Ukraine – Stalin’s famine campaign of the 1930s – left many Ukrainians believing that they could never be part of the same state as Russia.

Abiy has a choice. He can decide to allow an international humanitarian effort to take place in Tigray. This would mean allowing aid convoys to circulate along the roads and relief flights to land in Mekelle and other airports in the region. It could stop the slide into starvation and save hundreds of thousands of lives.

Allowing humanitarian access would also be the first step in reassuring Tigrayans that regardless of the political differences between the federal government and the TPLF, they are still valued as Ethiopian citizens.

The strengthening of the blockade sends an entirely different message: your government wants to starve you.

The TDF is well armed and highly motivated, its young fighters animated by anger at the atrocities inflicted on them. They have just achieved a series of breathtaking military victories and acquired a huge arsenal. If aid does not reach them from Ethiopia, they will certainly look for another way to get it. The obvious option is to launch an offensive and clear a road to Sudan so that there can be an unofficial cross-border aid operation.

International aid donors see this as an option of last resort, as it is unacceptable that a man-made famine on this scale takes place when nothing is done to stop it. But they also know that a cross-border operation would have political consequences. It would cut Tigray’s umbilical cord with Ethiopia.

Tigrayans are so angry with the rape, murder, looting and starvation inflicted on them, and the government-instigated hate speech in the media, that they are calling for independence. Their leaders know this is a dangerous path and want to keep open the possibility of a negotiated settlement that would keep them in Ethiopia – possibly with some form of increased regional autonomy.

Abiy’s decision over the next few days could decide the way forward – humanitarian access and a country that could hold together, or a blockade of famine and national disintegration.

Compassion for the starving children of Tigray and concern for Ethiopia’s future as a unique country boils down to the same choice.

The body of a small child wastes away quickly. It doesn’t take long for Abiy to choose his path.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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