From a makeshift camp in Ethiopia’s Afar region for people displaced by war, Pastor Abdu Robso watches in disbelief as food aid trucks drive up the neighboring hills toward Tigray.
“Why is that food going to Tigray and not feeding us?” asks the 50-year-old, as the World Food Program (WFP) convoy makes its way down the winding, dusty road to Tigray from the port of neighboring Djibouti, where international aid arrives.
Dozens of men, women and children in the Erebti camp complain of being ignored as the world looks to Tigray, the northern region devastated by the brutal conflict that erupted in November 2020 between local rebels and Ethiopian forces.
Fighting has subsided since the government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) declared a truce in March, but northern Ethiopia remains in dire humanitarian crisis.
In January, Abdu and his family fled their home in Abala, some 60km from the Tigray border, when the TPLF bombed their region.
After several days of walking and hours in a truck, they reached a camp for displaced people in Afdera, hundreds of kilometers from Erebti.
But after the TPLF withdrew from Afar in April, regional authorities ordered the displaced to return home, promising to help them.
Abdu and his family have returned to Erebti, where they are still waiting for help.
“We heeded the call and here we are, with nothing,” he laments.
– “What did we do wrong?” –
The inhabitants of Erebti shelter from the sweltering heat under plastic sheets installed between the trees on the banks of a dry riverbed.
The children eat some fruit taken from the trees, while the weakest sleep.
“The trucks that carry aid to Tigray pass through here, what about us? What did we do wrong? We are also hungry,” claims Aldim Abdela, a 28-year-old shepherd.
Mustafa Ali Boko believes that the TPLF knows how to mobilize the strong Tigraean diaspora and its international networks, built up over the 27 years that the party dominated national politics, until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018.
“The reason is that Tigray has a strong leadership and we (Afar) do not,” explains the 45-year-old, who complains of “discrimination” by the international community.
In Erebti, he says, “people don’t have medicine…they don’t have food or water.”
However, the WFP director for Ethiopia, Claude Jibidar, insists that the organization “has continuously delivered food to the Afar region”.
Across northern Ethiopia, more than 13 million people need food aid, according to the UN.
In July, the United Nations humanitarian agency, OCHA, said the Afar situation remains “difficult, with alarming levels of food insecurity and malnutrition” due to drought, conflict and subsequent displacement.
Australian Valerie Browning of ADPA, who has lived in the region for 33 years, says she has never seen such extreme conditions.
“Nobody in Afar wants the people of Tigray to go hungry, but the world, the people of Tigray and the Ethiopian government should not want the Afar to go hungry either (…) and the sad thing is that this is happening,” he says. .
– ‘The entire city looted’ –
The population of Erebti finds it impossible to return to Abala. It has become a ghost town, abandoned by its residents and with all the shops empty, as AFP journalists were able to verify on the spot.
“I went to Abala and saw that my house had been burned down. All the houses had burned down,” says Ali Boko. “Our houses have been destroyed and our castle has disappeared,” he laments.
“The whole town has been looted,” adds Abdu Robso.
The city hospital has also been vandalized, its doors and windows destroyed, and looters have taken medical equipment such as resuscitation devices, X-rays, incubators, beds and mattresses. Only a dozen families have returned.
Ali Mohammed explains that his daughter was injured in the fighting, so she couldn’t get very far. “Conditions are very harsh. The flour is full of weevils. We sift it, but when we eat it it tastes sour. We have no oil, no onions, we eat berbere (a local spice mix) mixed with water (…) “Here we live with monkeys and stray dogs”.