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When Truth Dies, People Die

War has millions facing hunger in Ethiopia

The main highway to Adigrat from Mekele, the capital of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, is relatively clear, except for the ruptured tank treads that litter the tarmac. Scorched tanks, damaged military vehicles and expended artillery lie abandoned by the side of the road.

Villages along the way are mostly ghost towns. Buildings, littered with broken glass and bullet holes, tell of the looting and violence that have taken place. Charred matter remains where some buildings once stood.

“It’s very clear there was conflict there,” says John Shumlansky, country representative for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the emergency relief and development agency of the United States Catholic bishops, which has played a major role in the emergency distribution of food in the northeast African nation for decades.

In February, Mr. Shumlansky made his third trip into Tigray to assess humanitarian efforts since the region was sufficiently secured for re-entry. He says he counted about 15 burnt tanks and a couple of “bombed out” buses on his return drive south to his home base in Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital.

forearm tattoo with a cross and the text: "God help me."
An Ethiopian man at the Um Rakuba refugee camp in Sudan displays his tattoo. Nearly 60,000 Ethiopians have sought refuge in Sudan. (photo: CNS/Baz Ratner, Reuters)

Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, has been under siege since 4 November, when the Ethiopian government mounted a military response against the armed Tigray People’s Liberation Front (T.P.L.F.), a dominant political party that the national government had accused of treachery for attacking a national army base in the region. And so, the months-long Tigray War began. At the time of publication, lasting peace in Tigray had not yet been achieved.

One of the issues underlying the war is the legitimacy of power. The T.P.L.F., which has long held power in the federal parliamentary republic, claimed the prime minister was no longer the legitimate leader of the country, after he had postponed federal elections, initially set for May 2020, to an unnamed date in 2021 due to COVID-19. The prime minister, in turn, declared the regional elections held in Tigray in August 2020, in defiance of the federal government, to be illegal and its T.P.L.F.-led government to be illegitimate. An interim government is in place in Tigray currently.

CRS’s John Shumlansky says that while many areas he drove through in February seemed rather calm — including Mekele, where spotty phone service has been restored and businesses have reopened — other areas are “still a bit tense.”

“There are still reports of some conflict or skirmishes here and there, mainly off the beaten path,” he explains from Addis Ababa during a Skype call in late February. He shares a text message he received moments before the call, with news that electricity was just restored in Mekele. “That’s a good sign,” he says.

People have fled to the countryside for safety, although the refuge they hoped to find has been fleeting. … Most face serious food shortages and the threat of ongoing violence.

Tigray’s civilian infrastructure, including power and water systems, was damaged early in the war, leaving the local populations vulnerable. The damaged communications infrastructure made the assessment of the crisis and the coordination of humanitarian efforts very difficult.

Within weeks, the United Nations warned the situation could become dire quickly due to the lack of access to the region; it reported the region had been severed from food and medical aid. Rising hunger and malnutrition were “extremely concerning” due to the lack of food, exacerbated by drought and locust infestations earlier in the year, the U.N. said.

The international community expressed regret and horror at the level of human suffering reported from Tigray. Within the first week of the conflict, several countries, including Canada and the United States, had urged restraint and a de-escalation of hostilities. Pope Francis, too, appealed for prayers for Ethiopia on 8 November and for “the parties to the conflict to stop the violence, to protect all lives, especially those of civilians, and to restore peace to the people.”

The Interreligious Council of Ethiopia and other religious groups in Ethiopia also called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and for both parties to seek a resolution through dialogue.

However, the appeals were ignored and, months later, both sides have been accused of committing war crimes. As is often the case in times of war, eyewitness accounts of mass killings and ruthless destruction also have emerged. Since journalists have been unable to verify the information firsthand, having been blocked from entering Tigray by government officials, some dismiss these accounts as fictional.

an Ethiopian woman rests her head against her hand.
An elderly Ethiopian woman sits in a camp in Kassala, Sudan. (photo: CNS/Mohamed Nerldin Abdallah, Reuters)

The number of civilian and military deaths caused by the war is also in dispute. However, the U.N. and the Ethiopian Catholic Church have reported with confidence that the conflict has devastated an estimated 4.5 million people. Of these, more than two million have been displaced within Tigray, a region that was already host to tens of thousands of refugees from neighboring Eritrea.

The small towns in the region now are mostly deserted, the people having fled to the countryside for safety, although the refuge they hoped to find has been fleeting. The U.N. says most face serious food shortages and the threat of ongoing and unpredictable violence. Tens of thousands of Tigrayans have taken refuge along the western border in neighboring Sudan.

A delegation of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Ethiopia flew to Mekele from Addis Ababa in mid-January. From there, they drove to Adigrat to visit with the local bishop, Tesfaselassie Medhin, and to assess firsthand the situation in his eparchy.

Last December, there was widespread concern for the bishop as reports said he had not been seen in public since late November. Church officials later explained he and his priests had retreated to safety and were unable to communicate with the outside world due to the collapse of the communications network.

a bishop stands on the roof of a building in Ethiopia.
Abune Tesfaselassie Medhin serves as the bishop for the Ethiopian Catholic Eparchy of Adigrat. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)

“Except seeking God’s protection, what can be done?” the bishop told the delegation in January. He recounted “unspeakable intimidations, sufferings, refutations, frustrations and loneliness” that he, his clergy and people had faced, the delegation said.

Numerous church buildings, clinics, schools and other church property in the eparchy — many of them funded by CNEWA over the years — were damaged and looted, namely in the towns of Adigrat, Edaga Hamus and Wukro. Other houses of worship were also damaged. Due to “security reasons and strict surveillance,” the delegation could not travel to areas where the damage was thought to be worse.

The three CNEWA-funded educational institutions that were damaged include the minor seminary and Tsinseta Mariam Secondary School in Adigrat, and St. Mary’s College in Wukro. The latter is a skills training center for young people.

Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel, C.M., metropolitan archbishop of the Ethiopian Catholic Church and president of the Ethiopian bishops’ conference, responded to the delegation’s report with an appeal for solidarity and for an international response to the grave humanitarian situation across the region.

“Outbreak of conflict and war occurs when truth dies,” he said in January. “Consequently, people suffer loss of life.”

“Now is the time to respond to the atrocities, at least, to minimize further loss and human sufferings in the conflict-trodden area,” he added.

The delegation estimated it would cost several millions of dollars to restore the various church properties within the Eparchy of Adigrat damaged during the height of the fighting.

“Numerous church buildings, clinics and schools in the Eparchy of Adigrat — many of them funded by CNEWA over the years — have been damaged and looted.”

However, the needs of those displaced by the war are the primary concern of the Ethiopian Catholic Church at this time, including the need for food, potable water, shelter, primary health care, basic household items and psychosocial support for the “immense and unexplainable” atrocities that people have witnessed.

The bishops estimated these urgent needs at almost $38 million, about a third of which has been pledged by Caritas Internationalis, the international humanitarian aid network of the Catholic Church and a CNEWA partner.

Despite limited access, CNEWA has rushed emergency support to priests in remote areas affected by the violence and to assist the efforts of Tsinseta Mariam Secondary School in Adigrat and the work of the Daughters of Charity in Alitena. As always, CNEWA works in consultation with the leadership of the local church.

people line up to receive food from a school feeding program.
School food programs in Ethiopia are important in supporting communities. With the war, school closures in Tigray have left more people in the region vulnerable to food insecurity. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)

A little over one month since the visit of the Ethiopian bishops’ delegation to Tigray, the Reverend Abraha Hagos, who directs the social service efforts of the eparchy that form part of Caritas Ethiopia, says Bishop Medhin is unable to visit his parishes, especially those in the remote reaches of the eparchy, due to security concerns. However, many of his priests are coming to him — some walking for several hours — to share news about the death and suffering of parishioners.

Hearing such news “is very painful for the bishop,” says Argaw Fantu, CNEWA’s regional director for Ethiopia. Earlier, he had called the bishop to extend his “solidarity and prayerful encouragement.” He recalls the bishop’s tone of voice being “quite low, a sign of deep suffering.”

“Amid this situation, the bishop continues to demonstrate spiritual hope and courage,” adds Mr. Fantu.

Father Hagos also confirms that humanitarian aid is beginning to reach the Eparchy of Adigrat, noting that the eparchy has hired two water tanker trucks to deliver water to remote villages, and Catholic Relief Services is distributing food aid in 12 accessible districts out of 92 districts in the area, says Father Hagos.

However, this aid is not enough to meet all of the needs, says Mr. Fantu.

“Looking at the magnitude of the need for food, water and health care — and the number of unreached people in remote areas — all of these efforts are a start, but are minimal at present,” he insists. “More aid is needed in the coming months for those yet unreached people with dire needs.”

Ethiopian children carry biscuits distributed at school.
Young students at the Mariam Tsion School in Ethiopia receive nutritionally dense biscuits as part of a school lunch program. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)

“CNEWA, being on the ground, knows of the suffering and is in close contact with the local church, helping to determine need and coordinate aid,” says CNEWA President Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari.

“Practically, our objective is to respond in three ways: offer immediate support to the work of Caritas through the Congregation for Eastern Churches; continue to monitor, assess, coordinate and offer help through the local church, launching a fundraising campaign in North America; and, when the immediate needs are met and the crisis abates, to remain on the ground, ever available and present in the accompaniment of the suffering throughout Ethiopia.”

In the meantime, the continued lack of information about the people in Tigray’s remote areas and the inability to get humanitarian aid out to them with the same efficiency is heart-wrenching, says Mr. Fantu. However, he says, the most disturbing aspect of this humanitarian crisis is that it need not have happened at all.

It is difficult to understand “why people who were in administrative positions chose this catastrophic option instead of settling problems or political differences in all possible and peaceful ways of negotiation,” he says, expressing his hope that Ethiopians will learn from this war the important lesson of refraining from partisan divisiveness.

“As people of faith, prayer is very important to console those who have lost their loved ones through this unnecessary crisis,” he says. “We need to pray for the wisdom of our leaders, for both public and church leaders. We need to pray for the wisdom of our young people, not to engage in destructive acts.

“We also hope that people of good will from across the world will stand beside us with their generous hearts and hands to save lives at this critical moment and collaborate in rebuilding the minds and hearts of people, as well as damaged facilities,” he says.

“At the moment, all focus is on life-saving efforts.”

Laura Ieraci is the assistant editor of ONE. Her career in Catholic media and communications has included work for the Archdiocese of Montreal, Vatican Radio, the Eparchy of Parma, and the Rome bureau of Catholic News Service.

ethiopian youth hold out bread they received at school.
Many students in Ethiopia bring home the food they receive from their school lunch programs to share with their families. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)

The CNEWA Connection

War. Interethnic violence. Refugee crises. Environmental change. Drought. Locust infestations. The coronavirus pandemic. Ethiopia is confronting enormous challenges even as it lifts out of poverty its burgeoning population.

Although Catholics constitute a small minority in Ethiopia, Catholics worldwide have contributed greatly to the advances made in Ethiopian society since the demise in 1991 of the military junta that once controlled the nation. CNEWA has long focused its efforts in Ethiopia in the support of child care programs, from kindergartens to schools, health care programs to university chaplaincies. In addition, CNEWA has sponsored formation programs for clergy, religious and families, all toward building the leaders of tomorrow, equipping them today with the tools they will need as the country evolves.

Join CNEWA in its support of these initiatives of the church — and more — for the good of all Ethiopians. Call 1-866-322-4441 (Canada), 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or use our contact page.

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