CNEWA

Underreported Suffering of the Ethiopian People

Shortly after Ethiopians went to the polls on Monday, Tigray faced some of the worst fighting since war in the country’s northern region began last November. On 24 June, the Ethiopian military conducted an airstrike on a busy market in Tigray, killing 64 civilians, the Associated Press reported. 

“The Tigray conflict is still creating many challenges for people and institutions,” said Argaw Fantu, director of CNEWA’s Ethiopia office. 

Aid agencies claim Ethiopian officials continue to block health care and basic humanitarian aid to the region — an issue raised from the very start of the conflict. 

Mr. Fantu confirmed the great need in Tigray. He said CNEWA’s initial funding of more than $75,000 helped feed thousands of children previously enrolled in a CNEWA-funded feeding program through the Catholic schools in the region. Since the conflict began, this emergency food aid has been distributed through parishes.

“However, considering the number of needy children, the problem of a lack of food — combined with a lack of security for easy movement — is still a problem,” he said. 

According to UNICEF’s Ethiopia office, about 23.5 million people in Ethiopia currently need critical humanitarian support, Mr. Fantu said. Of these, 12.5 million are children.

The conflict also has led to the unemployment of more than 1,000 Catholic school teachers, who have not received a salary since December. The secretariat for Catholic education for the Eparchy of Adigrat underlined the importance of supporting the already fragile Catholic school network in the region, especially in rural areas. If the school network is lost, it cannot be replaced easily.

“The Tigray conflict has led to massive population displacement, loss of employment, and the widespread destruction of livelihoods and critical infrastructure,” he added.

In the shadow of the conflict in Tigray is another underreported conflict in Ethiopia that has caused hundreds of deaths and displaced thousands.

The northwestern region of Benishangul-Gumuz, where the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is being built, close to the border with Sudan, is also undergoing “untold sufferings, pain and displacement,” Mr. Fantu said.

The Rev. Isaiah Sangwera Nyakundi, a Comboni Missionary priest, is among those displaced from the town Gublak by the ongoing violence, including looting, kidnappings and killings. 

Father Nyakundi, pastor of the Gublak Catholic Parish, reported “waves of violence against ‘outsider’ communities by heavily armed men, suspected to be Gumuz militia” starting last September or “even earlier.” 

“These rebels seem to be launching attacks for different reasons,” he said. “However, some analysts say some countries are using [the militias] to bring instability around the dam area, thus delaying its construction.”

Father Nyakundi recounted how a group of Gumuz students traveling near the dam on Ethiopian Good Friday, 30 April, were ambushed and several were killed; a few escaped into the forest. A few days earlier, Father Nyakundi’s parish church, offices, hall and rectory were broken into and looted. Other chapels have also been looted.

“Prior to the attack [on the students], trucks transporting construction materials to the dam were attacked and some drivers lost their lives,” he said. 

Government-sponsored attempts to initiate dialogue and reconciliation with the militias have proven fruitless, he said.

Ethiopian refugees stand in line for supplies at the Um Rakuba refugee camp in Sudan in November 2020. The camp houses refugees fleeing the fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. (photo: CNS/Baz Ratner, Reuters)

“The peace forums are aimed at bridging community divides, but disputes over land ownership and a lack of accounting for brutal tit-for-tat massacres continue to fuel anger in a region long troubled by deep undercurrent of ethno-nationalism,” the priest said.

“The reconciliation drives, including elders and religious leaders, have been held in a number of wards,” he added, “but attacks have continued.”

Given the increased violence within the parish territory, which extends to the border with Sudan, hundreds of families abandoned their homes and fled to the forest for safety, he said. 

The Comboni Missionaries decided to suspend their parish activities and move to safety as well, about 38 miles away to Gilgel Beles, to join another community of Comboni Missionaries. The Sisters of St. Joseph also fled Gublak to Addis Ababa. All of the schools, hospitals, clinics in Gublak are closed for the time being; nearly two dozen health facilities in the region were looted and are non-functional, he added.

Father Nyakundi visits the parish in Gublak once a month — his most recent visit was on 8 June — and has learned that parishioners who fled to the forest are suffering from malaria and typhoid. 

“Many are sick and dying,” he said. “The conflict has claimed hundreds of lives and left more than 100,000 people displaced.”

Despite the government’s attempt to restore confidence among the people to return to their homes, hundreds of people remain in hiding and several thousand have fled to the refugee camps in neighboring Sudan, the priest said 

The Gublak Catholic Parish, its formation program for catechists and youth leaders, as well as its hostel are among the projects funded by CNEWA. The hostel was looted as well and will need rebuilding, Father Nyakundi said.

Learn how to support CNEWA’s mission in Ethiopia.

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