1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
Man in mask holding up Ethiopian flag
Image: Mulugeta Ayene/AP Photo/picture alliance

Civilians at risk in Ethiopia's Tigray war

Maria Gerth-Niculescu
November 12, 2020

Federal forces now control the northwestern part of Tigray. As the government mobilizes resources to step up the fighting, humanitarian organizations are increasingly worried about civilians trapped in the conflict.


Music is blaring from speakers and Ethiopian flags are waving in the wind in Addis Ababa's old stadium. Hundreds of residents came to a blood-donation event organized by the city administration "Everyone here came to donate blood for the military," Abebe Sisay says as he waits with a group of friends next to the white tents set up for the occasion.

According to a press release from authorities in Addis Ababa these blood and cash donations will support federal troops, but also militia groups who fight alongside Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy's forces in Tigray.

Woman taking blood from man in uniform
People in Addis Ababa were asked to donate blood for the military on ThursdayImage: Mulugeta Ayene/AP Photo/picture alliance

Meanwhile, in the Tigray region, the war between Ahmed and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) continues, leaving millions of civilians without connection or incoming supplies. According to the government, the northwestern part of the region, including the city of Humera, is now controlled by federal troops.

Read more: African Union urges ceasefire in Tigray region

Civilians caught in the cross-fire

Like much of the information shared since the beginning of the war, this has been impossible to independently verify. Phone lines and internet connections are still down in Tigray, with very little information trickling out.

"The people of Tigray don't want war," Mihreteab Meuz, from Tigray's capital city Mekele, told DW. "When a fighter jet flies over you, it is a concern not only for me, but also for elderly people and children. I believe it is better to create a situation propitious to negotiation."

A note issued on Thursday by the prime minister aimed at calming fears of civilian casualties. It stated that "modern airplanes and drones will hit targets with precision. This will greatly contribute toward protecting our civilian citizens in Tigray."

But even if airstrikes didn't hit civilians – which is impossible to verify at this stage – the humanitarian consequences of the conflict are already starting to be felt.

Population displacement

Over 11,000 Ethiopians, mostly civilians but also soldiers, have already found refuge in neighboring Sudan.

Humanitarian workers said they heard horrific testimonies from the conflict. Some of the refugees had to walk for four days to reach Sudan.

Most of them crossed through Hamadayet and are now living in informal settlements close to the border. But Sudan has limited means to deal with this growing flow of refugees. Over 100,000 people could cross the border in the coming weeks, if the war continues.

Karte - Äthiopien, Tigray - EN

"The situation in Sudan is very complicated at the moment, they need to find the money to implement the peace agreement, and then on the top of all that there is hyperinflation now reaching more than 220%," explained a humanitarian source in Sudan who wished to remain anonymous. "And there are fuel shortages all over the country, there is also shortage of bread and essential commodities."

Humanitarian workers in charge of nutrition screenings at the border are already overworked. 

Now, internal displacement within Tigray is also being reported, with a few thousand people having arrived in the town of Shire, which is known for hosting many Eritrean refugee communities.

"What our teams are telling us is that we should expect any internal displacement within Ethiopia to be 10 times greater than any refugee movements into Sudan," said George Readings, Global Crisis Analyst at the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

Read more: Abiy Ahmed: Ethiopia's first Nobel laureate

"We are preparing for a situation where 2 million people could be affected. In the worst-case scenario, those people are facing prolonged displacement. They would be at risk of disease outbreaks and have very little access to any kind of social services," he explained.

The African Union, but also Sudan and the UN have called for a ceasefire and urged parties to negotiate and avoid a humanitarian crisis.

But Abiy Ahmed doesn't seem to intend caving in to international pressure and made clear that this war will be played by his own rules, which appears to include controlling the narrative on the conflict and all the information that comes out of it.

Abiy Ahmed
Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019Image: Minasse Wondimu Hailu/picture alliance/AA

Press freedom going backward

Six journalists were recently arrested, and others prevented from covering the conflict. Journalists were also forbidden to communicate statements from the TPLF.

In Gondar, in the North of the Amhara region, it was impossible to film food collections or interview officials, let alone report near the border. Journalists were told to leave the city, and some were threatened with arrest.

The government even set up a fact-checking account for journalists to refer to for their reporting.

Read more: Eritrea: 25 years of independence but still not free

"It seems like Ethiopia is going backward in terms of press freedom," Arnaud Froger, head of the Africa desk at Reporters Without Borders, said. "When there is a conflict, it's absolutely key that independent journalists can do their job (…) or you will just have the version of the stakeholders involved in the conflict."

The information battle this has resulted in between the government and the TPLF only contributed to the confusion regarding important elements of the conflict.

It is, for instance, unclear to what extent neighboring Eritrea has entered the war, or what the number of casualties are on both sides.

Abiy Ahmed promised Ethiopians a quick end to the war, stating that "we shall soon return back to our normal daily life." A daily life families in Tigray must be desperately longing for.