‘Bodies are being eaten by hyenas; girls of eight raped’: inside the Tigray conflict

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

The Ethiopian nun, who has to remain anonymous for her own security, is working in Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, and surrounding areas, helping some of the tens of thousands of people displaced by the fighting who have been streaming into camps in the hope of finding shelter and food. Both are in short supply. Humanitarian aid is being largely blocked and a wholesale crackdown is seeing civilians being picked off in the countryside, either shot or rounded up and taken to overcrowded prisons. She spoke to Tracy McVeigh this week.

“After the last few months I’m happy to be alive. I have to be OK. Mostly we are going out to the IDP [internally displaced people] camps and the community centres where people are. They are in a bad way.

“In comparison to the other places, Mekelle is much better, although I consider it chaotic as we have 40 to 65 people sleeping in one room. For 3,000 to 6,000 people, there are four toilets for men and four for women. Sanitation is very poor, water is not always available. Food and medicines … they are difficult to find.

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“People have been here for three or four months and still have no blankets, and the numbers of IDPs is increasing every day, maybe 100 come every day from the worst part of the region. So the demand does not match supply. The community, the people here, they are trying to help but they have very little to share themselves. No one can withdraw any money from the banks; there’s no businesses operating. But still, whatever people have, they share.

“It happened so quickly. For us, it’s so shocking. So sudden. We had a normal life, things were improving – health centres, lives and education programmes. We were reaching 24,000 children and had plans to expand the school feeding programme. But all that had to stop because of the coronavirus. Then as if in a day, there’s a fully fledged war. For the past three months now we are trying to feed 25,000 IDPs in about 23 centres; some are 75 miles away from Mekelle. Many, many have been raped.

Ethiopian army soldiers
Ethiopian soldiers at Mai Aini refugee camp, which houses people displaced by the Tigray conflict. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty

“There were some indicators late last year: the roads out were closed, the budget to this area had been cut and when we had the locust attacks, there was no support from central government. They were not allowing face masks for the schoolchildren. A lot of other humiliations were happening. So there was a lot of discrimination leading up to it, but war? War was so sudden.

“People are traumatised. Some of them have lost immediate family members. People are worried about where members of their family are. Some people are out in the bush. Their homes are occupied. People are worried, anxious, sad, angry. They are really worried about the future.

“I met an old person who had been displaced three times in their lifetime, all because of these ethnic wars, but for younger people, anyone aged 30, 40, this is all new. I’m 48 and I have never witnessed any war. It is very strange and very scary. It really puts you in darkness.

“When I think of our lives here a year ago, we had peace and signs of development in all areas, in water, communications systems. It was so inspiring, giving us hope. But now the hospitals have all been attacked, looted and destroyed.

“Now that feels like history. In just a few months.

a looted classroom at Ksanet Junior Secondary School
A looted classroom at Ksanet junior secondary school, in Wukro, a transport hub north of Mekelle in March. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty

“In Mekelle the shelling has now stopped but it is still going on not far from us. The bodies are being left to be eaten by the hyenas, not even having the dignity of burial.

“Rape is happening to girls as young as eight and to women of 72. It is so widespread, I go on seeing it everywhere, thousands. This rape is in public, in front of family, husbands, in front of everyone. Their legs and their hands are cut, all in the same way.

Related: 'I saw people dying on the road': Tigray's traumatised war refugees

“You wonder if the people doing this are human. I don’t know who is training these people.

“Wherever there are Eritrean or Ethiopian troops. Tragic. Every single woman, not only once. It is intentional, deliberate. I am confident in that from what I am witnessing. There are 70,000 civilians under attack. So much looting, fighting, raping. All targeting the civilians. The brutality, the killings, the harassing.

“This region has been closed off. Cut off from all the support that people deserve. We are isolated, lonely, neglected. If the world is not moved to take action against such terribleness, you wonder why. This suffering is appalling.

A damaged shop, Wukro, Ethiopia
A shell-damaged shop in Wukro in March. Since the shelling last November, the town has been patrolled by soldiers, first Eritreans, now Ethiopians, whose abuses fuel a steady flow of civilian casualties. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty

“I don’t know what is worse, to die in the bush, starving, or in jail or by gun. The young people are so scared.

“The world should condemn the killing of civilians. People having to leave their homes and the sexual violence – so many woman and girls raped.

“I would like to say to the world: in the 21st century there should be no one dying of hunger when the world can take action. Whoever can do this, they must not wait for another second. Everybody in the world must act, they should condemn this.

“I know it can be done. There has to be someone who can do it and do it fast.”

Mary’s Meals is working closely with a trusted local partner in Tigray, providing 20,000 internally displaced people with food aid, serving daily meals at several schools across the region’s capital, Mekelle, which have been turned into temporary shelters for more than 150,000 destitute and traumatised people – including children who have lost their parents.

If you would like to donate to Mary’s Meals Crisis in Ethiopia appeal https://www.marysmeals.org.uk/crisis-in-ethiopia