July 25, 2021

NGOs question their presence in Tigray after the death of three MSF employees

When Maria Hernandez, Yohannes Halefom Reda and their driver Tedros Gebremariam Gebremichael, three employees of Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), took to the road Thursday, June 24 in central Tigray, this northern Ethiopian province had been in the throes for some days to a resurgence of military activity marked by heavy fighting. Most aid agencies were stranded in the regional capital, Mekele, and other towns in the region, waiting to gain insight into the situation and obtain permission to pass through checkpoints guarded by the military. Eritrean or Ethiopian forces.

MSF teams quickly lost contact with the three aid workers – a Spanish woman and two Ethiopians. The next day, their lifeless bodies were found, lying a few meters from their vehicle. MSF immediately denounced « a brutal assassination » and promised to work « relentlessly shedding light » on the circumstances of the attack, while the United Nations in a statement called “Serious violations of international humanitarian law” these murders “Scandalous and distressing”.

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In Tigray, where the Ethiopian federal army launched a military operation in November aimed at overthrowing the dissident local authorities from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (FLPT), the violence of the last few days is reshaping the balance of power there. The Tigrayan rebels have taken over large swathes of the territory and control strategic axes, until then held by the Ethiopian army and troops from neighboring Eritrea. The work of humanitarians is paralyzed by this new situation, while 91% of Tigrayans depend on food aid, according to the UN.

Nine aid workers already killed

The Ethiopian foreign ministry offered its condolences to MSF, adding that their employees had died in the town of Abi Adi, about 50 kilometers west of Mekele, « an area where the FLPT is actively operating ». This version is contradicted by a spokesman for the rebels of the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), according to whom the murder was carried out. « by the retreating soldiers of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ”.

The opposing camps mutually reject the responsibility and the work of investigation is compromised in a Tigray where telecommunications are again severely limited. In addition, there is silence among humanitarian organizations that are afraid to speak to the media.

Maria Hernandez, Yohannes Halefom Reda and their driver Tedros Gebremariam Gebremichael join the already long list of humanitarians who have lost their lives in Tigray since November 4. Before them, nine other workers had been killed, including members of the United States Agency for International Development USAID, the Danish Refugee Council or the International Rescue Committee. The Forum bringing together international humanitarian NGOs in Ethiopia (HINGO) repeated its request to all parties to the conflict in Tigray to « rrespect international law, and ensure free and secure access to NGOs to reach people in need of assistance ”.

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After the time of shock comes that of questions. Will this assassination call into question the presence of NGOs in the area? Yes, said a humanitarian worker based in Addis Ababa, the capital, whose organization was about to deploy in the northern region of Ethiopia. « Our staff is waiting, she specifies. I doubt that we send anyone under the circumstances. » Several NGO members also complain about the unpredictable nature of the current military situation, moreover at the beginning of the rainy season which complicates access to remote areas.

Effectiveness of the intervention

Others, including MSF, were already wondering behind the scenes of the effectiveness of their intervention in Tigray. The needs are immense as the region is still ravaged by fighting – an airstrike on June 22 left more than 60 dead and some 180 injured – and the United Nations warns of a famine affecting at least 350,000 people. But organizations fear the presence of Eritreans « with whom it is impossible to negotiate », says a source. And hospitals in the region, restored to working order by NGOs, are systematically looted by Asmara’s soldiers, bringing their loot to the other side of the border, testifies a diplomat.

According to an aid worker, the presence of a Western-style person in each team has until now been seen as the way to avoid abuses. But, she continues, « aToday, we realize that everyone is vulnerable ». Beyond the risks intrinsic to the conflict, some NGOs also say they are troubled by a certain « animosity of the Ethiopian authorities ».

On June 3, a government spokesperson claimed that, « in some cases we have credible evidence that actors, under the guise of humanitarian aid, attempted to smuggle weapons past checkpoints ». Asked by The world on this evidence, the spokesperson assured that they “Would be made available to the public in due course”. For now, nothing has been disclosed.

In an interview given to Ethiopian television Fana on June 22, Abiy Ahmed also publicly expressed doubts about the integrity of NGOs operating in Tigray. Drawing a historical parallel with the war waged by the Marxist Derg regime in the same region during the 1980s, he assured that the organizations of the time had “Supported the FLPT by providing strategies, money, training and weapons”.

According to the Prime Minister, “The forces that supplied the FLPT with arms to bring down the Derg regime […] today want to use the same tactics as 30 or 40 years ago “. The context is delicate for Abiy Ahmed, candidate in the legislative elections which were held on June 21 and whose results are expected imminently. A ballot through which he hopes to gain legitimacy.

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In the aftermath of the death of the three MSF members, the Ethiopian foreign ministry reiterated a government offer to provide “Military escorts in these areas” for’“Avoid such tragic murders”. A statement seen as a provocation by some workers, stressing that it goes against the principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence of humanitarian organizations.