UN humanitarians expressed deep concern on Friday about serious and ongoing abuses carried out against displaced civilians who are also facing dire food insecurity in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, after months of conflict. 

In an alert, the UN sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA,  said that it was aware of “gross violations”, including gender-based violence in the war-torn north. 

Vile attacks 

“The situation of women and adolescent girls in Tigray and border areas of Amhara and Afar remains dire”, said UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem. “We see alarming levels of sexual violence, and thousands of women lack access to health and protection services.” 

We condemn the arbitrary and brutal arrest of at least 200 internally displaced persons in Tigray, Ethiopia.

Violations of international humanitarian and human rights law must be investigated, and perpetrators brought to justice.

— UN Humanitarian (@UNOCHA) May 27, 2021

In a related development, the Office of the High Commissioner for refugee agency (UNHCR) condemned the reported abduction of “at least several hundred” youths from camps for displaced people in Tigray earlier this week. 

This echoed prior comments by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Ethiopia, Catherine Sozi, who condemned the reported arbitrary arrests, beatings and ill-treatment by soldiers of more than 200 people during night-time military raids on internal displacement camps in the region on Monday. 

Ms. Sozi noted that the affected sites of Tsehaye and Adi Wonfito in Shire town were home to 12,000 internally displaced persons in total. 

Trauma and distress 

“The situation is traumatic and distressing, not only for the relatives of the missing, but for all the displaced communities residing in Shire”, UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch told journalists in Geneva, adding that the agency was in contact with the Ethiopian authorities on the issue. “It is crucial that all parties to the conflict recognize the civilian and humanitarian character of these sites hosting displaced people”. 

Fighting began in Tigray on 4 November last year between national Government forces and regional power brokers loyal to the former national ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. 

Needs are growing 

Some parts of the war-torn region have remained accessible but overall, “grave” needs are outstripping capacity, with most rural areas “cut from communications and electricity”, according to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). 

The Central Area – which is the most populated, with some 1.8 million people –remains largely inaccessible, Ms. Sozi’s team noted. 

If nothing is done to improve aid access immediately, UN humanitarians believe that there is a high risk of mass severe acute malnutrition looming in the next few months. 

Characterizing the situation as “complex and unpredictable”, OCHA said that civilians, who continue to bear the brunt of the conflict, have been forced to move to towns including Shire, Axum and Adwa.  

“The main road between Adigrat and Axum was blocked from 10 to 22 April due to hostilities, impacting several humanitarian convoys, including emergency food aid, as well as the provision of medical supplies to Axum and Adwa Hospitals”, the UN humanitarian body reported. 

Release call 

In her appeal for the immediate release of those arbitrarily arrested from Shire’s displacement camps, Ms. Sozi said that serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law must be promptly investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. 

“We, along with our partners, are ready to engage with military commanders to ensure the protection of civilians”, the Humanitarian Coordinator said on Thursday.  

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