Why Over One Million IDPs in Tigray Still Linger in Camps a Year After Peace Deal

According to the UN, more than one million people are estimated to remain internally displaced from the Tigray war, and continue to shelter in IDP camps across the region, with only few days left for the peace agreement that ended the war to turn a year.

In light of suspended food aid and persisting security issues, particularly in Western and Northeastern parts of Tigray, hampering return efforts, the IDPs currently sheltered in cities like the capital Mekelle, Abiy-Adi, Adigrat, Shire, Aksum, etc. are enduring harrowing conditions with hunger related death continuing to surge.

According to a joint study conducted by the Tigray Health Bureau, Tigray Health Research Institute and Mekelle University, at least 1,329 people have died from hunger in only 9 districts in the region over the period of 9 months leading up to August 2023.

Mokenon Hailesilassie (PhD), Director at Tigray Health Research Institute, told Addis Standard that the study revealed a staggering 68.3% deaths currently occurring in Tigray has been caused by starvation. He said during the course of the study, the researchers have encountered several distressing stories, like the death of three members of one family on the same day in Bora district, Southern zone of Tigray due to hunger.

According to Mekonen, the significant majority of the deaths were registered in the IDP camps where there is severe lack of access to basic necessities such as food, clean water and healthcare services.

The UN said since the signing of the pretoria peace agreement, even though they require assistance, close to 1.5 million IDPs have been returned to their homes. However, IDP camps visited by Addis Standard in mid-September in Mekelle, Abiy-Adi, and Adigrat were still overcrowded with people yet unable to return due to layers of factors.

Abrehet Gebre, (name changed for safety issues) a mother of seven, resides in “Seba Kare” IDP camp in the capital Mekelle, one of the largest IDP centers in the region. Abrehet recounts the horrific and traumatizing experiences she went through before she was able to flee her home in Welkayit, Western Tigray in November 2020. She said, days into the start of the war, members of the Fano armed group allegedly killed her 16-year-old daughter. Her husband and three of her children fled the area while she remained behind with her three other children to bury her deceased daughter.

Despite being able to do so, she was gang raped in front of her children. She said was dehumanized and objects like stones and nails were put inside her genitals. Struggling with her physical pain and trauma, and fearing for the wellbeing of her children, she was forced to take an arduous journey of three days and three nights on foot to Dedebit.

“Throughout the journey, we have been seeing dead bodies of civilians on the streets. I was worried about my children, and I was trying to cover their eyes. I have never seen such a horror,” Abrehet told Addis Standard.

From Dedebit she was transferred to Shire where she was hospitalized for six months. “I was in bed for six months at Sihul Shire general hospital. I was suffering from excruciating pain in my womb. After six months, I was referred to Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekelle.”

Even though she was able to recover from her physical trauma, she still suffers phycologically. “I was prescribed a medicine for my mental health, but I can’t afford to buy it from private pharmacies,” she said. While her three children scavenge the streets of Mekelle for food, Abrehet spends the day in ‘Seba Kare’ IDPs camp contemplating her traumatizing memories.

She said that her husband divorced her because of what she went through. “I am living only for the sake of my children, I would have chosen to die if not for them,” she said.

Her hometown Welkayit and the entire Western Tigray is currently held by Amhara forces, and according to Addis Standard’s observation, the majority of IDPs still living in the camps are either from Western Tigray or the northeastern district of Irob, which is partially under Eritrean occupation.

But, security isn’t the only factor hampering the likes of Abrehet from returning home. “I don’t want to go back because my children have always been distressed about the murder of their sister, and they may want to avenge her, and I don’t want to put them to that danger,” she asserted, emphasizing the psychological impact of the violence in impeding IDPs’ return to their places of origin.

For others like Geberezgabher Gebru, 78, who is sheltered at IDP camp inside Abiy-Adi preparatory school, lack of support, on top of persisting security issue in his hometown of Dansha, Western Tigray, is critical for his prolonged stay inside the IDP camp. In 2020, he was forcefully loaded on a truck and taken to Adwa, which was under the control of the Eritrean forces back then.

After three months of imprisonment in Adwa where he witnessed the murder of six civilian people by Eritrean troops inside the prison whose bodies were left unburied for long, he moved to Abiy-Adi IDPs camp where he stayed for the most part of the past three years, often without any assistance.

The UN also said that there has been lack of support to return IDPs to their villages or to relocate them to alternative land. But, for IDPs struggling to survive amidst dire humanitarian situations, returning to their place of origins isn’t a priority. Following the suspension of food aid by the WFP and USAID due to the massive food aid diversion scandal, hundreds of thousands of IDPs are facing hunger.

During a visit to multiple IDP camps in the region Addis Standard observed the prevalence of hunger-related complications and chronic diseases due to lack of food, medicine, and sufficient medical treatment. Children are suffering from mal-nutrition leading them to serious health issues and death. On 05 June 2023, Addis Standard reported that the number of under-five children dying of acute malnutrition in the region increased by 28% between March and April amidst the worsening humanitarian situation.

Gebrehiwot Gebregzabher (PhD), the Commissioner of the Disaster Risk Management Commission of Tigray told Addis Standard that the suspension of food aid for nine consecutive months, have exacerbated humanitarian conditions of a region already reeling from disasters such as drought, desert locust invasion etc.

According to Gebrehiwot, there is little or no humanitarian operation in the region. He said aid group Action for Hunger distributed little over half a million birr in cash for 246,000 people in need including IDPs two months ago in a trial scheme despite opposition from the interim government who insisted the aid should be provided in item given the situation on the ground. “We consider it as they are giving out a paper,” Gebrehiwot told Addis Standard.

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