Weakened by several days without food, she had gone to a hospital in Tigray, a region of Ethiopia that has been suffering from famine for over two years. Bedridden, she begged for a few sips of water, which she struggled to swallow because of her atrophied muscles.
Four days later, the 45-year-old mother died, leaving five orphans. But “we don’t have the means to look after her children”, laments her nephew, Desta Hailu (name changed), who told AFP of his aunt’s agony by telephone.
Seven months after the agreement that put an end to two years of devastating conflict, Tigray is crying famine. And the situation is likely to get worse after the decisions in May by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the US government aid agency (USAID) to suspend their food aid to Tigray because of misappropriations.
Speaking to AFP, Desta Hailu, a university lecturer in the town of Adigrat, a few kilometres from the Eritrean border, said he had not eaten for two days. His last meal consisted of a slice of bread with tea.
He and his wife go without in order to feed their children. But it’s never enough. “My son is constantly complaining about hunger; he wants to eat his little sister’s portion”, says the forty-year-old.
A region of six million inhabitants in northern Ethiopia, Tigray has been in search of food for over two years.
During the war that raged between November 2020 and November 2022, UN experts accused the Ethiopian federal government of having subjected the region to a “de facto” blockade.
The authorities have denied these allegations, accusing the Tigray rebel authorities of requisitioning food aid for their war effort.
With the Ethiopian government still refusing journalists access to Tigray, AFP is unable to independently verify information on the ground.
Following the peace agreement signed in November, basic services – electricity, banks, telecommunications – have gradually returned. But hunger remains.
“The number of people going to the food distribution centres has increased”, even estimates Nigisti Solomon, a volunteer worker at a center funded by the Tigray Action Committee, a US-based pressure group for the Tigrayan diaspora.
“Some displaced people are begging in the street, while others are queuing up outside food distribution centres,” she says by telephone.
The WFP and USAID froze aid at national level in June after discovering that it was being diverted to local markets. Neither organisation has identified those responsible for the diversions.
Desta Hailu and Nigisti Solomon say they have already seen aid being sold, such as blankets, with traders justifying their actions by saying they needed money to buy food, medicine or soap.
“People are desperate, they want to survive (…) and fill their stomachs”, explains Desta Hailu.
The WFP refused AFP’s requests for interviews. Spokespersons for the Ethiopian government and USAID did not respond to requests.
“A month ago, there was a patient in his forties with an intestinal obstruction. We operated on him (…) and he developed septicemia due to malnutrition and died”, says Gaym Gebreselassie, a surgeon from Adigrat.
“We see clear evidence of hunger (…) You can’t operate with confidence in these conditions,” he continues.
“We see infants who are very underweight, who can’t breathe properly (…) Underweight children don’t develop properly,” he stressed.
Gaym Gebreselassie, his wife and two children aged six and two, are also dependent on food aid, the result of several months’ unpaid wages. As a result of malnutrition, his two sons have contracted infections, he says.
For the surgeon, the suspension of food aid “is a death sentence”.
Before the war broke out in November 2020, he led a comfortable life, he says. Then Eritrean troops, supporting the federal Ethiopian army, occupied and looted his house.
In the months that followed, his aunt and his mother’s cousin, both in their forties, died of malnutrition.
Today, Desta Hailu’s days revolve around the desperate search for food so that his children can eat at least once a day. “If this situation continues, I’m afraid I’ll lose my children to hunger, that they’ll die before my eyes”.