Feature: “I lost my two newborn babies due to hunger”– a mother in Abiy Addi IDP camp, Tigray

Illustration: Addis Standard

By Mihret G/kristos @MercyG_kirstos

Addis Abeba – In the heart of Central Tigray, just 95 kilometers away from the city of Mekelle, the regional capital of Tigray, Abeba Weldegebreal, 38, a resilient individual and mother of five children found solace in the Abiy Addi Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp.

In the midst of heartbreaking circumstances, Ababa’s resilient spirit drove her to make an arduous choice – leaving behind the violence that had ravaged her hometown of Kafta Humera in western Tigray shortly after the war between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) broke out in November 2020. With her four children in tow, she embarked on a perilous journey, fueled by a desperate quest for safety and a better future.

After finding initial refuge in the town of Edaga Arbi, a mere 42 kilometers southeast of Adwa for few months, Abeba’s hopes were soon overshadowed by the escalating war. Undeterred by the challenges, Abeba made the heartbreaking decision to walk 70 kilometers with her children, and arrived at the Abiy Addi IDP camp where she currently resides.

However, the harsh reality of life in the camp proved to be far from the sanctuary she had envisioned. With limited humanitarian access and a severe lack of resources, Abeba’s family was plunged into a desperate state of starvation. Abeba’s struggles were compounded when her husband eventually reunited with the family at the camp. In the midst of their reunion, a glimmer of hope appeared when Ababa discovered she was pregnant. However, the joy was short-lived as she tragically lost two of her newborn triplets just four days after their arrival into this world in May 2023.

“I lost my two newborn babies due to hunger,” a grief-stricken Abeba sorrowfully told Addis Standard, her voice laden with immeasurable anguish.

Abeba’s infants are among the hundreds of under five children died of acute malnutrition in Tigray, amidst worsening humanitarian situation in the region, mainly due to the ongoing suspension of humanitarian aid. “Children, especially those who are under five need nutritious foods such as fruits and dairy products,” Mengsh Bahreslassie, nutrition coordinator at the bureau told Addis Standard in June, adding that in Tigray “children are dying from lack of such foods”.

According to official figures, over 1300 people, including children, have died of hunger and related causes since the suspension of humanitarian assistance in Tigray. But the crisis was already dire even before the suspension of aid as massive diversion obstructed the vital aid from reaching its intended recipients causing tragedies.

Amidst the devastating conflict between the federal government and the TPLF, Weldesillase Gebremedhin, 39, found himself fleeing from an embattled woreda in western Tigray. Fueled by the harrowing prospect of peril befalling his wife and three children, he embarked on an arduous and unconventional odyssey, leaving behind a place he once called home.

“With my children being minors, their vulnerability weighed heavily on me,” shared Weldesilase during an interview with Addis Standard. “We had no choice but to flee for their safety.”

Weldesillase experienced both joy and tragedy after arriving at the Abiy Addi IDP center months into the start of the war. Although his fourth child was born at the center, his wife passed away seven months after childbirth due to the scarcity of essential humanitarian aid and the lack of vital medications in March 2023. Weldesillase recalls, “They couldn’t do anything to save her life.”

During her pregnancy, his wife suffered from a blood disorder or anemia, aggravated by the prevailing food shortage. Professionals had advised feeding her nutritious foods rich in vitamins, but Weldesilase couldn’t afford them. “She couldn’t overcome the hunger.”

Following his wife’s passing, Weldesilase found himself solely responsible for his children, assuming the roles of both father and mother. This included the challenging task of nurturing his seven-month-old baby. With an absolute suspension in May 2023 of the little aid that he used to receive, Weldesilase confides, “sometimes I have to plead with people, using my children as a bargaining tool, to afford milk for the baby.” “Other times, I have to borrow money.”

Prior to the outbreak of war, Weldesilase worked as a farmer and could provide his family with a relatively comfortable life. However, those days are now distant memories as he and his children are constrained to endure the harsh living conditions of the Abiy Addi IDP Center.

Addis Standard has uncovered distressing information regarding the impact of malnutrition on pregnancies at the Abiy Addi IDP Center, resulting in the tragic loss of newborn babies and their mothers. Gebrehiwot Gebregzabher (PhD), the Commissioner of the Disaster Risk Management Commission of Tigray, has confirmed a sharp increase in the deaths of children, women, and elders since the suspension of humanitarian aid in the region.

Gebrehiwot emphasizes the severity of the situation, stating that “over 1300 people have died of hunger and related causes since the suspension of humanitarian assistance in Tigray.” “Among these victims, 570 are IDPs from western Tigray who are currently residing in various host communities and IDP centers.” He further highlights that many IDPs are returning to their hometowns without any rehabilitation assistance.

In a recent report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), it was revealed that approximately 800,000 individuals who were displaced in Tigray have returned to their homes since the signing of the peace agreement in November 2022. This spontaneous return of the displaced population highlights the positive impact of the peace agreement. However, the report also underlines the urgent need for support in areas of return, as an estimated 700,000 individuals have returned without receiving any assistance.

Between January and March 2023, approximately 2.3 million individuals in Tigray only received an average of 40% of the monthly kilocalorie needs from humanitarian groups (Photo: latimes.com)

The progress in return operations has also faced a setback due to a lack of funding. This shortfall has affected crucial aspects such as food, emergency shelter, non-food item assistance, and cash support for IDPs, as stated by OCHA. Consequently, there are currently more than one million individuals who remain displaced in Tigray, awaiting the necessary aid and support to rebuild their lives.

Despite the resumption of aid to Tigray following the November 2022 peace agreement, there was a temporary suspension earlier this year. This suspension occurred due to the alleged reports of aid diversion, leading the World Food Program (WFP) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), both significant contributors, to halt their aid efforts in May 2023.

In response to the dire situation, the Tigray Regional Health Bureau and the World Health Organization (WHO) have jointly established committees to conduct assessments in major cities and IDP sites within the region, according to Gebrehiwot. These assessments aim to evaluate the impact of the humanitarian aid suspension in a thorough and professional manner over a two-week period.

The diversion of food aid since late 2022, followed by the suspension of assistance in May 2023, has resulted in numerous households in dire need being left without the expected support. According to reports, humanitarian organizations were only able to provide an average of 40% of the monthly kilocalorie requirements to over 2.3 million people per month in Tigray between January and March 2023.

Both the federal and Tigray Interim governments criticize the aid suspension but say they are investigating the diversion claims. The committee launched by the interim regional administration of Tigray on 15 June, 2023, shed light on the issue of diverted humanitarian food within the region. The investigation revealed that federal government entities and Eritrean forces played significant roles in the widespread diversion of food aid.

According to Gebrehiwot, the delay of aid delivery puts millions of people at risk, particularly those in IDP centers and host communities. He highlights that as the summer season brings floods to various areas in the region, these vulnerable individuals are not only waiting for much-needed aid but also facing the threat of losing their lives.

Despite the announcement made by the WFP that humanitarian aid would commence in mid-July, there have been no indications of any progress until few days ago. On 08 August, 2023, Associated Press (AP) reported that WFP has begun distributing 15-kilogram pre-packed bags of wheat to over 100,000 people, as part of a pilot project in four districts of Tigray. To address the issue of aid diversion, the WFP has introduced enhanced controls and measures for delivering food assistance.

While the WFP has taken steps to resume food distribution, despite authorities in Tigray region disputing some facts, the USAID has indicated that its food assistance in Ethiopia remains on hold. Last week, Janean Davis, Deputy Assistant Administration for the Bureau of Africa, said that there is no definite time to resume the suspended aid delivery but investigations and discussions are still on going.

Recently, the UN announced that there is compelling evidence pointing to the alarming severity of food security issues in the region of Tigray, surpassing previous assessments. The situation is expected to remain dire in Tigray as residents struggle with minimal access to income opportunities, a lack of viable livestock for sale, and a distressing absence of cash transfers through the productive safety net program for over two years.

Consequently, many households are left struggling to make ends meet, unable to generate sufficient income to meet their basic food needs. This harsh reality extends even to those living in IDP centers such as Abeba and Weldesilase, where the outlook remains grim due to the uncertain prospects of resuming full-scale food aid in the foreseeable future. AS

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