Ravaged by war, Ethiopia’s Afar minority face lengthy recovery during peace

Huts like these ones in Ethiopia's Afar region, provide shelter for many of the region's displaced, amid two years of brutal civil war. Image Credits; Marissa Bortlik, Source: Unsplash

Huts like these ones in Ethiopia's Afar region, provide shelter for many of the region's displaced, amid two years of brutal civil war. Image Credits; Marissa Bortlik, Source: Unsplash license

“There were no fighters. Everything was peaceful before we heard explosions,” says 26-year-old Mekiya Ali in an interview with Global Voices, describing the day in August last year, when her hometown in Ethiopia’s Afar region, the arid region in northeastern Ethiopia bordering Eritrea, was caught up in Ethiopia’s brutal civil war

The conflict, which began in late 2020, saw the Ethiopian army and allied Eritrean soldiers deployed to oust rebel forces from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the country’s northern Tigray region. Fighting eventually spilled over into the neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions. Civilians bore the brunt of the suffering.

“I began feeling my skin on fire. My home was hit,” Mekiya told Global Voices. “I thought I would die.”

Mekiya’s home was struck last year by rebel artillery shells. Fighting between the factions killed over half a million people, according to African Union peace mediators. The AU presided over a ceasefire agreement signed in Pretoria, South Africa last November that ended the fighting. 

With the peace deal, scarred communities across northern Ethiopia began the lengthy recovery process. Famine, atrocities, and mass displacement impacted millions across northern Ethiopia, creating arguably the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, especially in Tigray where a siege prevented humanitarian aid deliveries for over a year. 

“An estimated 65 percent of Afar school children are yet to begin their school year,” reads a November press release by the Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA), a local humanitarian agency based in Afar. “[The children] have been displaced. The schools they attend are unsafe and they live in traumatized societies that can hardly put education into the jigsaw.” 

Ethiopia’s ethnic Afar minority number about two percent of Ethiopia’s estimated 119 million population and are mostly pastoralist. Children in Afar had long been suffering from drought-induced food insecurity that the war has since compounded.

The UN recorded increases in severe acute malnutrition across 23 Afar regional districts, according to a situation report published on Monday.

ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) spokesperson Jude Fuhnwi told Global Voices in an emailed interview:

The humanitarian needs in Afar are immense but are getting very little attention and response. There is a staggering number of displaced people in that region who fled war and arrived in host communities with absolutely nothing. Even though hostilities have ended, they remain in camps because they have nothing to return to.

According to the US Agency for International Development (USAID), a multi-pronged assault on multiple towns and villages in the Afar region by Tigrayan forces that led to weeks of intense fighting displaced 300,000 civilians, or nearly a fifth of the region’s inhabitants, by October 2022. 

How the Afar were drawn into the war

Simmering political disputes ignited the war. But the Afar regional administration was uninvolved in the political fallout between Tigray and Ethiopia’s federal government. According to a diplomatic source who spoke to Global Voices, many traditional Afar elders were initially undecided over which side to back. 

“The initial military neutrality of the Afar came from the widely held perception of the war as being between two elephants fighting for power,” says Dawud Mohammed Ali, a Business and Development lecturer at the region’s Semera University.

The spillovers drew the Afar into the war. Throughout 2021, the TPLF had managed to capture swathes of the Amhara region and at one point came within 120 km of the capital Addis Ababa. In Afar, however, they were largely prevented from making major inroads by entrenched local militia.

Dawud told Global Voices:

The Afar felt betrayed. No Afar expected to be invaded because we assumed that with no role in the war, there would be no reason to do so. We were also victims, as our districts lost banking, electricity and communications when war broke out.

For Afar society, land is not only a resource but an identity. This is what united Afar from all walks of life to pick up arms.

Afar's strategic importance in the war

For the Tigrayan leadership, the capture of the Afar town of Mille became a crucial war objective, as it would have cut Addis Ababa off from the port of Djibouti, Ethiopia’s primary gateway for imports.

The Tigrayans failed to capture Mille in successive rounds of fighting. But the impact of the unsuccessful assaults was immense. By February 2022, the war had displaced some 300,000 Afar civilians. 

“Our people flee because when [Tigrayan forces] attack us, they rain artillery on our homes and mosques from a distance,” Amin Mohammed Bada, 35, an Afar trader who was among the displaced and is sheltering with relatives in Semera, told Global Voices. 

Fighting in Afar was often preceded by much-feared artillery barrages, which reduced villages to ruins. By April, Ethiopia’s ombudsman said that Tigrayan military assaults on Afar territory left some USD $15 million worth of infrastructure destroyed.

Fuhnwi of ICRC said:

The conflict has had a heavy toll on health facilities in Afar. Access to medical services is a major problem. Most health centers in the isolated north are not functional and staff have not returned. The ICRC is providing medical supplies to three health facilities in severely affected areas.

Fuhnwi also explained that there remain no physical rehabilitation centers for the region’s injured, including amputees. 

“Worst in thirty years”

Humanitarian Aid workers from UNICEF Ethiopia in a village in Afar. Image source UNICEF Ethiopia. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Humanitarian Aid workers from UNICEF Ethiopia in a village in Afar. Image source, UNICEF Ethiopia. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The APDA’s founder Valerie Browning, an Australian nurse who has resided in Afar since the nineties and speaks the language, says for the region’s inhabitants, things had never been worse:

Browning told Global Voices over the phone:

The humanitarian situation during the war was the worst I’ve seen in thirty years. Indiscriminate shelling has incinerated women and children in their houses. Schools, homes and water systems were destroyed. And yet the suffering of people here has gained minimal media attention.

Browning’s APDA welcomed the peace deal, and stressed the need for community resolution initiatives to help traumatized survivors.

Hearing from victims of atrocity

Eyewitnesses told Global Voices that Tigrayan artillery shelling on August 24, 2022 left more than a dozen civilian casualties in the Afar town of Yallo, 6 km from the border with Tigray. 

It’s the same attack that caused Mekiya Ali’s horrific burn injuries. Her home, in Yallo’s busy Menafesha district, was among several that were targeted. But it’s the death of her two sons, the youngest an infant, that has her grieving months later:

“My children were burned alive. They barely lived. What did they do to deserve this? We threatened no one!

Let alone fighters, there was nobody with a weapon that day. But they rained fire on us. I know that several of my neighbours are dead too because I saw their charred bodies.

Mekiya Ali photographed during her conversation with Global Voices, at the Dubti Hospital in Ethiopia's Afar region. Image exclusive to Global Voices.

Mekiya Ali photographed during her conversation with Global Voices. Image exclusive to Global Voices.

Getachew Reda, who is the interim leader of the Tigray regional government, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment. In the past, he has typically dismissed such reports as being false.

The deaths of children in the shelling of Afar villages in late August have, however, been acknowledged by UNICEF.

Accountability for such atrocities has been a thorny issue. UN investigators have been probing war crimes allegations in Ethiopia, but they omitted the Afar region altogether from a first report published last year, citing logistical restraints.

“The report ignored injustices against a voiceless, oppressed minority,” said Dawud Mohammed Ali. “It left me feeling sick and despondent.”

It's increasingly unlikely that UN investigators will be allowed into the region to properly investigate incidents such as the shelling of Yallo.



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