Hospitals and health facilities in the capital of Ethiopia’s Tigray region are struggling to care for people wounded in a weeks-long conflict as medical supplies run dangerously low, an aid group has warned.
In a rare report from inside the northern city of Mekelle on Sunday, a day after Ethiopia declared victory in its operation against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said some 80 percent of patients at Ayder Referral Hospital have trauma injuries.
“The influx of wounded forced the hospital to suspend many other medical services so that limited staff and resources could be devoted to emergency medical care,” the ICRC said, adding that the major regional hospital was lacking body bags.
The ICRC warned that food was also running low, the result of the Tigray region being cut off from outside aid for almost a month. The group said 1,000 Eritrean refugees have arrived in Mekelle from their refugee camps near the Eritrean border, looking for food and other help.
“The hospital is running dangerously low on sutures, antibiotics, anticoagulants, painkillers and even gloves,” said Maria Soledad, the head of operations for the ICRC in Ethiopia, who visited Ayder Referral Hospital and is currently in Mekelle.
“The influx of injured comes more than three weeks after supply chains were disrupted into Mekelle. We need to ensure that health workers have the supplies and conditions they need to carry out their lifesaving work.”
The fighting between Ethiopian federal troops and forces loyal to the TPLF, which ran Tigray, has threatened to destabilise Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa region. Thousands of people are believed to have been killed and nearly 44,000 have fled to neighbouring Sudan since hostilities began on November 4.
Communications remain almost completely severed – making it hard to verify claims made by the warring sides – and the United Nations has been unable to access Tigray and provide aid. Fears are growing about the atrocities that might emerge once transport and other links are restored.
The government had given the TPLF an ultimatum that expired on Wednesday to surrender or face an assault on the city.
Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory on Saturday in his government’s weeks-long fighting against the TPLF, without mentioning whether there had been casualties in the offensive to capture Mekelle. Rights groups have been concerned that an assault on the city, home to 500,000 people, could lead to significant civilian casualties.
The Ethiopian army said it was in “full control” of Mekelle but TPLF leaders and members remain on the run and have pledged to keep fighting.
Late on Sunday, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael told Reuters news agency in a text message that his forces had shot down an Ethiopian military plane and captured the pilot. He also said TPLF fighters had retaken the town of Axum from the federal forces. There was no immediate comment from the Ethiopian government or military.
UN urges access to Tigray region
Separately on Sunday, the UN’s refugee chief said Ethiopia’s announcement that it has completed its military offensive in the region “does not mean the conflict is finished”.
Speaking to reporters over an online news conference from the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, Filippo Grandi said he was very concerned about the fate of nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees there amid reports that some have been abducted.
If confirmed, such treatment of refugees in camps close to the Tigray border with Eritrea “would be major violations of international norms”, Grandi said.
“It is my strong appeal for the prime minister of Ethiopia for this situation to be addressed as a matter of urgency,” he also said, adding that he hoped humanitarian access to the Tigray region would be granted soon by the Ethiopian authorities.
Asked about refugees’ allegations that Ethiopian security forces have blocked people from fleeing the conflict into Sudan, Grandi said his team had not raised that issue with Ethiopia’s government. But refugees told him about the “many checkpoints” and pockets of insecurity they faced as they fled.
“We have not heard of any systematic sealing-off,” the UN official said. “But certainly there are growing difficulties.”
Most people travelled with nothing, Grandi said, and many are farmers who were forced to flee at harvest time, creating a “very difficult situation for them”.
‘We don’t want to go back’
Neighbouring Eritrea, which watchdogs call one of the world’s most repressive countries, has remained almost silent on the allegations by the Tigray regional leaders that it has been involved in the conflict at the invitation of Ethiopia, whose government has denied it.
Even before it declared victory in the conflict, Abiy’s government was urging the refugees to return and promised to protect them. But many of the refugees have said they were running from the deadly violence of Ethiopian forces and attacks from the direction of nearby Eritrea.
“Of course, I’m not encouraging people to return,” Grandi said, adding that refugees told him they fear possible retaliation and intercommunal violence and need security assurances before they can go home.
The UN refugee agency is asking for almost $150m in aid over the next six months to support up to 100,000 refugees.
A refugee talking to Al Jazeera in Um Rukaba camp in Sudan said that despite the news that clashes were over in the Tigray region, he did not want to go back to live under Abiy’s government.
“We don’t want to go back, because we saw the administration of Abiy Ahmed. He kills us, Tigrinya speakers with the help of the Eritrean government,” Bereket Gebremichael said, referring to the official local language spoken in the Tigray region.
“We don’t want to be killed, so we don’t want to go back until Abiy Ahmed hands over to the people” of Tigray region, he added.
The government has denied targeting or discriminating against ethnic Tigrayans, insisting its operations targeted “primarily the disgruntled, reactionary and rogue members of the TPLF clique”.