The day before, two children were buried again, as on most days in the refugee village of Debel Na Halebayir. They were five and three years old this time. They had been drinking from a filthy river near the village in Ethiopia’s Afar region.
It houses hundreds of refugees who fled the war in the neighboring Tigray region in January. Abdalla Salih is one of them. He talks dejectedly, but without much emotion, about the loss of his family friends. The 47-year-old has himself lost two of his 14 children in the past few months. His tears have long since dried up.
In East Africa, the deadly combination of armed conflict and prolonged droughts is showing more clearly than it has in more than a decade. Even in peaceful areas of the continent, the challenges would be difficult to overcome given the extreme drought.
But now two of the affected countries are weakened by the war. In Ethiopia, a fragile ceasefire does little to mitigate the impact of the war in Tigray.
The TPLF fighters, who are at the heart of the conflict, were once seen as the liberators of Ethiopia. They took power in the country in 1991, although only one in 15 Ethiopians is Tigrayan. The TPLF’s authoritarian regime, with its planned economy, ruled Ethiopia for three decades. Until Abiy Ahmed came. In 2018, the former intelligence operative formed a coalition to oust the TPLF from power.
He cut funding for Tigray and other semi-autonomous regions. When the TPLF refused to postpone the elections due to the pandemic and let Tigray vote on its own, Abiy canceled the grants altogether. And when the TPLF responded by attacking an army base, Ethiopia struck back within hours. The neighboring country of Eritrea soon turned against Tigray, and the violence escalated.
“We have no food here, no clean water, no doctors,” says Salih. “We have to go back as soon as possible.” On the radio they say that the fighting in his homeland has stopped, but Salih still can’t quite believe it.
He doesn’t have the money for his family’s return trip, the equivalent of several hundred euros, anyway, like many of the more than 300,000 refugees in Afar. And something is still missing, something fundamental: the confidence to be able to survive independently again. Even if there were to be peace in Ethiopia again in the long term.
Because if it stays dry this year in the Horn of Africa, it would be the first time in 40 years that precipitation has been well below average in four consecutive rainy seasons. Up to 20 million people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia are at risk of starvation by the end of the year, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) warns.
The situation is particularly dramatic in Somalia, which like 14 other African countries imports more than half of its food. Every second person there has to fear malnutrition.
The distribution of food rations in the center and south of the country is sometimes life-threatening. The areas are controlled by the resurgent Islamist Al-Shabab militia.
Every fourth citizen can no longer get the daily minimum of food. In the spring there was even less rain in Somalia than in the other affected countries. The need is correspondingly great, almost all people in the rural areas live from subsistence agriculture and are unprotected at the mercy of such catastrophes.
While the suffering in Tigray and Somalia has drawn considerable international attention, the people of Ethiopia’s Afar region are suffering largely unnoticed. 2.2 million live in the barren, economically insignificant area, not even four percent of the total population. They have no political influence, like pastoralist nomads in many African countries.
While the USA enforced the food deliveries to Tigray, which had long been blocked by the Ethiopian side, threatening sanctions, the aid deliveries for Afar, which were scarcely less needed, were still stuck in a depot in the city of Semera in May. The Ethiopian authorities made the transport difficult for a long time, sometimes it was a banal question as to whether the trucks intended for delivery could have a trailer or not.
Visit to a woman who comes from Australia but has long been considered the “voice of the Afar”. One who is currently quite angry. Valerie Browning, 71, has lived in the Horn of Africa for almost 50 years.
30 years ago she founded the aid organization “Afar Pastoral Development Association” (APDA) to improve the living conditions of the people there. “It’s like Afar isn’t on the map, but there was incredible suffering here earlier this year,” says Browning. “Thousands of homes were destroyed by the TPLF, people died out in droves.”
But the existence of those who are not directly affected by the violence is also endangered. Because of the drought, but also because of the indirect consequences of the violence. So many shepherds sold their goats primarily to Tigray until the fighting began.
But trade is still impossible with the war region, which has seen repeated fighting between the TPLF and Eritrean troops. The long dry period therefore forced most shepherds to offer their cattle and goats at local markets.
The problem: the supply kept increasing, the demand fell, the prices collapsed. The shepherds could hardly buy anything with the proceeds. The consequences of the Ukraine war have fueled the already high inflation, which is now over 40 percent for food.
Browning sees the consequences of this every day. The number of people who will depend on emergency food aid in the coming months has doubled. In some areas, their share is now 95 percent, she says.
“A lot of kids haven’t had milk for seven or eight months because their parents have had to sell their animals,” says Browning. “As a result, we have an awful lot of malnourished children – and mothers too.”
They, as Browning observed even in times of peace, can hardly be cared for adequately. With the support of her late mother’s foundation, she runs a gynecological hospital. Nine mothers are in the ward, and hundreds are treated here free of charge on a few days.
“A complicated pregnancy can mean death in Afar,” says Browning, “so many pregnant women travel long distances to come to us.” The facility has managed to reduce maternal and newborn mortality in the surrounding districts even during the current drought.
Browning is not giving up hope. It rained a little recently, which might allow enough plants to sprout for cattle and goats to graze. However, most families hardly have any left, and the Australian is looking for ways to help them buy new animals. Because they are the only long-term basis of existence.
The people of Afar are increasingly struggling to survive. “What scares us most at this point is that we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg, and it’s already overwhelming,” Raphael Veicht, MSF’s Addis Ababa emergency coordinator, said in a press release.
“At Dupti Hospital, the only functioning referral hospital in the entire Afar region, we see children arriving after incredibly long and difficult journeys. And far too many die within 48 hours.” According to Veicht, they arrive too sick and undernourished to have a chance.
The shepherd Ali Ibrahim, 68, has so far been able to prevent this fate for his family. He has two wives and 20 children, and his semicircular tent structures made of twigs and woven mats are erected on the edge of a country road.
The family still owns ten cattle, two years ago there were 20. “Some died, I had to sell some,” he says, “there wasn’t enough rain. And apart from a sack of wheat from the regional government, we received no help.”
Ibrahim is worried that he could also lose his last animals. He points to his graying beard: “That is the color of fear. Two years ago it was still black.”