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Starving Civilians: Ethiopia’s Method of Warfare in Tigray

Starving Civilians: Ethiopia’s Method of Warfare in Tigray

Asayehgn Desta, Sarlo Distinguished Professor of Sustainable Development


The hunger and food crisis of 1974 contributed to the downfall of the HaileSelassie regime. The drought that caused the death of more than one million Ethiopians in 1984 destabilized and eventually shattered the authoritarian Dergue regime, removing it from power in 1991 (See Desta, 2017).

Currently, because Prime Minister Abiy has either hardly learned from the previous disastrous epochs in Ethiopia or is negligent to pay enough attention to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court—enshrined to emphasize that starvation is a war crime (World Peace Foundation, December 6, 2019)—he has resorted to sieging and intentionally starving more than 4.5 million civilians Tigrayans as a prime method of warfare. 

Prior to initiating a full-blown war against the leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on November 4, 2020, Abiy deliberately used economic sabotage tools to crack down on the administrative region of Tigray. In addition to tightening the allocation of federal budget to Tigray, supply lines and routes were deliberately cut off to siege the region from having access to commercial interactions with Ethiopia’s other administrative regions. 

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Abiy’s most abhorrent act against Tigray happened in 2020, when desert locusts invaded the region. While federal assistance was given to other states that were invaded by the locusts, Prime Minister Abiy purposely refrained from giving orders to the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture to take the necessary steps or seek international assistance to mitigate the outbreak in Tigray. Overlapping with the COVID-19 pandemic, it was glaringly obvious that the swarm of locusts that infested Tigray resulted in damage to crops, pastures, and fodder for livestock, mainly to the southern part of Tigray. 

As Abiy declared war on Tigray, he explicitly teamed up with the most hideous human rights violator, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afework, as well as extremist Amhara militias and the genocidal Fano youth squad. They encircled Tigray and conducted armed struggle. To foil the military attacks on the people of Tigray, the Tigrayan forces retaliated, conducting missile attacks on the military installations in Bahir Dar, Gonder, and Asmara airports. Realizing that they could be in danger fighting Tigray’s defense fighters, Isaias and Abiy fell to borrowing drones stationed in Assab (Eritrea) from the United Arabia Emirates (UAE), and Isaias forced the 3,000 Somalia trainees in Eritrea to participate in fighting the TPLF.

Violating part of the rules of war of the Geneva Convention, ratified by 196 states to protect civilians (Lu, June 28, 2018), Ethiopia’s National Defense Force (the ENDF), Amhara militia forces, and Isaias’ armed forces mercilessly acted to precipitate environmental and ecological damages on the Tigrayans.

To take control of Tigray as quick as possible and maintain law and order, Abiy and Isaias instructed their forces to deprive the Tigrayan civil population from access to water and food, and resorted to killing animals, burning farm lands, and uprooting fruit trees and gardens. Water tanks and pipelines were purposely ruptured, and the water reservoirs were sabotaged using poisonous chemicals to cause fear and death. 

Extending Tigrayans lifelines such as food, water, electricity, and telephone and internet access, the invaders killed many young and old Tigrayans and were engaged in raping underage girls and women. In addition to bombing a number of historically known monasteries and mosques, Isaias’ armed squads were seen looting valuable items from hospitals, restaurants, and educational institutions.

Over the years, the Amhara militias and the undisciplined Amhara Fanos were disillusioned, convinced to assume that Wolkate, Humara, and the Tsegadi were their land. Therefore, as they crossed into the Tigray region, they embroiled themselves in deep skirmish with native Tigrayans. The Amhara militias, with the support of the National Federal Forces, started killing, demolishing, chasing away, and uprooting the Tigrayans from their homelands and livelihood. Not only were the Tigrayans, chopped to death, but also their productive assets and commercial activities were left up to the invaders. 

Some of the Tigrayans whose lives were spared managed to scatter to other regions, and the lucky ones dispersed to Sudan. By now, there are more than 60,000 refugees settled in the Sudanese refugee camps. Though it’s better to be alive than killed, , the Sudanese refugee camps, as described by visitors are overcrowded and lack sanitation, and the refugees are faced with distress, trauma, and exposure to communicable disease such as the coronavirus.

Given the inhuman conditions that exist in Tigray, many international humanitarian groups have attempted to enter the region and deliver humanitarian relief efforts to save lives. As accurately described by the United States’ ambassador to the UN, the Honorable Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Abiy is one of the global “war mongers” and deceptively may now and then allow humanitarian organizations to enter Tigray and relieve the 4.5 million Tigrayans undergoing catastrophic hunger.

As they say, it is better late than never; the Honorable Thomas-Greenfield needs to be deeply appreciated for drawing attention to the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, that his office “…has the mandate and the tools to bring the conflicts and potential starvation in Tigray into the spotlight” (Ethiopian Observer, 2021). In addition, as the UN Under-Secretary-General of Affairs Mark Lowcock has said loud and clear to the Security Council, Isaias’ forces have to be forced to withdraw from Tigray before they continue sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, and the destruction of Tigray’s historical and developmental infrastructures (Aljazeera, March 5 2021). 

Given the gravity of the matter, many concerned groups have filed cases against Prime Minister Abiy, President Isaias, the Somali soldiers, and the United Arab Emirates with the International Criminal Court (ICC) for intentionally committing alleged possible war crimes and crimes against humanity (specifically the Tigrayans). The immense support given thus far by the United Nations Security Council, the International Commission on Human Rights, the European Union, and the United States and other humanity-concerned organizations to restore peace and tranquility in Tigray—shattered by the unbearable atrocities—is deeply appreciated beyond measure.  


Aljazeera (March 5, 2021). “UN alleges war crimes in Ethiopia’s Tigray, urges Eritrea Exit.”

BBC (October 11, 2019), “Nobel Peace Prize: Ethiopia PM Abiy Ahmed wins.”

Desta, A. (2017). “Linkage between Economic Growth and Food security.” Review of Business Research (RBR), Vol. 17, No. 1, 2017. pp. 31-40.

Ethiopian Observer (March 14, 2021). “US Cracks Down on ‘Warmonger’ Who make food a Weapon,” weapon/

Lu, Joanne (June 28, 2018). “The ‘Rules of War’ Are Being Broken. What Exactly

Are They?”


Schaack, B, Van (February 4, 2019). “Siege Warfare and the Starvation of Civilians as a Weapon of war and War Crime.” https://www.justsecurity .Org/29157/siegewarfare-starvation-civilians –war-crime/

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