Notes from Ethiopia, Part 4: The TPLF Destruction of Afar

Afar IDPs, who fled the TPLF attack in Afar, sheltering in Semara

It’s 110 degrees in Ethiopia’s desert Afar Region, one of the hottest areas humans inhabit, and I’m thinking about how much damage the U.S. empire does with its proxy wars in even the most remote corners of the planet—like this one—which most Americans have of course never even heard of.

There’s a USAID meeting going on in the next room, here at the Hotel Dini in the city of Semara, Afar Region, and this illustrates the typical US modus operandi in Africa. Send in proxy warriors who destroy and cause immeasurable suffering, then send in USAID and the rest of the NGO industrial complex to mop up and foster dependence. The meeting in the next room is about “reforming” health care and building health centers, with particular focus on antenatal and postnatal maternal and infant health.

I asked several participants whether they knew about all the Afar health centers that the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front had destroyed and looted, or the women who’d had to flee the TPLF—some in late stages of pregnancy—or the women and children who’d died in flight or are now living in lDP camps. They said they didn’t know about that, and I’m sure they wouldn’t talk about it if they did. They’ve got a gig sponsored by USAID, Save the Children, Project Hope, and General Electric.

The Afar Pastoralist Development Association , a small local NGO that works with several small, little-known Western NGOs, has no such qualms. On March 15 it published “OVER 300,000 NORTHERN AFAR LIVING UNDER TREES, HERDED BY THE TERRIFYING SOUND OF ARTILLERY, ” including this account of a birth on the road:

Kadiga’s story illustrates this amazing resilience. She is now 32 years old and fled when the first rockets began to shell the town of Aba’ala in December. She and her 5 children, her mother and the neighboring women ran for 3 days into the rural area of Aba’ala where she was till 15 days ago. Fortunately as she says it was daytime and all of a sudden rockets started falling again, this time hitting the temporary house the women had made for themselves – no one was inside but all inside was burnt. They fled with a total of 12 children, she being by then 9 months pregnant. She carried the 2-year-old and struggled to carry water. They ran for some hours and then broke off into a steady walk. On the 4th day of walking, labor pains began but the other women just said there was no hope till they reached to Garbeena and Harsuuma. Kadiga described how awful it was to go with the labor for 2 days till she could take no more. Collapsing under a tree, the baby began to come and a woman she hardly knew said she would handle it. This is how her 6th child, a son, came into the world. Asked what food did you eat, she said they had eked out the small amount of grain they had taken when fleeing Aba’ala but that had finished. Local Afar helped to revive her and she continued on till she reached Harsuuma in Afdeera, a total journey of 9 days. In Harsuuma, government food was distributed, each household getting 1 kilogram of flour and one kilogram of rice.

Valerie Browning, founder of the Afar Pastoralist Development Association, is a legendary Australian nurse, known locally as Malaika, who has lived among the Afar desert pastoralists since the famine of 1973. Speaking to New Zealand journalist Alastair Thompson, Ethiopian journalism professor Menychle Abebe, and I, she described the TPLF’s horrific destruction of Afar communities’ markets, health centers, schools, churches, mosques, and livestock, and said that what they couldn’t steal, they destroyed. She also didn’t hesitate to blame US and Western support for the TPLF for the catastrophe that Afar has been left in, with hundreds of thousands of Afar living in IDP camps or still in the remote desert lands they fled into to escape the TPLF. “If the Western world had not put their hand in at the beginning of the war, we wouldn’t be in this mess today. They interfered from the very beginning, they agreed with the TPLF, they enabled the TPLF.”

Browning also dismissed the current US position that the TPLF is one warring party that should negotiate to reach some sort of shared power arrangement. The people of Tigray Region should have a voice in government, she said, but the TPLF should not return to power after all the damage they have done in their war on Afar and other parts of Ethiopia.

“I think the American position is still that TPLF should be in government and this is not gonna go. The people of TIgray should have a say in the Parliament of Ethiopia, the same as any people in the country, but not the TPLF. No. No no no no no, wait a minute, let’s be fair.”

Health emergency

Dr. Mohammed Yusuf of Dubti General—a free public hospital near Semara—told us that infant malnutrition was a major problem that they were compelled to treat before the war, but that now, with some hundreds of thousands of Afars living in IDP camps, the problem has multiplied way beyond the hospital’s capacity. And of course, he added, emergency treatment for malnutrition may bring a child back to health, but it won’t solve the underlying problem of food insecurity, which is of course hugely exacerbated by war and displacement.

Dubti General Hospital has had to appeal for help—not only to the federal government, but also to the big international aid agencies like Save the Children and—who else?—USAID. The IDPs we interviewed in Afar also told us that the government was doing what it could to feed and otherwise help them, but that the crisis was beyond its capacity.

We visited the hospital’s pediatric wards, which seemed way overcrowded.  Dr. Yusuf told us that a possibly pending measles outbreak could sweep through both the pediatric wards and the IDP camps. He said they had sent tests to Addis Ababa and were awaiting results to be certain that is what they’re facing. 

During interviews with IDPs conducted on the night before we spoke to the doctor, we met several children who showed all the signs of measles—fever, rashes, sneezing, and severe conjunctivitis. 

Most people who contract measles survive, but complications, including even death, are more likely in children under age 5, most especially children who are already undernourished. So Dubti General Hospital, Dubti IDP Camp, and similar facilities could be on the cusp of a catastrophic wave of infection.

Just as we were on our way out through the hospital gates, five SUVs labeled “USAID” drove in and began to unload supplies. The hospital can’t help but seek and accept such assistance under the circumstances. They are in no position to turn away or find fault with any help they can get.

Those of us who are not similarly constrained, however, must do what we can to oppose ongoing US support for the TPLF, whom the Afar people expect to attack them again.

“If TPLF come back again, I don’t know what we will do. I just don’t know.” said Malaika, “They’ve hurt Afar so badly with its livelihood that I really don’t know. The people of Afar need food. They need water supply, clean water supply. They need medical help. They need everything. If the TPLF come back and do even more dangerous destruction again, then Afar will be in an even more shocking condition.”

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