Ethiopia: First foreign aid convoy enters Mekelle, says ICRC

Seven aid trucks deliver medicines, medical equipment and relief supplies to people in Tigrayan capital more than a month after fighting began.

A member of the Ethiopian government's Afar Special Forces unit poses with his weapon in the outskirts of the village of Bisober in Ethiopia's Tigray region [Eduardo Soteras/AFP]

The first international aid convoy carrying medicines and relief supplies has arrived in Mekelle, the capital of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has said.

In a statement on Saturday, ICRC said the convoy from the Geneva-based group and the Ethiopian Red Cross Society (ERCS) was sent in coordination with the Ethiopian authorities.

Seven Red Cross trucks brought medicines and medical equipment for 400 wounded as well as relief supplies. These supplies will be donated to Ayder Hospital, the Regional Health Bureau, and the ERCS pharmacy in Mekelle.

“It is the first international aid to arrive in Mekelle since fighting erupted in Tigray more than one month ago,” the statement said.

Aid trucks managed to enter the region amid international calls for more transparency into the month-long fighting between Ethiopian forces and those of the fugitive Tigray regional government. Thousands of people, including civilians, are thought to have been killed.

At least one large-scale massacre has been documented by human rights groups, and others are feared.

“Doctors and nurses have been forced to make impossible choices of which services to continue and which services to cut, after going weeks without new supplies, running water and electricity,” said Patrick Youssef, ICRC’s regional director for Africa, following a visit to Addis Ababa.

“This medical shipment will inject new stocks, help patients and reduce those impossible life-or-death triage decisions.”

Youssef said the federal health ministry also delivered medical supplies to Mekelle’s health facilities.

“The supplies will make an immediate and lifesaving difference to the people who today are going without access to medical care,” said Youssef. “We expect that many healthcare facilities in Tigray are facing the same challenges as Ayder Hospital and urgently need support.”

Calls for transparency

The Tigray region remains largely cut off from the world with food and medicine desperately needed by the population of six million – some one million now thought to be displaced.

The lack of transparency, with most communications and transport links severed, complicates efforts to verify the warring sides’ claims.

It also hides the extent of atrocities feared to have been committed since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on November 4 announced fighting had begun with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated Ethiopia’s government for nearly 30 years before he came to power and sidelined it.

Each government now regards the other as illegal, as the TPLF objects to the postponement of national elections until next year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and sees Abiy’s mandate as expired.

The aid trucks had been ready for days, but Ethiopia’s government has repeatedly objected to what it calls external “interference” from efforts at dialogue to delivering aid, drawing on its history as the rare African country never colonised, a source of deep national pride.

ICRC’s Jeremy England, speaking to Al Jazeera from Addis Ababa, said the “main priority” is to transport “medicines, surgical supplies, and basic items that are necessary for the hospital to function”.

“They [hospitals] are dealing with a large number of trauma patients from the conflict, but also their regular caseload,” England said.

“In Mekelle, what we’ve seen is a number of wounded persons and also displaced persons coming into that city … and the city’s own residents being deprived of power, water, communications for over a month,” he said.

“However, this [aid] is in no way enough, and it’s hard to tell what’s the scale of need beyond Mekelle.”

In neighbouring Sudan, nearly 50,000 Ethiopian refugees now take shelter. Some resist being moved to a camp away from the border in the hope that missing family members, separated by the fighting, can be found.

Meanwhile, the United Nations on Friday said it has not been able to reach four refugee camps housing nearly 100,000 Eritreans in Tigray.

The UN and rights groups expressed growing alarm over the plight of the Eritrean refugees caught in the Ethiopian conflict, warning their safety and survival are at great risk.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said it had received “an overwhelming number of disturbing reports” of  refugees being killed or kidnapped and forcibly returned to Eritrea, which borders Ethiopia’s battle-scarred Tigray region.

“If confirmed, these actions would constitute a major violation of international law,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies