What is the conflict in Tigray? How did it begin and how has it impacted people in the region?

Members of the Ethiopian National Defense Force who were captured by Tigray forces sit on the ground inside a prison
Members of the Ethiopian National Defense Force who were captured by Tigray forces sit on the ground inside a prison Credit: AP

Some six million people have been caught up in a deadly conflict in east Africa that began in November between Ethiopian and Tigray forces.

The conflict has threatened to destabilise one of Africa's most populous and powerful countries, often described as the linchpin of the Horn of Africa.

With a population of 110 million people, Ethiopia is the second largest country in Africa and borders six countries.

Ethiopia is a key peacekeeper in a region plagued by instability, conflict and humanitarian crises.

Tigray is Ethiopia's most northern state, bordered by Eritrea to the north and Sudan to the west.

The region has faced several humanitarian disasters over the years.

It bore the brunt of Ethiopia's historic famine in the early 1980s that sparked a global response and was at the forefront of a years-long war between Eritrea and Ethiopia over disputed territory.

The fallout from the current conflict has been devastating, with tens of thousands of people displaced and “famine looming” for millions

Once again, Tigrayans are fleeing violence and famine.

How did this conflict begin - and where will it end?

An Ethiopian woman argues with others over yellow split peas after it was distributed by the Relief Society of Tigray inAgula Credit: AP

What started the current conflict in Tigray?

Tigray leaders had dominated Ethiopia’s government for nearly three decades, creating a system of ethnic-based regional states. 

When prime minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018, he moved to centralise power, sidelining Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leaders and making peace with Eritrea after years of war, a diplomatic role that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize.

This move angered Tigray leaders and, after last year’s election was delayed due to Covid-19 concerns, legislators from Tigray withdrew from the national parliament in protest and declared Mr Abiy’s mandate illegal.  

In September 2020 the TPLF held unofficial elections in Tigray and reported a 98% percent victory in the popular vote. 

The government then opened a military offensive, saying Tigray forces had attacked a military base.

Mr Abiy declared his hand had been forced by the assault on the federal army base and sent the army “to save the country and the region” by removing the TPLF. 

What is happening now?

Despite Ethiopia’s prime minister declaring victory in November 2020, the conflict continues and eight months in, it appears to have taken a dramatic turn.

Galvanised by atrocities perpetrated against civilians by the Ethiopian military and its allies, including reports of ethnic cleansing, Tigrayans have retaken territory lost to government forces, including the regional capital Mekele.

On Tuesday, rare footage showed more than 6,000 Ethiopian prisoners of war, many injured, being paraded through the streets of Mekele by their captors.

The TPLF's fresh offensive came two weeks after Ethiopia’s government declared a unilateral ceasefire in the face of a rebel advance. The rebels say they have seized Alamata, the main town in southern Tigray.

Eldana, a one year old baby who was the victim of an alleged airstrike on a village, is treated at the Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekele. Credit: AP

Reports collated by a team at the University of Ghent in June found almost 2,000 people have been killed in more than 150 massacres.

The United Nations have called for the "verifiable" withdrawal of Eritrean troops from the region as the spectre of a humanitarian crisis looms.

Tigrayan women gather to talk at a camp for the internally-displaced in Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia Credit: AP

Seeds of conflict

But as Professor Laura Hammond Head of Development Studies Department at SOAS points out, the seeds of the conflict was sown back in 1991.

"The Tigray's People's Liberation Front, together with a group of other forces from other regions within the country succeeded in overthrowing the Marxist government that had been sitting in the capital Addis Ababa.

"They then installed a kind of coalition government but was really dominated by the TPLF from 1991 until 2018," Professor Hammond told ITV News.

Installing themselves in the capital elevated the Tigrayan voice, and the amount of power that Tigrayans and political leaders from Tigray had in the country, she says.

Many Ethiopians felt it was a disproportionate level given the Tigrayans' significance in terms of overall population.

"They have a lot of power and they succeeded in attracting quite a lot of revenue to the region," Professor Hammond says.

Over time, too, the ruling TPLF became less and less tolerant of alternative viewpoints and of alternative non-Tigrayan leadership.

Ethiopians, Professor Hammonds says, "felt they had 27 years of being dominated and exploited by Tigrayans".

In was in this climate that Mr Abiy took power in 2018 in a bloodless coup that unseated the Tigray-dominate government.

When the prime minister began dismantling power structures that have been put in place by the Tigray-led government, not just in Addis Ababa, but also in Tigray, tensions began to build.

"Which took us ultimately to this point in November," says Professor Hammond.

Map of the Tigray region in Ethiopia Credit: AP

What has been the impact on civilians?

What started as a political dispute is becoming a very human one and there is evidence to suggest it is turning into a campaign of ethnic cleansing against minority Tigrayans. 

Despite the Ethiopian government maintaining they are targeting Tigray’s militia establishments and the TPLF leadership, it is becoming an increasingly humanitarian disaster. 

While the Tigray forces now control large areas, the region has remained largely cut off from the world, with transport and communications links severed or blocked.

Refugees flee the region after conflict broke out last November

Months of fighting have left nearly four million on the brink of starvation, according to the United Nations.

Tens of thousands of refugees - nearly half of them children - have already crossed into a remote part of Sudan where local communities and humanitarian workers struggle to provide food, shelter and care in already swollen camps. 

The conflict in Tigray has also devastated the region’s healthcare system.

More than 75% of medical facilities have been destroyed or looted and 5.5 million people in the region face acute food insecurity, according to charity Médecins Sans Frontières.

“It’s a real disaster.

"People are in pain and are suffering a lot.

"Some health care facilities that got new supplies were looted again,” said Mari Carmen Viñoles, Emergencies Programme Manager for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

The WHO has warned that conflict has left hospitals “barely functioning”, people displaced and famine “looming”.

Merce Rocaspana, MSF’s Emergency Unit Health Advisor, told ITV News they have been able to get aid to the big cities in the region and says the situation has improved in urban areas in the past eight months.

But the conflict makes it difficult and dangerous to get aid to people who need it.

In June, three members of MSF, emergency coordinator Maria Hernandez, 35, assistant coordinator Yohannes Halefom Reda, 32, and driver Tedros Gebremariam Gebremichael, 31, were found dead in their vehicle.Aid is slowly trickling in.

In mid-July, Mr Abiy told the UN secretary-general that Tigray would be open to “immediate” aid allowing 50 UN World Food Program trucks into Mekele to deliver badly needed supplies. 

The WFP warned that “double this number of trucks needs to be moving in every day to meet the vast humanitarian needs in the region".

Many of the people displaced by this conflict had returned to the area in the early nineties, 10 years after fleeing the famine of 1984/5.

They once again find themselves displaced and in danger.

Large numbers settled in western Tigray, a hotly contested area of economic and strategic importance.

In spring, an estimated 250 civilians over three days were killed in Humera, a town in the far west of Tigray."Having fled the country in '84/85, they came back and then 30 years later were attacked in this way. They've had a lifetime of displacements now," says Professor Hammond.

Members of the Ethiopian National Defense Force who were captured by Tigray forces look out from the gate of a prison. Credit: AP

Ethnic cleansing

Professor Hammond says there have been really disturbing accounts of massacres, of indiscriminate and arbitrary killings, rape and other sexual violence against Tigrayan women.

Most of the accounts that have been received seem to have been committed by either Ethiopian federal forces or by Eritrean troops, but Professor Hammond says it is "virtually impossible to find out what's actually happened because there have been hardly any communications from inside Tigray".

"There has been no real independent investigations to find out what has happened and who is responsible," she says, adding: "There's a lot of disinformation going around the internet."

Professor Hammond, who has lived in the region says, there is only one road into Tigray "which is incredibly difficult to travel"

"There is real concern that in the next few weeks, the fuel supplies will run out, which will mean that generators won't be able to function, transport won't be able to happen, which will affect food distribution.

"But that also has an impact on the information flow so if you can't move around the region you can't find out what's happening. And so it's going to be even more difficult to find out what's happening."