Staff of the international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have spoken about seeing civilian men dragged off buses and executed in front of them in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, as the war there continues.
They said the incident happened on Tuesday on the road between Tigrayan capital Mekelle and Adigrat, 117km away, when they came across the apparent aftermath of an ambush on a military convoy.
Ethiopian soldiers stopped the marked MSF vehicle and two minibuses behind it. After forcing passengers to leave the minibuses, men were separated from the women and shot. The driver of the MSF vehicle was later pulled from their car, beaten with a gun and threatened with death.
"This horrific event further underscores the need for the protection of civilians during this ongoing conflict, and for armed groups to respect the delivery of humanitarian assistance, including medical aid," said MSF emergency desk head Karline Kleijer. "Our teams are still reeling from witnessing the senseless loss of lives from this latest attack."
Ethiopia’s federal government declared a military offensive on the northern region of Tigray in early November, reportedly after attacks by Tigray fighters on Ethiopian army bases.
Humanitarian workers continue to call for hospitals in Tigray to be supported and medical professionals protected. Of 106 health facilities recently assessed by MSF, only 13 per cent were fully functional and 65 per cent were not operational at all.
"We're very worried about the scale of deliberate destruction and looting of health facilities that we've seen across the whole region of Tigray," said Kate Nolan, an MSF emergency co-ordinator. "More than 70 per cent [were] damaged by shelling and gunfire. In some health facilities looting is continuing to this day."
One in five health facilities were occupied by fighters at some point, and some remained occupied, she said. Ambulances have been commandeered by fighters and Ethiopian ministry of health staff are going unpaid.
“Before the fighting broke out in early November, Tigray had one of the best health systems in the whole of Ethiopia, but now the health system has almost completely collapsed with dire consequences for the whole population,” Ms Nolan said.
Ms Nolan was in Ethiopia from November to March, including seven weeks based between Tigrayan capital Mekelle and Abiy Addi, a town 95km away.
After Ethiopia’s federal government declared its offensive on Tigray, telecommunications went down in the region, and the government heavily restricted access by UN agencies and other humanitarian organisations.
Regardless of those limitations, the lack of international assistance in Tigray has been widely criticised. "In all my years as an aid worker, I have rarely seen a humanitarian response so impeded and unable to deliver in response for so long, to so many with such pressing needs," Norwegian Refugee Council secretary general Jan Egeland, a former UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, said last month.
Mr Egeland said the failure of the aid sector to be vocal, to co-ordinate and to respond early had “crippled the collective response” in Tigray. “As an international community, we are clearly failing to deliver.”
Ms Nolan said there needed to be a “big scale-up” of assistance for civilians caught up in the conflict. She has heard reports of pregnant women dying at home because they couldn’t access a healthcare facility. Other sick and injured people died waiting for ambulances. Some needed urgent treatment for gunshot wounds and blast injuries.
“Tigray region is a small region in Ethiopia, the population is estimated to be about 5.5 or 6 million which means [it is] more or less the same size as Ireland. So if we want to try and put it in context, imagine what would happen in Ireland if only 13 per cent of health structures were fully functional and if another 20 per cent were occupied by an armed actor,” Ms Nolan said.
“We need to ensure that health facilities and health structures need to be protected. Obviously that’s guaranteed under international law but that’s not the case on the ground, there is no respect for the medical mission.”