The war in northern Ethiopia had been going on for months. “We didn’t have a concrete view of how many people could have died, no one was publishing it or giving those numbers,” recalls Tim Vanden Bempt, speaking on the phone from Belgium. “Still no one’s talking about it so it certainly helps to get numbers, to get data out . . . It gives a little bit of exposure.”
The e-commerce manager – whose wife is from Tigray – became involved with a University of Ghent research group investigating civilian atrocities in Tigray after connecting with academic Jan Nyssen online. They started gathering data – first on specific massacres, and later on broader casualties – from January 2021.
Since the war in Tigray began in November 2020, when the Ethiopian government began military operations against the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the research group has put possible civilian casualties as high as 813,418. This is an estimate, and the reality could be significantly lower, though Vanden Bempt says there is no chance it has been less than 200,000. These figures include deaths from direct and indirect cases.
Of those, the vast majority were deaths due to starvation: between 248,753 and 555,082; while there have likely been between 53,695 and 205,126 deaths from poor or nonexistent healthcare, due to the conflict, or the aftermath of injuries from violence. “People were dying of hunger and disease already before the war so we subtract that from our numbers,” clarified Vanden Bempt.
Direct killings are likely between 10,642 and 53,210, the researchers say, though Vanden Bempt says his estimates go as high as 100,000, as “we have lots of reports about areas with killings” but those that were not verifiable “are not included in our massacre database yet”.
The data is collected from a range of sources, including directly from hospitals, through monitoring news reports and from estimates released by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, a food security framework that puts together data and information related to global hunger crises. “I’m working in my free time on it . . . Every day I’m busy with that,” Vanden Bempt said.
Military casualties could be about 400,000, according to further estimates, though these figures are very hard to confirm given the amount of “propaganda”, said Vanden Bempt.
One of the biggest challenges has been the complete severance of communications with people in Tigray for much of the war. Vanden Bempt said his wife struggled to speak to her family. ”Of course when you can’t reach your family for a long time you start getting involved in it,” he said.
“Every form of communication was shut down the night the attacks started in Tigray until March 2021, if I’m not mistaken, when some communication in [certain areas] restarted.” That June, he said, there was a communications blackout again. “If there is no communication possible, there are no journalists that are allowed [to] go on the scene to talk to people, it is very easy to overlook the whole conflict.”
Though a ceasefire was declared last November, deaths are still continuing in some parts of Tigray, Vanden Bempt said.
In the future, he would like to see peace in Tigray, coupled with justice and accountability for what has happened.
On whether this the deadliest war of the 21st century, as it has been labelled by some media, he said: “I think that might be very accurate, especially given the short timeframe. We’re talking about a two-year war . . . And still, nobody’s talking about it.”
Despite the huge death toll, he said there does not seem to be that much awareness, at least in Europe, of the scale of Ethiopia’s conflict. “If I look around in my immediate surroundings, work, friends, there is not too much knowledge about it . . . It’s not on the news here. Sporadically [it will be] in a small newspaper article but that’s it. I don’t know why it is. People [say] ‘it’s Africa, nobody cares about it’.”