“The situation in Tigray, Ethiopia, is, if I use a word, horrible. Very horrible, ”WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a press conference on Monday.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops to Tigray in November after accusing the once dominant regional ruling party of orchestrating attacks on federal army camps.
Nobel peace laureate Abiy declared victory later that month when the military entered the regional capital Mekelle.
But fighting continues, and the six-month conflict has sparked allegations of massacres and rapes by Ethiopian forces and troops from neighboring Eritrea.
Tedros pointed out that around five million people in the region are now in need of humanitarian aid, especially food aid.
“Many people have started to die, in fact, from hunger, and severe and acute malnutrition is becoming endemic,” he said.
In addition, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes, including more than 60,000 who have fled to Sudan.
At the same time, health services have been looted and destroyed, he said, adding that “the majority of them are not functioning”.
Access to help
The WHO chief also condemned the indiscriminate killings and the widespread use of sexual violence in the conflict.
“Rape is rampant. I don’t think there has been this scale anywhere else in the world, in fact, ”he said.
Asked about the COVID-19 situation in his home region, Tedros said there were no services to contain the disease, but said it was not a priority given the other crises.
“For the most part, we’re not even in a position to discuss COVID, to be honest, because there are more pressing issues.”
One of the most pressing issues to be addressed is getting full access for aid workers and aid.
World leaders and aid agencies have repeatedly called for full humanitarian access to crisis-ravaged areas as fears of impending disaster grow.
On Friday, the European Union condemned the continued blocking of aid to the region, denouncing “the use of humanitarian aid as a weapon of war”.
WHO Emergency Director Michael Ryan warned Monday that “access to victims in Tigray remains very unpredictable.”
This, he said, created “a huge barrier to accessing populations who need our help.”
Risk of epidemics
With most health facilities destroyed, the United Nations health agency is concerned about the growing risks of cholera, measles and other epidemics, he said.
“We also have problems to continue to receive vaccines (against cholera)”, he stressed, stressing the need “to introduce these doses there” and to plan vaccination campaigns “to avoid a cholera disaster ”.
Ethiopia’s foreign ministry on Monday dismissed concerns over access to aid.
“There were indeed difficulties in accessing some pocket areas due to security concerns, but this has now been resolved,” the ministry said in a statement.
“This is why it is absurd for some partners to continue to deplore the lack of access despite the real situation on the ground.”
The statement also said the government was committed to investigating rights violations and denounced “unjust and unwarranted accusations against Ethiopia,” without mentioning Tedros.