As their content grew closer, we knew the battlefield was changing in this country’s increasingly wicked civil strife.
There were thousands of soldiers perched on their backs, holding automatic weapons as they struggled to stand. They were accompanied by specialized vehicles towing artillery and tanks, heading at high speed towards the Afar region.
This arid and underpopulated place has been totally neglected because Ethiopia the federal government and the leaders of the troubled region of Tigray are fighting for power and control.
But a major offensive, sanctioned by the country’s leader, Abiy Ahmed, was almost certainly at a standstill and fighters from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (TPLF) were advancing on Afar communities.
The region has seen very different convoys in recent months as the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) tries to send emergency aid to Tigray.
Estimating that around 400,000 Tigrayans live in near starvation conditions, WFP has established an ‘intermediary post’ in the regional capital of Semera, where humanitarian supplies are loaded into oversized trucks and we have seen drivers leave for the two-day trip. at the Tigrayan border.
But the ground is difficult and the people of Afar are decidedly hostile to what is a massive emergency operation.
We saw trucks overturned on the road to the border town of Abala and locals stealing sacks of flour from the vehicles.
The drivers know some trucks will be stopped – or attacked – and the road is too narrow to turn around.
Yet this is the only path they can take.
I spoke to a driver – a Tigrayan – as he was about to cross that inner border.
I asked him if the people of Tigray needed humanitarian aid.
“It is necessary, my feeling is that I am doing an important job,” he replied.
However, the drivers know how to try their luck in the Afar region.
“Are you afraid to come back?” ” I asked.
“Yes I am, but I haven’t had any problems yet. I made safe round trips. “
The Afari are angry, blaming the Tigrayans for a series of raids and attacks on their communities and they have clearly expressed their displeasure to us.
“They are killing us, not we are killing them, they are killing us and we are helping them, all the trucks are using this lane and (we) are not stopping them, not closing any roads,” said a local resident called Ali Mussa. Ahmed.
“This is our border, they are killing us (and) we are supporting them,” Abdu Ebrahim said.
Some 60 km to the north, near the Afar town of Shahigubi, we found 400 men living under the trees after being displaced from their homes by the fighting. Women and children had been accommodated in a nearby school.
I asked an elderly man how long he had been there.
“Three months,” he said.
“How long will you have to stay?”
“Who could ever say? ” he has answered.
The same bubbling resentment exists here in this camp as residents struggle for one meal a day.
During our visit, the men cut up a camel and boiled the meat in a pot but we could see that there would not be much to do.
“These people have destroyed our livelihoods and we are witnessing all the support they receive by land and air. It bypasses us directly, ”said a man named Hamedur Nur.
It is a difficult time for UN aid workers as they try to maintain aid to Tigray.
Three weeks ago, seven senior UN officials were expelled by Ethiopian authorities for “interfering in the country’s internal affairs”.
The move follows pointed remarks by UN aid chief Martin Griffiths, who said a nearly three-month “de facto blockade” had limited aid deliveries to just 10% of that. that was necessary.
In a statement issued Wednesday evening by the Ethiopian Embassy in London, Ambassador Teferi Melesse Desta said: “The Ethiopian government takes its responsibility to protect those affected by the ongoing conflict in the north very seriously. of Ethiopia and has demonstrated its willingness and commitment to work with the international community to respond to the humanitarian crisis in the affected regions. ”