Journalists smuggled into Tigray, documented extreme conditions

Articles

(Source: Bistandsaktuelt, translated from Norwegian by Google Translate) –

For the first time in almost a year, foreign journalists were able to enter the Tigray region, in northern Ethiopia. The result of the journey is a disturbing documentary from inside the conflict areas where hunger is ravaging.

Sunniva Kvamsdal Sveen

PUBLISHED Thursday 04 August 2022 – 13:16

A critically malnourished boy visits the hospital in Abi Addi in Tigray.

He is eleven years old, but weighs only eight kilos.

– This is clearly a consequence of the war. Before we could have given him medicine and nutrition that would have helped him, but now we can do nothing, the doctor Tsefaye, who runs the hospital, tells the journalists in the documentary.

They have neither food, necessary medicines, electricity nor can they afford to pay their employees now.

– We take them here to watch them die, says the doctor.

The scene is taken from a new short documentarymade by the French TV team, consisting of journalist Charles Emptaz and photographer Olivier Jobard.

They defied the fear of being imprisoned and deported from Ethiopia, and entered the crisis-stricken Tigray region illegally with the help of a Norwegian-Ethiopian before the summer.

People don’t die of guns now, but of hunger

Tens of thousands have been killed and 4 million displaced from Tigray since the war between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) began in November 2020.

As a result of the war and the worst drought in 40 years, several million people are in need of emergency aid, and as many as 400,000 are at risk of immediate starvation or death, according to the United Nations.

– People don’t die of weapons now, but of hunger, says the Norwegian-Ethiopian Dereje T. Asefa, who has family inside the closed region.

Dereje played a key role in the French TV crew being able to travel into Tigray to document the humanitarian crisis.

– We had thought about going to Tigray for a long time, but we knew it would be difficult since the Ethiopian authorities do not allow journalists to travel there, French journalist Charles Emptaz tells Bistandsaktuelt.

The war and drought have triggered a humanitarian famine in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. Here in the regional capital, Mekele, internally displaced people receive food from a wealthy man, who, with the help of his brother in the United States, distributes meals to some of those in need. ” alt=”The war and drought have triggered a humanitarian famine in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. Here in the regional capital, Mekele, internally displaced people receive food from a wealthy man, who, with the help of his brother in the United States, distributes meals to some of those in need. 

The war and drought have triggered a humanitarian famine in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. Here in the regional capital, Mekele, internally displaced people receive food from a wealthy man, who, with the help of his brother in the United States, distributes meals to some of those in need.Photo: Olivier Jobard / MYOP

The media is not allowed in

Emptaz is relieved to be back in France when he talks to Bistandsaktuelt.

On a telephone line from one of Paris’ busy streets, he tells of strong impressions from Tigray.

The French freelance journalist Charles Emptaz has been reporting on Ethiopia since 2019 and has made a number of documentaries from conflict areas in Africa.” alt=”The French freelance journalist Charles Emptaz has been reporting on Ethiopia since 2019 and has made a number of documentaries from conflict areas in Africa.

The French freelance journalist Charles Emptaz has been reporting on Ethiopia since 2019 and has made a number of documentaries from conflict areas in Africa.

– As a journalist, it was important to travel into Tigray since the news from the region does not come from journalists. They come from the diaspora, which of course has a bias because they themselves are affected, and from aid organisations, says Emptaz.

In addition to the fact that independent reporting was important, it was also important that it came from someone who is not Ethiopian himself, the Frenchman believes.

– There are many different narratives that come from the different ethnic groups in Ethiopia. For that reason, we were not sure of anything before we left, he says.

Gave a voice to the Tigrayans

Upon entering Tigray, the French quickly discovered how precarious the situation was for many of the Tigrayans they encountered.

– There was enormous desperation. We saw babies, whom doctors had previously been able to cure in 7-10 days, starving due to a lack of medicines and equipment, says Emptaz.

In addition to the non-functioning health system, schools and banks are closed and there is little opportunity to communicate with people from outside due to closed phone lines and lack of internet.

The region is virtually cut off from the outside world.

Nevertheless, Emptaz tells of a hospitable people, who expressed great gratitude that the journalists were willing to take the risk of traveling into Tigray.

– We had a clear role and purpose in being there. We were supposed to report and give a voice to the people of Tigray. Nobody wanted to hide anything from us, they wanted to show the situation to the world, he says.

The people they met were surprised to see them there since no foreign journalists have been able to enter the region for almost a whole year.

– The people felt that it was a sign that something had moved since we had managed to get in, says Emptaz.

Also read: The main hospital in Tigray has run out of food – patients sent home

A mother and her malnourished baby, weighing only 2.5 kilos, at Yechillay Medical Center. Here they lack both medicines and the necessary equipment to help the malnourished children. ” alt=”A mother and her malnourished baby, weighing only 2.5 kilos, at Yechillay Medical Center. Here they lack both medicines and the necessary equipment to help the malnourished children.

A mother and her malnourished baby, weighing just 2.5 kilos, at Yechillay Medical Centre. Here they lack both medicines and the necessary equipment to help the malnourished children.

Worst in the countryside

The war between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which today has regained power in large parts of the region, immediately led to high death tolls and large displacements when it broke out in November 2020.

– When the war broke out, we immediately went to the border with Sudan where around 50,000 refugees crossed from Tigray. We made a documentary about how you go from having a normal life one week to becoming a refugee the next, says journalist Emptaz.

Although the weapons have now been laid down, as a result of a humanitarian ceasefire between the Ethiopian authorities and the TPLF at the end of March, the conflict is far from over.

The ceasefire has nevertheless led to some emergency aid entering the region since the beginning of April, after several months in which Tigray was completely without emergency aid from outside.

However, it is far from enough to meet the enormous humanitarian needs.

The lack of petrol also means that help does not always get further than the regional capital, Mekele.

– We went to see the reality of the famine, and we quickly found out that we would find this in the remote places, says Emptaz.

He says that this was the reason why he and photographer Oliver Jobard decided to visit the countryside.

Also read: Emergency aid enters Tigray for the first time in 100 days

Waiting on God

In the countryside, in the documentary, we meet desperate mothers, young children who are starving and deeply religious people, who in desperation drink water that is considered holy, and who baptize their critically malnourished infants for fear that they will soon die.

While the help from outside does not reach the people here, they say that they are waiting for God.

Nevertheless, the Frenchman says that it was important for them to also show in the documentary that not everyone suffers to the same extent.

– For some people in Tigray, the situation is critical, but most do not lose their children.

In the streets of Mekele, local aid organizations often distribute meals to the poorest, including displaced people who come from the countryside.” alt=”In the streets of Mekele, local aid organizations often distribute meals to the poorest, including displaced people who come from the countryside.

In the streets of Mekele, local aid organizations often distribute meals to the poorest, including displaced people who come from the countryside.

Dangerous journalism

Getting the powerful images from inside Tigray required a lot of preparatory work and logistics.

– We didn’t tell people that we were going there or what we were going to do there, not even those we had worked with in Ethiopia previously, says Emptaz.

The reason is that foreign journalists have previously been both imprisoned and expelled from the East African country.

– Ethiopian authorities do not tolerate critical journalism or opposing opinions, said Muthoki Mumo, representative of The Committee to Protect Journalists , after The Economist reporter Tom Gardner was arrested, subjected to violence and later expelled from Ethiopia in May this year.

Last year, Bistandsaktuelt’s reporter in Ethiopia, Lucy Kassa, was also beaten and threatened with her life , after she wrote about the conditions in Tigray.

But the two French journalists were not discovered.

– We were lucky and the timing was good, but of course there were some obstacles along the way. We were scared on the way out, says Emptaz.

He would not say more about the situation that arose on the way out of the conflict zone, how they managed to get in and out of the region or who helped inside Tigray for their safety.

Read also: Ethiopia’s former minister for women: – They wanted to prevent me from telling the truth about the abuse

Every evening young people gather to exchange information and photos in Mekele. Due to the lack of internet, they are sharing screenshots from the very few who have managed to access the satellite internet to aid organisations. It is the best way they have found to get information from the outside, people told the French journalists.” alt=”Every evening young people gather to exchange information and photos in Mekele. Due to the lack of internet, they are sharing screenshots from the very few who have managed to access the satellite internet to aid organisations. It is the best way they have found to get information from the outside, people told the French journalists.

Every evening young people gather to exchange information and pictures in Mekele. Due to the lack of internet, they are sharing screenshots from the very few who have managed to access the satellite internet to aid organisations. It is the best way they have found to get information from the outside, people told the French journalists.

Got help from Ethiopians in Norway

The journalists protect their local sources, but no one hides the fact that an Ethiopian in Norway, Dereje T. Asefa, played a central role in having the journalists smuggled into the region.

Dereje grew up in Ethiopia and has parents from Tigray. He says that several people he knows with a Tigray background have been imprisoned.

– Most of the people I knew were born and raised in other parts of Ethiopia and have not even been to Tigray. They have been imprisoned only because they are ethnic Tigrayans, he tells Bistandsaktuelt.

He himself moved to Norway in 1999 and has since completed his doctorate and married here.

But he keeps thinking about his homeland and his family there.

In particular, he is thinking of his family members in Tigray, with whom he has had no contact since the war broke out in autumn 2020 due to a lack of telephone coverage, internet and other communication channels.

Also read: The Ethiopian army committed the murders

Got security guarantee from Tigray

It was his commitment to the people of Tigray that brought him into contact with journalist Emptaz.

– I met the French journalist on a discussion forum. We discussed the situation in Tigray, and the next day he called me and told me that he had a strong desire to enter Tigray, although it would be difficult.

The Ethiopian Dereje T. Asefa helped the French TV team into the Tigray region.” alt=”The Ethiopian Dereje T. Asefa helped the French TV team into the Tigray region.

Ethiopian Dereje T. Asefa helped the French TV team into the Tigray region.

After making sure that Emptaz had good intentions, Dereje agreed to help the journalist and photographer Jobard into Tigray.

– Emptaz asked if I could check that nothing will happen to them in Tigray. I said nothing would happen to them while they were there and they could just leave. It was not good enough, and I therefore had to obtain a guarantee from people in Tigray, he says, and continues:

– My contacts could guarantee that nothing would happen to them while they were in Tigray because the people there wanted what was happening to be documented by independent media. It allowed them to travel.

Dereje not only gave the French journalists a security guarantee.

– I followed the journey all the way from Paris into Tigray via a GPS system, he says.

Was worth it

It was important for Dereje to help the TV team for several reasons.

– During the blockade, little food and medicine comes in, there is no telephone coverage and the banks are closed. This means that people in Tigray with money in the bank are not allowed to use it, and that they are also not allowed to accept money from relatives who live elsewhere, he says.

– It is a genocide where hunger is used as a weapon, he says.

The eleven-year-old boy, whom the TV crew met at the local hospital in the documentary, died shortly after filming was completed.

Read also: New Ethiopia report: Tigrayans are exposed to ethnic cleansing

 

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