Week in the Life, Friday: MSF in Tigray, Ethiopia

By Joe Belliveau  

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Executive Director Joseph Belliveau spent five weeks in March-April as a project coordinator for MSF’s mobile medical teams in Northwest Tigray, Ethiopia. This is his fifth journal entry over the course of one week.

Today, we set off to the northeast. There are two towns up this way where we’ve been running mobile clinics. I am expecting to be denied access as we have been for the last two weeks, but I’m not expecting the way it happens. We run into a small group of soldiers several kilometres before the usual checkpoint. They are in the midst of a raid on a small village. I can see two of them, rifles at the ready at one end of the village, two at the other end and two or three going door-to-door. The in-charge, a man I recognize from our checkpoint encounters these past two weeks, also recognizes us. It’s time to turn back.

I am expecting to be denied access as we have been for the last two weeks, but I’m not expecting the way it happens.

Some people are still getting in and out along this route, and through them we learn why we are blocked. The military have detained a group of civilians demanding, in exchange for their release, that the militia, who they believe to be in the hills around the town, turn in their weapons. This is a common pattern. We have heard similar descriptions in other towns and villages. This time though, they are adding MSF as extra leverage. We spoke to two people who said the military told the townspeople that MSF would not be allowed back until the weapons appear. To be instrumentalized like this makes me angry — these are cruel civilian-targeted military tactics. 

But we were expecting denial, so we have a plan B…

A route we haven’t explored yet to the northwest of Shire with at least two or three health centres. Information is patchy. There’s no public transport on this route, no one we know coming or going and no way to discuss it with those elusive military commanders in control. The best we’ve got is that the uncle of our health promoter lives in a town along this route and was in contact with his nephew about week ago.

So we just take it slow and easy. At kilometre two, a few soldiers slaughtering a cow. They look up but continue their hacking. At kilometre seven, two soldiers walking on the road — they wave. At kilometre 9.5, a village occupied by soldiers, with the commander living in the health post. We stop. He’s willing to chat and he grants his blessing to continue on. Kilometre 11, more soldiers. They call back to the commander at kilometre 9.5 then give their go-ahead. At kilometre 15 a large transport truck with, among others, about five or six soldiers — they wave. Then we stop seeing soldiers.

Later, as we wrap up the mobile clinic, a man says to us: “You came and treated us like human beings; we are happy.”

We reach the town with the uncle. We find him and, with several others, hear more stories of violence and extortion. We eventually choose another town to run the clinic, larger and more centrally located. A translator and I walk around as the team sets up. The houses are shut up and the atmosphere subdued. We meet a guy grinding oil out of sesame with a camel-powered merry-go-round grinder. He tells us you can’t buy oil anymore around here – need to grind your own. Another man running a teff mill. A priest. All three tell the same story.

A bit later I meet another man who describes in great detail, with precise dates and times, what happened when the soldiers first arrived. It was the day after Ethiopian Christmas, Jan. 8. After a night of drinking local beer, the soldiers went door-to-door taking seeds, livestock, TVs, shawls… anything of value and transportable. Apparently they had worked out a system of dividing the items among each soldier. They loaded all the loot into trucks and cars with instructions to the drivers who left heading north. A couple of days later, the man overheard the soldiers on their mobile phones (the town is high enough to have a signal) asking their wives if they had received their packages. I wonder how those conversations went…   

Later, as we wrap up the mobile clinic, a man says to us: “You came and treated us like human beings; we are happy.”  

*To protect communities and individuals affected by the conflict as well as MSF staff, some place and person names have been changed.

Source: MSF