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WHO chief calls out racism in Tigray crisis

The U.N. health agency's director-general blamed racism in world leaders' neglect for the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

A street scene from the northern city of Axum in Ethiopia's Tigray region
A street scene from the northern city of Axum in Ethiopia's Tigray region (AN/Rod Waddington)

GENEVA (AN) — The World Health Organization's director-general blamed racism as a major factor in world leaders' neglect for the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

During an otherwise routine press briefing on Wednesday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus became emotional describing his homeland's devastation as "the worst catastrophe on Earth" caused by conflict, drought and government neglect.

He questioned whether world leaders cast a blind eye there because of “the color of the skin of the people in Tigray,” where millions of people are cut off from the world and displaced by fighting between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and Tigray’s regional administration since November 2020.

“I haven’t heard in the last few months any head of state talking about the Tigray situation anywhere in the developed world. Anywhere,” said Tedros, a public health expert and former head of Ethiopia’s foreign affairs and health ministries.

“Why? Maybe the reason is the color of the skin of the people in Tigray,” he said. “Nowhere in the world you would see this level of cruelty, where a government punishes 6 million of its people for more than 21 months.”

Tedros said no medicine or telecommunications are available for people in Tigray, though the International Committee of the Red Cross reported some recent shipments of medicine there.

He ticked off a host of crises stretching from the drought and hunger throughout the Horn of Africa to Russia's war in Ukraine, which he called "the mother of all problems" and a place where the world may be "sleepwalking into a nuclear war."

“But in terms of humanitarian crisis, I can tell you the humanitarian crisis is greater in Tigray,” he said of the inadequate amount of aid that has reached the region since Tigray forces retook it in June 2021. "It’s not because I’m from Tigray that I’m saying that.”

'Ethnic cleansing' or 'even more'

Though Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for defusing tensions with neighboring Eritrea, he became a hardliner towards Tigray and sent troops there on claims its regional administration was unlawful.

His government took control of towns and a humanitarian base where almost 100,000 Eritrean refugees lived.

That stemmed from a September 2020 election that Tigray’s regional administration held in defiance of Abiy's government. Tigray’s regional administration viewed Abiy’s government as unlawful after he postponed national elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In November 2020, the U.N. refugee agency warned of a "full-scale humanitarian crisis" unfolding in Ethiopia and said 32,000 people had fled the Tigray region and 200,000 more may follow.

Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia also fear retaliation from Eritrean forces in Tigray that are allied with Abiy's government.Then in July 2021, senior U.N. officials said more than 400,000 people were suffering from famine in Tigray and 1.8 million more were on the verge.

“It’s ethnic cleansing. It could even be more? Why are people not telling the truth,” Tedros told the press briefing. “Why are we keeping quiet when 6 million people are being punished?”

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