Ethiopia is experiencing the "worst disaster on Earth." But we're not hearing about it.

This post deals with sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers.

Listen to this story being read by Brielle Burns, here.

Right now, Ethiopia is currently experiencing the "worst disaster on Earth". 

Millions don't have enough food, thousands are being killed, and women and girls are falling victim to sexual violence, as war continues to ravage Ethiopia's Tigray region. 

Yet, the conflict - which the World Health Organization's director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, labelled the "worst humanitarian crisis in the world" - isn't making it to our newsfeeds the way other international crises tend too. 

Their faces aren't on our TV screens, their stories aren't filling our social media feeds and their suffering is going widely unnoticed around the world. 

"I can tell you that the humanitarian crisis in Tigray is more than Ukraine, without any exaggeration," Ghebreyesus told a virtual media briefing two weeks ago. 

"I haven't heard in the last few months, several months now, even a head of state talking about the Tigray condition anywhere."


So, what's going on?

Ghebreyesus, who is from Tigray in the country's north, suggests racism and discrimination are behind the lack of global attention. 

"Maybe the reason is the colour of the skin of the people," he said. 

As the conflict continues, here's everything you need to know about the two-year crisis in Ethiopia. 

How did the conflict start? 

Before we get into what’s happening in Ethiopia, let’s take a look back at how the conflict broke out in the first place. 

In 2020, tensions were brewing between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF had been the dominant political party in the country for almost three decades until Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018.


The feud reached a boiling point in September 2020, when the TPLF decided to hold its own regional election. The election was considered illegal by the federal government, after Ahmed announced national elections would be cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two months later in November, fighting broke out when Ahmed accused the TPLF of attacking a federal army base outside Tigray's capital city, Mekelle. In response, the prime minister, who had just received the Nobel Peace Prize the year earlier, ordered a military offensive against the TPLF. 

War followed for over a year, with the Ethiopian National Defense Force teaming up with troops from neighbouring regions such as Amhara to fight the TPLF. 

The conflict briefly calmed down earlier this year in March when both sides agreed to a five-month truce. 

However, it resumed last week after attempts at peace talks failed.


How is the conflict affecting people on the ground? 

While the conflict briefly ceased earlier this year, Ghebreyesus said, in reality, "the war had never stopped". 

For almost two years, "unimaginable cruelty" has been inflected on six million people in Tigray, who have been cut off from basic services such as electricity, communications, fuel and banking.

Men, women and children have also been suffering from severe food shortages, with nine million people across Tigray and other conflict-stricken regions of Afar and Amhara lacking access to adequate food, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

"The people of Tigray are facing multiple outbreaks of malaria, anthrax, cholera, diarrhoea and more," said Ghebreyesus told the virtual media briefing, adding the drought affecting the Horn of Africa was only compounding the crisis.

"Nowhere in the world you'd see this level of cruelty, where it's a government punishing six million people for 21 months by denying them basic services," he said. 

"Imagine you would be denied to have access to medicines... imagine you would be denied to even travel or use telephones... and that goes on and on for 21 months." 


The ongoing conflict has seen millions of people displaced from their homes and thousands killed. 

Ethiopians, who fled the conflict in the Tigray region, wait to receive food after reaching Sudan on December 14, 2020. Image: Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency/Getty. 

Just last week, the UN children's agency UNICEF condemned an air strike that "hit a kindergarten" in Tigray, which killed at least four people, including two children.


"UNICEF strongly condemns the air strike ... (that) hit a kindergarten, killing several children, and injuring others," the agency's executive director Catherine Russell said on Twitter.

"Yet again, an escalation of violence in northern Ethiopia has caused children to pay the heaviest price. For almost two years, children and their families in the region have endured the agony of this conflict. It must end."

Speaking at the virtual media briefing, Ghebreyesus appealed to the Ethiopian government to "resolve this peacefully.


 "The ball is in its hand." 

What toll is the conflict taking on women and girls? 

Much like the crisis in Ukraine, the conflict in Ethiopia is taking a heavy toll on women and girls, who make up nearly three-quarters of the 26 million people affected in the Tigray and Amhara regions.

According to Amnesty International, there has been widespread rape and sexual violence carried out against hundreds of women and girls in Tigray, with the UN humanitarian Coordination Office noting survivors having little or no access to clinical management and other services. 

Crimes of sexual violence are also significantly under-reported, due to fear of being stigmatised by families and communities. 

17-year-old Mahlet* is one of the countless number of women who have kept their abuse a secret.  

The young girl, who later fell pregnant after the abuse, was caught when she tried to flee the area last November by jumping on the back of a truck. 

"They took me away, raped me and left me in the bush," she told the United Nations Population Fund. 

Mahlet later find herself alone and in pain when she regained consciousness the next day. 

"I kept it a secret because if one of the community leaders had found out, they would be shocked and I would be discriminated against."


Tirhas* also didn't tell anyone when she was gang raped by a soldier and civilians in 2020. 

"At that time when… the rape happened to me I didn’t tell anybody because I am afraid people will insult me. I didn’t even tell my brother," she told Human Rights Watch.

"I feel stress, I am affected mentally… That moment comes to my mind every day... I always remember that day."

Mahlet and Tirhas aren't alone. Their stories are just two of hundreds of stories of abhorrent sexual violence that go untold.

As well as sexual violence, four million people in Tigray and 10 million in the Amhara region need life-saving health services, including sexual and reproductive support. 


A hospital which was allegedly damaged by TPLF. Image: Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty. 

Women who fall pregnant also face dire circumstances. 

According to the World Food Programme, more than half of pregnant and breastfeeding women, and a third of children under five in Tigray are malnourished. 


How can Australians help people in Ethiopia?

There are a number of organisations you can donate to that provide aid for the millions of people caught up in the conflict. These two are a good place to start:

The UN Refugee Agency.

The UN Refugee Agency is working with the Ethiopian government and local partners to provide humanitarian assistance and protection to millions of refugees displaced in the conflict. The agency also distributes food, portable water and relief items including blankets, sleeping mats and more to the women, children and men escaping Tigray. You can read more and find out how to donate here. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) supports those affected by violence by providing food and medical supplies, building and water-supply systems and helping to reunite families separated due to conflict. In response to sexual violence, the organisation supports victims to safely access medical services, receive cash assistance, and access food and non-food items. You can read more about what the ICRC are doing in Ethiopia and donate here.

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons. 

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. 

Feature Image: Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty.

Calling on all women! Tell us what skills you would like to learn and go in the running to win a $50 gift voucher.