ETHIOPIA: Doctors Without Borders urges investigation into staff killings, calls for aid teams to be allowed to work in safety
A Doctors Without Borders ambulance is hidden by the community around the town of Abyi Addi, in central Tigray, to avoid being taken by armed groups. © MSF
“Almost two weeks since the murders of our colleagues, no one has claimed responsibility and the circumstances around their deaths remain unclear,” says Doctors Without Borders operations director Teresa Sancristoval. “This is why we are requesting an immediate investigation by relevant parties to establish the facts of the incident that resulted in their deaths and to provide us with a detailed account of what happened and who was responsible. At this terrible time, we have made the extremely painful but necessary decision to suspend our activities in several areas of Tigray.”
The three Doctors Without Borders team members who were killed were wearing clothing that identified them as Doctors Without Borders and travelling in a clearly marked Doctors Without Borders vehicle. They had been working in the area since February 2021, where they were engaged exclusively in medical and humanitarian activities, in alignment with international humanitarian law and in dialogue and agreement with all parties.
The murder of our colleagues - María, Tedros and Yohannes - is a tragic example of the complete disregard for human life that our teams have witnessed in this conflict. The levels of violence against civilians and the atrocities committed in Tigray are utterly shocking.Teresa Sancristoval, Operations Director
A man stands in front of his destroyed house in the village of Bisober, Ethiopia, on December 9, 2020. © Eduardo Soteras Jalil
Since the conflict in Tigray began in November 2020, medical staff and aid workers have been directly targeted, while health facilities and ambulances have been looted, destroyed or exploited for military purposes. Doctors Without Borders staff have been threatened and beaten, and have witnessed armed incursions into health facilities supported by Doctors Without Borders. Aid organisations, including Doctors Without Borders, have been repeatedly undermined by public statements casting unwarranted suspicion on their activities, thereby jeopardising the safety of their teams on the ground.
If Doctors Without Borders and other aid organisations are to continue working in Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia, all parties to the conflict must provide assurances that this work can be carried out in safety, says Sancristoval.
Parties to the conflict must take responsibility for ensuring that an incident like the murder of our colleagues never happens again. It is vital that aid workers and medical staff can safely carry out their activities in an environment of trust and facilitation. Humanitarian organisations must be allowed to provide assistance, independently and impartially, according to people’s needs.Teresa Sancristoval, Operations Director
Tedros gives instructions to women waiting with their children for a medical consultation at a mobile clinic in the village of Adiftaw, in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray. March, 2021. © Igor Barbero/MSF
The suspension of Doctors Without Borders activities in Abi Adi, Adigrat and Axum will have major medical and humanitarian repercussions for the population of central Tigray. Over the past six months, Doctors Without Borders teams in these three areas have provided emergency medical treatment to 9,440 people; performed 763 lifesaving surgeries; admitted more than 3,000 people for inpatient care; helped more than 3,300 women give birth; performed 365 emergency caesareans; provided medical care for 335 survivors of sexual violence; and provided mental health support to 1,444 people. Before suspending its activities, Doctors Without Borders teams donated medical supplies to the Regional Health Bureau and to hospitals, which remain overwhelmed by the high numbers of patients needing care.
The decision to suspend our activities will leave a gap in lifesaving assistance. We know that countless patients will go unattended and some of them will die; we know that the burden on what little remains of the health system will be crushing. Our teams must be allowed to provide humanitarian assistance in response to the needs of crisis-affected communities in safety.Teresa Sancristoval, Operations Director