Ethnic Cleansing Feared as Ethiopia Wages War on Tigray Region Amid Communication Blackout

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The United Nations has reached a deal with Ethiopia’s government to allow humanitarian access to the northern Tigray region and start providing aid. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched military action against regional forces one month ago, setting off a bloody conflict and adding to the already alarming number of displaced people and refugees in the country and neighboring nations. Ethiopia has declared victory after announcing it took control of the capital of Tigray, but the Tigray People’s Liberation Front says they are continuing to fight. CNN senior international correspondent Nima Elbagir says what is happening Ethiopia is “a conflict over power that has descended into potentially a form of ethnic cleansing,” with Tigray people saying they’re being “targeted based on the ethnic distinction on their ID cards.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

The United Nations says it’s reached a deal with Ethiopia’s government to allow humanitarian access to the northern Tigray region and start providing aid to some 6 million people caught in the crossfire of the deadly conflict. The U.N. has warned tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees in Tigray camps are running out of food. The Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched military action against regional forces a month ago, setting off a bloody conflict, adding to the already alarming number of displaced people and refugees in the country and neighboring nations like Sudan. Ethiopia declared victory over the weekend after announcing it took control of the capital of Tigray, but the Tigray People’s Liberation Front say they’re continuing to fight.

Still with us, Nima Elbagir, award-winning senior international correspondent for CNN. She’s right now based in London.

I’m sure COVID is keeping you down there for the moment. But, Nima, if you can explain what is happening both in Ethiopia and its effects on the surrounding area, like your home country of Sudan?

NIMA ELBAGIR: In essence, I think the best way to understand what’s happening in Ethiopia is to consider it a conflict over power that has descended into potentially a form of ethnic cleansing. So, you have the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, who themselves were in power in Ethiopia for decades. Abiy Ahmed comes from a separate ethnic grouping, the Oromo, and they have allied with many elements from within the Amhara. This all sounds really complicated, but fundamentally it’s about who gets to rule, and how do you maintain that rule. And how Abiy Ahmed seems to be choosing to maintain that rule is to wage war against the Tigray region.

He was forced, he says, to postpone elections because of the impact of COVID-19 on Ethiopia, but then he accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front of waging an internal war. This is all politics, essentially. But what it’s meant is that the Tigray people say that they have been targeted based on the ethnic distinction on their ID cards. So people are telling us that they’re being pulled over; at best, jailed and detained, and at worst, being forced to flee into Sudan.

Prime Minister Ahmed says that not a single civilian was injured in all of this, in all of these weeks of fighting. And what we’re hearing from our team that’s down on that Sudanese-Ethiopian border is that that’s just not true. We have images of civilians who are injured, who have been hit by bullets. One lady told us that she had to flee her home and was forced to give birth on the route, that they weren’t allowed to cross over into Sudan through the direct routes by the Ethiopian army. So, on the back routes, that took her days to do a trip that should have taken hours, she eventually gave birth. And she was met at the border by our teams and by the doctors. Fortunately, wonderfully, her child survived, and so did she. But that’s just one story and one of the only stories we’re able to hear, because Abiy Ahmed has instated a complete communications blackout, so it’s very hard to find out what’s actually going on inside Tigray.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And meanwhile, Abiy Ahmed, of course, was just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize less than a year ago.

NIMA ELBAGIR: For finally signing a peace treaty with Eritrea. And the irony is that as he signed that peace treaty, it allowed both him and Eritrea to unite against the common foe, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. So, in hindsight, for him to have won a Nobel Peace Prize for something that has enabled him to wage a war on an entire region, on 6 million people, is just — it’s appalling. It’s appalling to think about.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Nima, you mentioned, of course, that tens of thousands of refugees from Ethiopia, from the Tigray region, have fled into Sudan. And this comes, of course, amidst the coronavirus outbreak in the country. Just last month, the last democratically elected prime minister died from the virus after spending several weeks in a hospital in the United Arab Emirates. Could you talk about what the situation is in Sudan with the pandemic, how many people have been infected, how many have died, and what the prospects are for any kind of vaccine reaching the country within the next several months?

NIMA ELBAGIR: Well, in terms of a vaccine, the vaccines that have been approved so far or are in the fast track to be approved, the Moderna vaccine and the Pfizer vaccine, both of — the BioNTech vaccine — both of them need to be kept at minus-70, so that, obviously is impractical. It’s impossible in a country like Sudan.

In terms of hard data, we don’t have any, because there is an absence of a substantial testing regime. I mean, there’s not really a substantial testing regime here in the U.K. or even in the U.S., so imagine what that’s like in Sudan. But anecdotally, I alone know maybe 10 people who have died of COVID or COVID-related complications in the last few months. So I can only imagine what that actually looks like on the ground.

And the economic effects of this, asking people to isolate when they are in subsistence farming or live day to day, you’re asking them to starve. So, people are just hoping against hope that the Oxford University vaccine, which can be kept, I think, at normal temperatures, that that finally comes online.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking with Nima Elbagir, the award-winning senior international correspondent for CNN. She is based in London. And before we go, I want to ask you about this latest news that Britain has become the first country in the world to approve use of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. Pfizer has said the vaccine is 95% effective at preventing COVID-19 in a large clinical trial. Authorities said the first 800,000 doses will become available across Britain starting next week. The British health minister, Matt Hancock, spoke earlier this week.

MATT HANCOCK: We’ll start with those who are most vulnerable to coronavirus. … And then, once we’ve started to and protected the most vulnerable, it will help us all get back to normal and back to all the things that we love.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.K. has Europe’s highest COVID-19 death toll, nearing 60,000, with over 1.6 million confirmed cases. Nima, you’re in London. If you can talk about Britain being the first to start to use this vaccine? It’s raised a number of issues. Of course, for the United States, the head of the FDA has been called twice to the White House in the last two days, clearly because of Trump’s anger that the U.S. is not the first, but the EU expressing concern about how fast the U.K. is doing this. You mentioned Sudan not being able to keep to Pfizer’s, what, 100 degrees below — 100 degrees Fahrenheit below zero temperatures. Even that is preventing the vaccine, apparently, in your country, throughout Britain, of getting to nursing homes, because they cannot figure out a way to keep it cold as all that and getting little bits of vaccines to different places.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Well, it seems that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government — I mean, they did this to themselves by being so quick to announce, “Victory. We won,” and managing to goad the European Union into saying, “Well, you won, because your public health body, the health body that governs when vaccines or medications come online to the general public, reviewed less data,” which I think was both astonishing for people here but also completely unsurprising, given the crisis of public confidence there has been in this government, both because of its handling of the entire crisis — our death toll is appalling — but also because of their willingness to turn anything into propaganda. This was not a propaganda moment. And all it seems to have done is cause the scientists to raise their head above the parapet in other countries and say, “Well, I wouldn’t be too happy about the ways that you went around it.”

But realistically, I think, in spite of that crisis of public health, pretty much almost everyone I’ve spoken to has said, “Hey, we will be in that queue.” There is such a desperation just to get back to any sense of normality, as I’m sure there is in the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: Nima, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Nima Elbagir, award-winning senior international correspondent for CNN, based in London. Her recent investigative report on Nigeria is headlined “'They pointed their guns at us and started shooting': How a bloody night of bullets and brutality quashed a young protest movement.”

Next up, we go to India, where 250 million farmers, workers and their allies recently joined in, in what’s believed to be the largest organized strike in world history. Stay with us.

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