A Year of Darkness

USAID Assistant to the Administrator Sarah Charles recently returned from Ethiopia, where a conflict that broke out one year ago in the Tigray region continues to expand throughout northern Ethiopia. She shares five things you should know about what is now one of the most dire humanitarian crises in the world.

USAID Saves Lives
7 min readNov 4, 2021


A woman stands with her children amidst the rubbles of her house that was damaged during the fightings that broke out in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, in the village of Bisober. Photo Credit: Eduardo Soteras/AFP

On November 4, 2020, fighting broke out in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and Ethiopian National Defense Force. The conflict has displaced millions and left nearly a million people facing famine-like conditions.

A USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) has been deployed since March 2021 to lead the U.S. humanitarian response for people affected by the conflict. As the head of USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, I am leading this effort, and recently spent several days in Ethiopia meeting with humanitarian partners, government officials, other humanitarian donors, and most importantly, people whose lives have been upended by the conflict.

Ongoing violence has created unprecedented humanitarian need in the Tigray, Amhara, and Afar regions of northern Ethiopia. Map Credit: Vanessa Rodriguez/USAID

As the conflict reaches the grim one-year milestone, there are five things I would like people to know about this crisis.

1. The conflict is spreading

The conflict is rapidly escalating. There are frequent airstrikes in Tigray by the Government of Ethiopia, and the TPLF is advancing further into the nearby Amhara and Afar regions. This escalation is making an already dire situation even worse, and creating more obstacles for aid workers to reach people with lifesaving assistance.

In Tigray, recent airstrikes forced a UN humanitarian flight carrying humanitarian personnel to Mekelle to turn back, and the UN has since suspended future flights to Tigray indefinitely due to the danger.

USAID Assistant to the Administrator Charles and John Grabowski, USAID’s Northern Ethiopia DART leader, meet with partners in Bahir Dar, Amhara. Photo Credit: USAID Ethiopia Mission

And in Afar and Amhara, the TPLF’s advances are threatening hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people, including many who were already displaced after fleeing their homes to escape earlier fighting. USAID is working urgently to reach people who have been displaced by the recent advances, as well as those who remain in TPLF-controlled areas.

2. Humanitarian aid is blocked

Throughout northern Ethiopia, humanitarians still do not have the access required to fully deliver aid at the scale that is needed. Since the beginning of July, Tigray has been under what can only be called a de facto blockade imposed by the Government of Ethiopia.

Basic services needed for aid efforts, such as communication networks and banking services, are almost non-existent. Practically no fuel, cash, medicines, or medical supplies have been able to enter in recent months, and no humanitarian supplies, including food, have reached Tigray since mid-October. Because of the Ethiopian government’s unprecedented interference, humanitarians have been forced to scale back or completely halt their programs in Tigray.

Fuel shortages have forced humanitarian operations in Tigray to grind to a halt. Fuel is needed to transport relief supplies and run generators that hospitals, water pumps, and aid organizations rely on. Graphic Courtesy: ACAPS

But the Ethiopian government’s bureaucratic impediments, disruptions to critical services, and deliberate blocking of the movement of aid personnel and supplies are not just affecting Tigray. These impediments, combined with the insecurity caused by the TPLF’s advances, are also making it difficult to reach people and respond at scale in Amhara and Afar, both in areas controlled by the Government of Ethiopia as well as those behind TPLF lines. The United States continues to call on all parties to the conflict to allow and facilitate access to people in need.

We’re also seeing an incredibly dangerous disinformation campaign targeting the humanitarian response and distorting the Ethiopian public’s understanding of USAID’s mission. Let me be clear: USAID has been committed to assisting the people of Ethiopia for decades, and remains so today. USAID and our partners are dedicated to providing humanitarian assistance to save lives and alleviate the suffering of people in northern Ethiopia affected by this crisis. Our assistance is provided based on need, and need alone. The falsehoods that are being spread about aid workers put USAID and our partners’ staff at risk, and further hinder our ability to safely reach people with lifesaving assistance.

3. More than two million people have been forced from their homes

Countless lives have been lost in this conflict, and more than two million people have been displaced, leaving behind their possessions, jobs, and, tragically, family members who could not make the journey. Another 49,000 people have fled to refugee camps in neighboring Sudan.

In Amhara, I met with women who had been forced to flee from home and are now sheltering in the region’s capital, Bahir Dar. I heard about their lives before the crisis, loved ones they lost, hardships they endured, and the difficulties they still face. Many of the people I met were deeply worried about family and friends who remained in areas under control of the TPLF.

In Amhara, USAID Assistant to the Administrator Charles met with women who fled their homes in Weg Hemra to escape the escalating violence. Photo Credits: USAID Ethiopia Mission

USAID is urgently working to reach not only the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced by the TPLF’s advances, but those who were unable to flee as well.

4. The most vulnerable continue to face protection risks

Nearly all of the two million people displaced across Tigray, Amhara, and Afar are women and children, and most are female-headed households. These vulnerable families continue to face urgent protection risks like increased sexual violence and exploitation, child labor, and child abuse.

Services to address protection risks for vulnerable women and children have been hindered by the conflict and restrictions on humanitarian organizations. Photo Credit: USAID Ethiopia Mission

Like the rest of our response, the assistance to address these risks have been severely disrupted by operational challenges. During my recent visit, I met with our NGO partners who are working urgently provide holistic gender-based violence, child protection, and psychosocial services in northern Ethiopia, not only for people who are at risk of or have experienced gender-based violence, but also children born from rape and survivors who are more vulnerable because of health issues and stigma around rape.

5. People are on the brink of catastrophe

While in Ethiopia, USAID partners working in Tigray described a perfect storm of increasingly vulnerable and food insecure people, destroyed public services, dwindling supplies, and no medicine — it’s clear people’s lives are hanging in the balance.

And yet, we still don’t know the full picture because the Government of Ethiopia and the TPLF continue to block our ability to fully assess humanitarian needs. Several months ago, humanitarian assessments indicated that well over six million people were facing severe food insecurity in Tigray, Afar, and Amhara. In Tigray alone, 5.2 million out of 6 million people — or 90 percent of the population — were in need of aid, and up to 900,000 people were facing famine-like conditions.

More recent assessments, though incomplete, paint a similarly harrowing picture.

A recent survey conducted in just one area of Tigray indicated that more than 70 percent of pregnant women and new mothers, and nearly 15 percent of children in that community are malnourished. If these children survive, they will face irreversible, life-long consequences stemming from poor physical growth and hindered brain development.

Despite immense challenges, USAID continues to work with partners to provide lifesaving aid as security conditions and access allow, providing food, treatment for malnutrition, safe drinking water, medical support, shelter, critical relief supplies, and protection for the most vulnerable. The U.S. is the largest donor to Ethiopia, including providing nearly $663 million in northern Ethiopia since the crisis began.

A girl who fled the violence in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, is pictured at a food distribution organized by the local NGO Relief Society of Tigray (REST) in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia. Photo Credit: Yasuyoshi/AFP

We continue to respond in Tigray, we are also urgently scaling up assistance in Amhara and Afar as the conflict spreads. We continue to call on all parties to the conflict to allow unhindered humanitarian access, including the safe movement of staff and supplies by road and air, and to ensure protection of civilians, including through engagement with civil-military coordination systems.

If humanitarian access does not improve, the already devastating situation will get even worse and aid efforts will not be enough to avert widespread famine. And ultimately, only a political solution can end this conflict and the needless suffering.

USAID continues to advocate for humanitarian access, delivering lifesaving assistance as the security situation allows. Photo Credits: USAID partners

About the Author

Sarah Charles is the Assistant to the Administrator of USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA), the U.S. government lead for international disaster response. In October, she traveled to Ethiopia, where she met with NGO leaders, USAID partners, the USAID DART and people affected by the ongoing conflict in northern Ethiopia.

Get more information on USAID’s humanitarian response in Ethiopia.

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