PRETORIA, South Africa – Ethiopia’s warring sides agreed on Wednesday to a permanent cessation of hostilities in a two-year conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands, but huge challenges lie ahead, including that all the parties lay down their arms or withdraw.
African Union envoy Olusegun Obasanjo, in the first briefing on peace talks in South Africa, said the Ethiopian government and Tigray authorities agreed to “an orderly, smooth and coordinated disarmament”. Other key points include the restoration of services to the long-cut-off Tigray region and “unhindered access to humanitarian supplies.”
The war in Africa’s second most populous country, which marks two years on Friday, has seen documented abuses on all sides, with millions displaced.
“The level of destruction is immense,” said the chief negotiator for the Ethiopian government, Redwan Hussein. Tigray’s chief negotiator, Getachew Reda, expressed a similar sentiment and noted that “painful concessions” had been made. The tired Ethiopians then looked at them shaking hands.
The full text of the agreement, including details on the disarmament and reintegration of Tigray forces, was not immediately available. “The devil will be in the implementation,” said former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who helped facilitate the talks.
Major questions remain. Eritrea, which fought alongside neighboring Ethiopia, was notably not part of the peace talks. It is not immediately clear to what extent his deeply repressive government, which has long considered Tigray’s authorities a threat, will abide by the agreement. Eritrea’s information minister did not respond to questions.
Eritrean forces have been accused of some of the worst abuses of the conflict, including gang rapes, and witnesses have described killings and looting by Eritrean forces even during peace talks. On Wednesday, a humanitarian source said that several women in the town of Adwa reported that they were raped by Eritrean soldiers, and some were seriously injured. The source, like many on the situation in Tigray, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Forces from the neighboring Amhara region of Ethiopia have also fought with those from Tigray, but Amhara representatives are not part of the peace talks. “The Amhara cannot be expected to respect any outcome of a negotiation process from which they feel they are excluded,” said Tewodrose Tirfe, president of the Amhara Association of America.
Another critical question is how quickly aid can return to Tigray, whose communications and transport links have been largely cut since the beginning of the conflict. Doctors described a lack of basic medicines such as vaccines, insulin and therapeutic food while people died of easily preventable diseases and starvation. United Nations human rights investigators said the Ethiopian government was using “starvation of civilians” as a weapon of war.
“We are back to 18th century surgery,” a surgeon at the region’s leading hospital, Fasika Amdeslasie, told health experts at an online event on Wednesday. “It’s like an open-air prison.”
A humanitarian source said his organization could resume operations almost immediately if unrestricted access to aid to Tigray is granted. “It depends entirely on what the government agrees to … If they really give us access, we can start moving very quickly, in hours, not weeks,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized. to speak publicly.
The conflict began in November 2020, less than a year after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for peace with Eritrea, which borders the Tigray region. Abiy’s government has since declared the Tigray authorities, who ruled Ethiopia for nearly three decades before Abiy took office, a terrorist organization.
The brutal fighting, which also spread to the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions as Tigray forces tried to press towards the capital, was renewed in August in Tigray after months of calm that allowed thousands of aid trucks in the region. According to minutes of a meeting of the Tigray Emergency Coordination Center on October 21, seen by the AP, health workers reported 101 civilians killed by drone and airstrikes, and 265 wounded, among the September 27 and October 10 only.
In a speech on Wednesday before the announcement of the peace talks, the prime minister of Ethiopia said that “we need to replicate the victory we had on the battlefield also in peace efforts. We will end the war in northern Ethiopia with a victory…now we will bring peace and development”.