Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, founder and CEO of Mary’s Meals, shares his thoughts on the ongoing crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, at a time when the charity’s Ethiopian partner says “… there has never been anything as bad as what we see [now].”
The current conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia – where as many as 4.5 million people are in urgent need of food aid – is taking place behind a communications blackout. Tigrayans have no access to the internet, telephone networks have only recently begun to work sporadically, and media outlets are being denied access. And so, repeated reports of rape, sexual violence, mass atrocities and hunger being used as weapons of war are difficult to verify or bring to the world’s attention. Terrible, disturbing things that should be met by global outrage, political pressure, and an outpouring of support for a desperately needed humanitarian response, are instead unfolding largely unnoticed by a very distracted world.
During this time, I have been having regular calls with an Ethiopian friend and co-worker in Tigray (a nun who shall remain nameless for her own safety). She, along with the other sisters in her community, have been serving the poorest people in this area for many years. When I stayed with them before this conflict, I was struck by how revered they were by the people who have not forgotten the work they did in the face of the terrible famine of the 1980s.
The phone calls with ‘Sister’ are distressing. They provide a deeply disturbing glimpse of what is happening in Tigray and also, perhaps, serve as a much-needed opportunity for Sister to pour out her own sadness and pain. But mainly she wants to talk about the suffering of others and the practicalities of helping them. As well as her daily efforts being focused on meeting the urgent material needs of the tens of thousands of displaced people arriving in the city, she is also doing a lot of listening to those deeply traumatised by what they are living through:
You know these people in the centres come with so many different stories. Some young girls are raped. Even some women, with their husbands, though they would be also raped. Especially the women, you know, when you start to talk to them the first thing they do is start crying. And I can really, very deeply, feel their pain. You know, it pains me as though it has happened to me.
That is how I feel it, it may never be the same but that is how I feel it.
So, you see men, when they are sharing what they went through, it is very difficult for a man to cry but they cry as well. They cry, they stop talking to you for so many minutes. You have to wait, let them cry, express their emotions. People are so traumatised, and I fully understand. Some of them told us that they have to walk on dead bodies because so many people were dead, they were practically walking on dead bodies to escape for themselves.
The presumption is that our calls are being listened to. Sometimes I have to try to join the dots of what she is telling me. I know there is much left unsaid.
A few weeks ago, when I called her, Sister had just learnt that 13 members of her own family – her brother and cousins – had been killed. They had been attacked in several different incidents, whilst working in the fields. She was, of course, distraught. But while dealing with her shock and raw grief she has continued, with her fellow sisters, to do all in her power to help the displaced, hungry people continuing to pour into their city with nothing. Schools here have stopped being schools and become instead temporary camps for internally displaced people:
In one small room, for example, there could be 20 or 25 people staying, so imagine the situation of Covid, other communicable diseases, you cannot prevent any of that, you have no other choice, you have to stay in one single room. And the situation of the toilet is just, you know, horrible. I mean men and women have to use the same toilet facilities because it is not enough for all of them.
“Some of them were telling me that at night, sometimes they are looted, people come in with knives and dangerous things, to take away whatever they get – like it could be food portions, it could be clothes they get. There are young people that come from outside drunk, and take away what they get also, so they are not safe.
Some of the sisters have asked me for some sort of training in how best to help and manage to cope – it is very difficult for us, we are broken from our own family side, the direct beneficiaries that we serve, the whole situation. You know even when birds fly – I’m not exaggerating – sometimes the shadow of birds can scare us. We have become so sensitive. We need support, the people that can listen to us, a counsellor, or someone who can train us to cope with this trauma ourselves. So, it is not easy for us.
On one call I asked Sister how she keeps going:
One thing for sure is the Holy Eucharist every day, the grace that comes with it, and the fact that for me especially, I meet other organisations doing the same thing, we all share the pain, we all share our stories. Some of the times we all cry, both men and women, you know … and that gives you some relief. And the way you reassure us, the donors, especially Mary’s Meals, you really feel so confident, full of strength to go out, with courage to meet the needs and the demands of our people. Knowing you have backbones, you know, you have people behind you, supporting you with prayers, supporting you financially, supporting you in so many ways and I think that really makes me very strong and courageous.
But the fear of starvation is never far away – especially for those outside the city, cut off from aid, where it seems that maybe already some of have died of hunger.
The Sisters have been assessing the immediate needs of this destitute population and forming emergency plans. With the support of Mary’s Meals, they are already feeding thousands of these people. But trying to help traumatised people while being traumatised yourself can take its toll.
Ethiopia has a long history of famine and the use of starvation as a weapon. The fear of death by hunger has deep roots. This current situation has not yet been a declared a famine by the UN, possibly only because they do not have the data they require to make such a statement. It would be extremely useful if they could find a way to do so. But even without such a statement, we know that millions of people are in very urgent need of immediate help.
Recently we organised, with Sister, a Rosary for Ethiopia. Hundreds of people from different countries joined us, praying together in their own languages for the suffering people of Tigray and for peace. Thankfully, the phone connection held up and Sister was able to join us – reciting Hail Marys in Tigrayan with gunfire in the background.
When I speak to Sister she returns again and again to the importance of solidarity and how much it means to the people there to know that others outside are thinking of them and trying to help. She told me that recently a local media outlet broadcast a story about Mary’s Meals Ireland launching an emergency appeal for Tigray and an emotional roar went up from those gathered around televisions.
As we finish the call, I try to thank her for the work but she interrupts me.
“Let all of those who are helping in any way possible know that we are grateful to Mary’s Meals,” she says. “I keep thanking God, every single day, and especially for the last three months.” She goes on to describe the assistance she has been able to give as “God’s special blessing,” and a support for her own vocation. “You are helping me to remain strong and faithful to my vocation and that is really very meaningful for me.”
“It is only prayers that have kept us going,” she says. “Nothing else. We do not know what tomorrow will bring so we are just thanking God for each day.”
One day I fear an ashamed world will apologise to the people of Tigray for not doing more. The communication blackout in the region and the distraction of a global pandemic will not stand up as adequate excuses. We know too much already.
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