As UNHCR and other aid agencies scale up the humanitarian response in conflict-torn Tigray, local communities and the displaced are pulling together to support one another.
By Giulia Naboni and Elisabeth Arnsdorf Haslund in Mekelle, Ethiopia
In a small, one-room stone cottage in Mekelle, the regional capital of Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region, Brukti* is measuring a young girl’s upper arm to screen her for malnutrition. If not for the ‘antibiotics’ and ‘emergency drugs’ signs hanging from a cabinet on the wall, it would be hard to tell that this is a health clinic.
“I am a certified nurse and I want to help people in need,” says Brukti, who worked as a nurse for four years before the Tigray conflict forced her to flee her village close to Adwa, alongside thousands of others.
“When I heard that people were being killed, I fled together with my son. We saw dead bodies in some of the villages that we travelled through,” she recalls. “I couldn’t contact my husband because the [mobile] network was down, but we were finally reunited.”
When they reached Mekelle, Brukti immediately started volunteering at the site where they found shelter.
Close to 2 million people are estimated to have been internally displaced by the conflict in Tigray, now in its eighth month. Hundreds of thousands of those forced to flee have sought refuge in the region’s main cities. Some are staying within communities while others are sheltering in overcrowded public sites like schools.
“They really help us, making it possible to see more patients in a day.”
It is in one of these sites, where over 1,800 displaced people are living, that Brukti and 15 other trained nurses are volunteering at the small makeshift health centre. They are working with the lead doctor from the Regional Health Bureau in Mekelle as well as a handful of recently graduated doctors from the local community, who also volunteer at the clinic.
“They really help us, making it possible to see more patients in a day,” says Dr. Haile Haregot, one of the volunteer doctors. “We also benefit from their various specialities as some are trained to help victims of sexual and gender-based violence, others have specialized in screening children for malnutrition.”
He adds that his decision to volunteer at the site for displaced people came to him without question.
“Civilians are suffering, some people are dying from malnutrition and in my profession, I can’t sit and do nothing. I need to help them,” he says.
About 20 to 30 patients come to the health centre every day, the most common complaints being coughs and diarrhoea. But the volunteers also care for people with various chronic diseases, including hypertension.
There are also cases of suspected malaria, but Brukti says they lack the tools to properly diagnose it.
“Our main concern is the shortage of drugs and the absence of medical equipment,” she says.
Resources are scarce across the board, including of the basic necessities of food, shelter and water, and the displaced rely heavily on help from the local community.
“The community has helped us immensely by sharing their food and providing us with clothes, but as the number of displaced continues to increase, it’s very difficult for them to help us all,” says Bekele* a community leader at the site.
The displaced have organized themselves and elected representatives in collaboration with the authorities and with support from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and partners involved in camp coordination and management.
Representatives like Bekele play an important role in keeping track of needs, coordinating the support from local communities, and acting as focal points for aid agencies. They also manage the distribution of food and other aid to the families sheltering at the school.
“Even when there isn’t enough, we always try to distribute aid to all, but we have to prioritize. So, we provide the most nutrients to the most vulnerable,” explains Bekele.
“I’m happy to help my community in this critical time.”
UNHCR, together with other UN agencies and aid partners, has boosted its response in recent months and distributed vital aid such as blankets, mosquito nets, solar lamps, soap and jerry cans to displaced families in different sites across Tigray. So far, more than 13,000 households have received relief items.
UNHCR has also established ‘protection desks’ in 38 sites in Shire and Mekelle, where displaced people can access vital services and information, share concerns with UNHCR staff, get psychosocial counselling and be referred to relevant services if necessary.
In April and May, UNHCR referred more than 100 cases with special needs and conducted over 700 individual counselling sessions.
For those needing medical care, Brukti and her fellow volunteers are ready to help with whatever resources are available.
“I’m happy to help my community in this critical time, but my hope is for peace to be restored so that I can hopefully see the rest of my family again,” she says.
Recent developments in Tigray, however, have challenged UNHCR’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance. With limited access in and out of the region, no electrical power and phone networks down, moving staff, aid and basic supplies is becoming increasingly difficult.
Additional reporting by Woini Gebregeorgis
*Names have been changed for protection reasons
Originally published by UNHCR on 05 July 2021.