Exodus without liberation:The deadly gantlet of Tigray mothers and their children

Displaced Tigray mothers and their children must pass through a gantlet of challenges in their search just to survive
Displaced Tigray mothers and their children must pass through a gantlet of challenges in their search just to survive. Photo Source World Vision

For Tigray mothers and their children running away from barbarous invasion by Eritrean, Amhara, and Ethiopian forces is just the beginning of an odious journey seeking just to survive. It is an exodus of Biblical proportions without liberation.

Life for a young mother in rural Tigray in which more than 80% of the population lives even before the eruption of war in November 2020 was a challenge. Women often traveled miles daily on foot to gather the daily water supply of 5 liters per person in the family. Added to this is helping care for farm animals, crops, the household and the children as well as an elderly parent. Studies have shown that a large percentage of women were somewhat underweight and undernourished with 25% requiring food aid. 

Young mothers have often lost their spouse and other adult male family members to imprisonment or murder. They become displaced losing whatever previous food source they had for themselves or their children. Along the way they may suffer forced trafficking for labor or sex, personal violation, theft of their few possessions or cash, and isolation from their previous community. Lack of fuel and transportation means travel by foot without shelter from the elements.

Many women in Tigray are breast feeding two children as it is not unusual to see breast feeding extend to toddlers. The sudden decrease in caloric and protein intake can result in loss of breast milk production in just a few days to weeks. We know that in famine 50% of the casualties are children under 5 who cannot tolerate long periods of starvation. Especially vulnerable are infants who may sometimes live only days if mother has no breast milk.

The dominant Ethiopian Orthodox religion requires burial within a day of death. The lack of communication, transportation, and health care results in most of these not being recorded in a permanent record. The dietary laws they follow of the Old Testament prevent the eating of wild meats or other foods. During approximately 40% of the year they fast from taking meat, sugar, or milk products. Some forms of wild fruits and peas appear edible but in fact can cause chronic metabolic or neurological dysfunction and often there does not exist a community knowledge of this danger.

Even if young children or lactating mothers receive some food they may survive longer but still suffer permanent disability from poor brain and musculoskeletal development. Most often the cause of death is infection because of the loss normal immunity with starvation. Bacterial or parasitic contamination of water sources leading to diseases like cholera which under normal circumstances are treatable with antibiotics and intravenous hydration instead become killers of many affected. 

 

Author: Professor Tony Magana

Professor Tony Magana is Head of the Department of Neurosurgery, School of Medicine, College of Health Sciences at Mekelle University in Mekelle, Ethiopia. He directs a neurosurgery residency and training program as well as neuroscience research.

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