Our founder, Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, reflects on our response to the crisis in Ethiopia

Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow
Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow
Mary's Meals founder and CEO

Back to all stories | Posted on 2 March 22 in NewsUpdate from Magnus

Since the conflict in Tigray began in November 2020, I have on several occasions finished an emotional call with my friend and co-worker there and thought to myself that things could not possibly get any worse. And then they have. This week was certainly no exception, when the friend brought me up to speed on the latest horrors being caused by the total humanitarian blockade of Tigray  - one imposed by the Ethiopian Government, in full view of the world, which now threatens the lives of millions of desperate people. Fuel has all but run dry. Food stocks, already meagre, look like they can last another two weeks at most.  It is no longer possible to withdraw cash from the banks so, even if some new supplies appear from somewhere, our co-worker explains to me that she does not know how they can find any way to buy them for the thousands of displaced people they are caring for. Hospitals, having run out of the most basic supplies, are closing too. And, as if all this is too slow a way for people to die, government airstrikes are becoming more frequent.

‘Four days ago, an airstrike killed 47 people 25kim from here – there seem to be more civilians being killed now.’ she tells me, becoming emotional for the first time on this call.

Open quote mark ‘It only the Grace from God that is keeping us going. Tigray is completely isolated, and it often feels that no one cares – fifteen months on, we keep wondering when it will end. How can we survive, how are we even living as human beings? It is as if they’re intending to eliminate us from the face of the earth. We are still alive, yet we just keep wondering how we are still able to exist?” Close quote mark
Our partner in Tigray

But aid workers are certainly not sitting feeling sorry for themselves. In recent weeks, in addition to their daily work of providing support for 30,000 displaced people (using funding from Mary’s Meals) they have also been carrying out surveys of the communities where Mary’s Meals used to provide school feeding programmes. They want to assess how quickly we can get those up and running again, knowing this is critical in keeping any hope for the future alive. Astonishing though it may seem in the circumstances, the Tigrayan authorities are pushing for schools to re-open, and some have in recent weeks. However, the survey also shows that many school buildings have been destroyed and that teachers in the decimated communities are hard to come by. And the survey reveals worse horrors than that, in the form of the stories being told by those communities. (N.B. names have been changed to protect the subjects)

‘Lidya’s eyes are always brimming with tears now.’

That is what concerned villagers said about their 15-year-old neighbour.

It wasn’t like that before the war. Lidya is one of five children, and her parents were farmers who were excited to be raising a new breed of milk cow that they had purchased with a microloan.

After the war began the area around their village became a battleground where the Tigrayan Defence Force, fighting for independence, and the central government’s Ethiopian National Defence Force - supported by their Eritrean and Amhara allies - have clashed on at least a dozen occasions. Many local civilians have been killed, numerous disturbing reports of gender-based violence have emerged and there has been widespread destruction and looting of homes.

When the fighting broke out here for the fifth time early in 2021, Lidya’s father did what he had done several times before and sent his wife and children, along with their neighbours, to nearby caves in the mountains to seek safety, while he remained at home to protect their belongings from looting. From their hiding place that evening they could hear the sound of shooting in the area of their village, but after sunset all became quiet. And so, Lidya’s mother decided to return to their home in the darkness to collect some food for her children. 

The five children waited all night in the cave for her to return, hunger and terror keeping them awake.

“I didn’t sleep the whole night, and since there were many civilian killings in our area, I was worried that bad things would happen to my parents.’ Lidya recollects today, “But, I tried to hide my feelings from my brothers and sisters.”

The next afternoon, after the shooting finally stopped, all of those who had taken refuge in the caves made their way back to their homes. As they did so the whole village began to resound with screaming and crying. It soon became clear that all who had remained at their homes had been murdered -  Lidya’s parents among them. 

In the months since, Lidya and her four younger siblings have been living on their own in the house. Her youngest brother is only seven. Their trauma has been made worse by the fact that their neighbours had to bury their parents in their backyard – without even the possibility of a funeral in accordance with their deeply held Christian faith.

The months of rainy season have come and gone now without any seeds being sown in their field and with no crop to look forward to at harvest time the children are now amongst millions totally reliant for the foreseeable future on food aid.

Lidya’s story is just one of countless tragedies unfolding all around our partners. All day long they listen to people pouring out the agony of their experience and while trying to stay strong and console them. It is not surprising therefore that on our calls our partner sometimes breaks down.

Often she tells me she does not believe she could go on without the gift of the Eucharist and without the prayers and friendship offered by the Mary’s Meals family.

“We are learning a lot through conversations with you all about what it is to be human.’  She said at the end of the call in her kindness, as we both knew that if there were learning happening on the call she was the teacher and I was the pupil.

 

What it is to be human? That is what the crying people of Tigray ask of us today. It is a question this atrocity - this evil that is being allowed to happen, this sustained blatant attack of every basic human right -  is asking a world that seems, in the case of Tigray to have forgotten the answer.