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Ethiopia's year-long civil war may be entering a more destructive phase

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Ethiopia's year-long civil war may be entering a more destructive phase. The rebels in the state Tigray in the country's north say the government is launching a new offensive. The region has been under a de facto blockade for months, and humanitarian organizations say hundreds of thousands of people there are living in famine conditions. NPR's Eyder Peralta is in Ethiopia near the front line of this conflict. Eyder, where are you, and what are you seeing?

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: So I am in a town called a Debarq, which is just a few miles from the front lines of this conflict. And normally, this would be a sleepy town in the Semien Mountains, and now it's full of fighters and displaced people. We've seen tanks getting ready to go into battle, soldiers and local militia taking a break from the battle. But local officials here say that tens of thousands of people have fled the war. And so in every street here, in every corner, in every building, there's just people. It's a mass of people. I'm at a school right now, and I've been talking to people, and I keep hearing heartbreak, women who have lost their husbands, their children to this war.

One young woman came here to have her baby, came to this town to have her baby. And suddenly, she got word that her grandmother was killed by a shell. She had her brand-new baby on her back, and she can't go back home because of the fighting, and she was crying. She was saying that there was no hope. The people here are fleeing from an expanding war, from a war that has now expanded into different states. And officials here say that they don't have enough food or supplies for the number of people who keep arriving. At this point, the people here are sleeping outside. They don't have enough food or even anything to cook with.

MARTINEZ: Who are the Tigrayans and why are they fighting Ethiopia's central government?

PERALTA: Yeah. So the TPLF, the Tigray People's Liberation Front, they ruled this country for 27 years. And they were pushed out of power recently. And they're now fighting against the government that took power from them. So this is a power struggle that has also pulled in some of the ethnic tensions that have existed in Ethiopia for centuries. So if you ask people here why they're fighting, they will tell you that it is about their survival as a people. You'll hear much the same thing from the rebels. So everyone views this as an existential fight. And that tells you just how difficult it will be to bring this conflict to an end.

MARTINEZ: What has this war meant to the people of Ethiopia?

PERALTA: It's been devastating. I mean, the economy has been hit hard. Families have been ripped apart, and the war has hardened feelings in a country that was already bitterly divided. You know, over the past few years, I've reported in nearly every corner of this country, and this is a huge country - more than 100 million people. And a few years ago, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power, there was a renewed hope that Ethiopia would finally find peace, that its people would finally live free. But what I have seen over and over over the past couple of years in different parts of the country is what I'm seeing right now, which is people forced to leave their homes because of violence.

MARTINEZ: And we've heard lots of warnings about impending famine in Ethiopia. Have things gotten better on that front at all?

PERALTA: No, not really. I mean, the international community says that the most dire conditions in this country are in the areas controlled by the rebels. The government has imposed a de facto blockade in the region, and the international community says that that has pushed hundreds of thousands of people to the brink of famine. The international community has been pushing Ethiopia to allow more aid into the rebel-held regions, but nothing has really worked. The U.S. has threatened sanctions. And yesterday, top American officials met with their allies about the situation here. But concretely, humanitarians say nothing significant has changed to avert a famine in this country. It's worth noting that the government here says that the international community is exaggerating this crisis.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Eyder Peralta speaking to us from northern Ethiopia. Take care, Eyder.

PERALTA: Thank you, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.