The cry for a biscuit says all and everything. It was a spurious victory that the federal government in Ethiopia had declared towards the end of November. The grim reality must be the humanitarian situation and fears of mass starvation ~ in parallel to the bloody strife ~ that the government will now have to contend with.

The frightful reality was underscored recently at a meeting of humanitarian workers. “Hundreds of thousands might starve to death” in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, according to a government official quoted in a leaked copy of notes. The government-run Tigray Emergency Coordination Center (ECC) is assessing the needs following the conflict there.

Despite the federal government’s declaration of victory, sporadic fighting has continued and the UN has described the humanitarian situation as “severe”. Reports do indicate that food is not available or is extremely limited in markets. This has raised the risk of malnutrition.

According to the Emergency Coordination Center (ECC), an estimated 4.5 million people need emergency food aid in Tigray, going by the figure quoted in a UN report. The population of Tigray is between 5 and 7 million. More than 50,000 have fled to neighbouring Sudan.

Starvation amidst the strife has posed “outstanding challenges” that are still more forbiddng, and recall the food crisis in Biafra (also in Africa) many winters ago.

Communication with much of the region remains difficult as phone lines and the internet have been cut making the verification of reports improbable. Hence perhaps the general refrain that “people are dying while they sleep”.

The situation on the ground is dire. If urgent emergency assistance is not mobilised, fears that hundreds of thousands might starve to death are dangerously real. Food and non-food items or other sources of livelihood are either looted or destroyed.

Urgent emergency assistance is vital to save lives, the ECC was told. If the meeting’s notes on 1 January are any indication, villagers are even asking for “a single biscut”.

Ethiopia’s defence forces entered Tigray early in November to oust the region’s ruling party after its troops had captured federal military bases.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed insists that the army has been using proportional force to restore law and order and bring a “criminal clique” to justice. Since the end of November, there has been an operation to find fugitive Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) party leaders who vowed to continue the fight after the regional capital was captured by the army.

According to the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, the situation on the ground had gone “well beyond a purely internal law and order’ operation”. Hunger could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.