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Months after a peace deal, the Tigray region is recovering from a brutal civil war


It has been four months since the Ethiopian government signed a peace deal with rebels from the country's northern Tigray region after two years of a brutal civil war. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Many children and families still suffer. And the region's economy is in ruins. Janti Soeripto is the CEO and president of Save the Children. She's visited this region this week. Ms. Soeripto, thanks very much for being with us.

JANTI SOERIPTO: No, pleasure. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What did you see?

SOERIPTO: We saw a lot of destruction. Not in Mekelle - the city is actually back up and running. But we did hear and see that schools are not yet open again. Hospitals are closed. Health care posts are closed. And there's an enormous amount of destruction. I saw many windows smashed, buildings completely gutted, hospitals and health care centers completely gutted. Assets were taken, looted. Computers are taken. Refrigerators are taken. Everything. School desks and chairs are gone. So there's a lot of rebuilding that needs to happen.

SIMON: Families separated from each other?

SOERIPTO: Yes. Yes. Save the Children is actually working in a couple of communities now to try to reunite some of these children with their families. We've identified 82 of these children. We've managed to reunite, I think, around - about 20 of those children with their families over these past couple of weeks. And we're hoping to get to all 82 of them over the coming weeks. But clearly, we're concerned that there are more children...

SIMON: Yeah.

SOERIPTO: ...Out there that have lost their families. And we don't know exactly yet how many and where they are.

SIMON: Can aid even reach people?

SOERIPTO: Yes. I would say - well, all the areas in Tigray where Save the Children worked before the conflict started are now - we can reach all of the communities where we were, which is great. There are still areas in Tigray, Western Tigray in particular, where I know that partners of ours, fellow agencies, humanitarian actors, haven't had access yet because there is still violence. But Save the Children is back up and running in - with all of our activities.

SIMON: Both sides of the conflict, as I don't have to tell you, have been accused of human rights abuses. And the U.N. says that Ethiopia's government has used starvation as a tactic. What kind of famine did you see, or signs of this?

SOERIPTO: We saw severe signs of food insecurity, malnutrition. We spoke to a couple of our staff at some of these health clinics. We spoke to local health authorities. And their estimates - and again, you know, hard data, a comprehensive data set, is still not available. But they were quoting to us, you know, over 70% of pregnant or lactating women, women who are breastfeeding, are malnourished. So if the mothers and the pregnant women are malnourished, that means that our babies are hungry, too. I saw kids present in those health care clinics with malnutrition symptoms. Absolutely. There's a lot of food insecurity out there.

SIMON: What can the world do to help now and over the long term?

SOERIPTO: Well, the world can't avert its gaze from Ethiopia. And I know, of course, there are many, many distractions, many crises in the world that demand attention. That's - same for us at Save the Children. But Ethiopia is a country of 120 million people. There are a number of multiple crises going on at the same time - yes, the peace building and the rehabilitation of Tigray and northern Ethiopia, ongoing drought, worsening droughts actually, in the south and still conflict also in other areas.

So over 20 million people are in need. Many millions of people are hungry, food insecure, close to famine. And then, we have many children out of school. So kids in Tigray haven't been in school for the last 2.5 years. So even that gap - not just in academic learning, but also in social learning, emotional learning and the trauma that the past 2.5 years have wreaked on those young minds - those are the things we have to start to address. And it takes everybody.

SIMON: I've got to ask you a difficult question, and I realize that you need to cooperate with local governments...


SIMON: ...Wherever - do you trust them?

SOERIPTO: Well, yes. I mean, you know, we trust actions, right? We need to see teachers and doctors and nurses in Tigray getting paid again because they haven't been paid for the last 2.5 years. And if they're not paid and if schools are not repaired, then it is very hard for the people of Tigray to see that peace dividend really come through. So those actions we'd like to see. We - I met with the minister of health here, a number of the local authorities in Tigray. And again, there they all expressed support for Save the Children, which is fantastic. And we've had support from the government here for many, many years. Save the Children has been here since the late '60s. And we've always managed to do great work under sometimes really difficult circumstances including conflict.

SIMON: Janti Soeripto is the CEO and president of Save the Children. Thank you so much for being with us.

SOERIPTO: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.