No-one wants to see a return to the tragic pictures of the 1984-85 famine, when 400,000 people died.

But there is now a real possibility that this could be the case.

Already the UN estimates that 353,000 are in a “phase five crisis” – that’s famine.

This is what is being reported.

“As millions of households face large food consumption gaps, high levels of acute malnutrition and increased mortality are likely occurring.”

This is tragic.

But how could it be worse than during the last famine in 1984-85?

In one sense the situation is similar: Tigray is at war.

In 1984-85 the TPLF were fighting the Derg, just as they are now fighting the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea.

But in an important way the situation is very different.

Then the TPLF could march some 100,000 out of Tigray to seek sanctuary in neighbouring Sudan.

This was done for an important reason.

The Eritrean liberation movement (the EPLF) had blocked the critical route into Sudan, from where the TPLF were organising relief to be trucked into Tigray.

This was a critical event, which I wrote about with Dominique Jacquin-Berdal in “Unfinished Business: Ethiopia and Eritrea at War” .

Here we recalled what happened.

“In June 1985 the EPLF decided to teach the TPLF a brutal lesson in power politics.

The Eritreans cut the TPLF’s supply lines to the Sudan that passed through their territory.

This was done at the height of one of the worst famine in modern times, denying Tigrayas access to food aid at a crucial juncture.

Nothing was said publicly about the incident at the time, but it is not hard to imagine the animosity that it generated.

The TPLF responded with characteristic efficiency, mobilising 100,000 peasants to build an alternative route through to Sudan that did not go via Eritrea.

While the EPLF leadership still refuses to speak about these events, Tigrayans recall it with great bitterness.

As Tekleweini Assefa, Head of the Relief Society of Tigray said later: ‘…the EPLF behaviour was a savage act…..I do not hesitate to categorise it as a ‘savage act’. It must be recorded in history like that!'”

Why 2021 is so different

Marching the population of Tigray into Sudan is impossible today.

Although some 60,000 Tigrayans have managed to flee to Sudan, that route is now effectively sealed.

More than 1,000 were crossing daily into Sudan in January. Today the UNHCR says that on some days just 1 person crosses to safety.

One of the most important offensives began right at the beginning of the current war, in November 2020.

It was the attack on the town of Humera – bordering on Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The fighting took place from 9 to 11 November 2020, and is the first recorded time Eritrean troops saw action.

The aim of the Eritreans and Ethiopians was simple: to drive a huge wedge between Sudan and central Tigray.

And they succeeded.

Today there are few Tigrayan forces fighting anywhere near Sudan. As this map shows, the fighting is in central and eastern Tigray.

And Tigrayans have been driven out of western Tigray to make way for Amhara militia and Amhara farmers who claim the land.

The kind of operation that was mounted by the aid agencies in 1984-85 through Sudan to reach Tigray and Eritrea is impossible today.

And Eritrea has – at least so far – refused to allow its ports of Assab and Massawa to be used for humanitarian operations to supply the areas of northern Tigray that it controls.

The only route into Tigray is through Ethiopia, from the South and from the East.

And that means that many hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans are trapped in areas that are experiencing fighting (and therefore inaccessible) or in areas that the Ethiopian or Eritrean troops do not allow aid agencies to enter.

Meanwhile, the kind of firm resolve shown by the international community to send aid into Ethiopia that was shown in 1984-85 is lacking.

Then Mrs Thatcher sent the Royal Air Force to drop aid to the starving. There’s little sign of Boris Johnson showing the same metal.