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After Ethiopia Trip, USAID Administrator Samantha Power Shares View Of Conflict

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We are going to spend this part of the program talking about Ethiopia. The East African country is in the grip of a humanitarian crisis with allegations of mass killings and war crimes that have left parts of the country on the brink of famine. Ambassador Samantha Power has spent her career focused on crises like the one Ethiopia is facing. President Biden appointed her administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, and she has just returned from visiting Ethiopia and Sudan. She joins us now to talk about what she has seen on the ground in both countries. And a warning that some of this conversation may be difficult to listen to. Ambassador Power, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SAMANTHA POWER: Great to be here, Ari.

SHAPIRO: To start, can you just describe one image or conversation from this trip that will stay with you that you think represents what is happening in this region right now?

POWER: I have in my career had occasion to talk to a lot of survivors of mass atrocity and even unfortunately of sexual violence. But while I was in Sudan, I traveled to the eastern part of the country where Ethiopian refugees from the Tigray region had streamed in last year when the conflict started. And the prevalence of sexual violence as a feature of the mass atrocities being committed, the venom with which the perpetrators are seeking to ensure that Tigrayan women cannot have babies in the future. And the emotion among these women - and this. For many of them, it was eight, nine months ago that they came across the border. And as they relived what had been done to them, it was as if it was the day before. I mean, it was so real and just so harrowing.

SHAPIRO: We know that the conditions are dire and that horrific things are happening. But the reports out of Ethiopia have been contradictory and piecemeal. And it's really hard to get a sense of the full scale of the conflict. Having been there, do you feel that you have an understanding of where things stand?

POWER: Well, the militarization of the conflict is getting worse by the day, by the hour in the day. You have the government not seeking to come to the peace table for an inclusive dialogue, but rather deploying forces. You see the rebels inside Tigray who want a victory in effectively defeating the Ethiopian government, the Eritrean forces and the militia, and got them out of large swaths of territory. But now those rebels are pushing out and trying to take territory that they traditionally have not occupied in Ethiopia. So I think that picture is clear.

What is much more obscured is the conditions of desperate civilians inside Tigray because access has been so severely impeded. And when Ethiopian forces and officials left Tigray, bridges were burned. So it has become a kind of island where inside there - certainly there is not the violence and the atrocities that were occurring before these forces departed. But getting to the people inside has become almost impossible for humanitarians.

SHAPIRO: As USAID administrator, your job is to oversee humanitarian relief. And you have spent your career in diplomacy and academia trying to create conditions where these crises don't happen, where that kind of relief is not necessary. And so what's it like for you to tour the region now and see these war crimes and this humanitarian disaster that perhaps could have been avoided? But you have spent your life trying to create the conditions that they are avoided.

POWER: Well, it's a reminder that there is no military solution for political grievances, and yet nobody seems to get the memo in so many countries. So it's heartbreaking. I mean, Ethiopia's story is one of such progress. Ethiopia, when I was U.N. ambassador, was an anchor of stability. They deployed peacekeepers throughout the continent to try to prevent atrocities in other countries on behalf of the international community and our shared humanity. And now, to see those same atrocities, to see hateful rhetoric and hate speech and the dehumanization of people who are other, it's crushing because it makes great demands on humanitarian assistance.

And in truth, the United States has spent more than a billion dollars over the last year meeting these humanitarian needs. And so I feel incredibly privileged to be part of an agency that can do that, that can prevent people from starving and that can care for them after they've experienced sexual assault. But those are resources that we would much sooner be investing in fertilizer and in climate adaptation and in digitization and in young people and their education. But conflict takes so many countries off that development path.

SHAPIRO: I have to ask, without diminishing your role, you know, should the U.S. be sending the secretary of state, somebody who has the authority to help avert conflict rather than somebody who can say, here's food, here's medicine, here's literal Band-Aids for a problem that perhaps might have been avoidable if the U.S. had engaged more at an earlier stage?

POWER: Well, President Biden has appointed Jeff Feltman, one of the top diplomats and most experienced diplomats in the world who was undersecretary general at the United Nations for political affairs, who speaks Arabic, who has spent the better part of the last decade working to mitigate conflicts all around the world, including in sub-Saharan Africa. So that was one of President Biden's first appointments. And Jeff Feltman has been working relentlessly behind the scenes to try to bring the parties to the negotiating table. But I wouldn't confuse governments and rebels making the wrong choices with an absence of hustle on the part of the United States. The parties each seem to believe that they can win this militarily. And the people who are getting caught in the crosshairs, of course, as always, are the civilians.

SHAPIRO: You also visited Sudan on this trip, a country that you spent time in 20 years ago in the region of Darfur, where genocide was taking place. How do you reflect on seeing the country now, these decades later?

POWER: Ari, it was one of the more moving trips I've taken in my career. It really is a country for now that is going in a very positive direction. And it is a country that the United States now is in a position to support and to try to meet at this moment where it wants to move from being a country of conflict and repression and indeed of genocide in Darfur to being a model for how you move away from conflict and actually integrate diverse communities who have been at loggerheads and how you use transitional justice, economic development and an expansion in civil society space to do so. So it's a very rocky journey. It's extremely fragile. But the trajectory is one that I never dreamed I would see in my lifetime.

SHAPIRO: Ambassador Samantha Power is the administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, just back from a trip through Ethiopia and Sudan. Thank you so much.

POWER: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.