With a humanitarian crisis looming along the Sudan border, Ethiopian refugees pine for news of those they were forced to leave behind.
SUDAN-ETHIOPIA BORDER — After seizing the capital of the northern state of Tigray last weekend, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared the military incursion his forces launched at the beginning of November against the rebellious region a victory.
However, it has been anything but a victory for the civilian population of Tigray that has borne the heavy brunt of the fighting and been forced into displacement en masse. Tigray is home to an estimated six million people and is the seat of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which has consistently challenged the rule of Abiy since he ascended to office in 2018.
The November 4 order from Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for embarking on a peace process with neighboring Eritrea after a decades long war fought while Ethiopia was under the TPLF's rule, to "free the region from the control of the Tigray People's Liberation Front," it followed months of tension between the two sides. After Abiy postponed elections due to the COVID-19 epidemic and refused to step aside at the end of his term to allow a transitional government rule Ethiopia until public health conditions improved, the TPLF openly defied the prime minister's authority by holding general elections in Tigray.
The fighting that ensued between the two sides has continued over the course of the last month despite the Ethiopian military's capture of Mekelle, which continues to be underreported due to the communication blackout imposed by the Abiy government. Reports of potential war crimes in the ethnically charged fighting and indiscriminate artillery barrages on civilian areas looting by armed men in the fighting to take Mekelle have surfaced, while Abiy has purged his own government of any Tigray figures and mobilized a crackdown on Tigrayians living in other parts of the country, who are now under intensified scrutiny. Abiy has also denied humanitarian groups access to the war-torn area, despite constant pleading.
Many of those that fled the fighting have made their way across the border into Sudan, whose fragile transitional government must now coordinate a burgeoning humanitarian crisis along its southern border. Mada Masr visited the camps along the Sudanese-Ethiopian border to speak with those whose lives and families have been torn apart by the month-long violence.
In the Hashaba region of Sudan, Mada Masr spoke with Tesfai Bjika, 75, and his family, who have fled to Sudan twice from their hometown of Mai Khadra in Ethiopia.
"My wife and I were displaced to Sudanese territories during the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998, and I spent about four years in the city of Gadaref, where my two sons were born," Tesfai says. "I returned to Mai Khadra after the peace agreement between the two countries was signed. And here I am, once again, displaced."
"We did not expect this level of violence."
In this Sudanese shelter, the UNHCR has allocated a small, windowless room for Tesfai, his wife, his two daughters-in-law, and his five grandchildren. The fate of Tesfai's sons, who are still in Mai Khadra, remains unknown.
Tesfai and his wife share details of their long, arduous walk to the safe zone, before the conversation steers back to their sons still in Ethiopia. "All the news we receive from there says that the young Tigrayans of my sons' age are being targeted," he says.
Even though families were prepared for the worst, Tesfai's family was still surprised by how quickly things developed on their last night in their home. "The political situation between the central government and the regional government was incredibly tense, but we did not expect this level of violence. The local TV was mobilizing people and the government in Addis Ababa was also threatening regional leaders," says Tesfai.
Tesfai added that residents started making plans to exit their villages as soon as possible, but the clashes had already begun, so people were forced out of their homes amid the sound of gunshots and a complete cut in communications, electricity and transportation lines.
"Along with my neighbor, I managed to get a trailer and a tractor that we use for agriculture, and we decided to flee with our families, but my sons did not come," Tesfai says.
The refugee camp that Tesfai's family is currently staying at was originally built for Sudanese residents who were displaced after the construction of the Setit Dam on Atbara River. Now, the camp is receiving hundreds of Ethiopian refugees from Mai Khadra, Birkuta, and other border towns everyday. The camp is guarded by a joint force from the Sudanese police and army.
By the entrance of a makeshift shelter, Qatinet Dibrazon is pushing a horse-drawn cart. He and his wife managed to make it to the safe zone with a few of their belongings and kitchen utensils. Qatinet, who looks incredibly exhausted, tells Mada Masr that he has been walking for two full nights on unfamiliar roads alongside dozens of other refugees.
"We escaped from the town of Birkuta after its streets turned into a battlefield. We witnessed a series of systematic murders and lootings of shops and houses. I arrived here, but I don't know how long I will stay. I heard about this camp so we wanted to come and catch a breath. Maybe we'll be able to go back to harvest our crops, which is what keeps me and my family alive," he says.
In the city of Hamdayit, Kassala, which sits on the Sudanese side of the border with Ethiopia, Mada Masr followed the displacement of hundreds of Ethiopians across the Setit River on their way to Sudanese land. Among them is Qadi Iksam, 39, who points to the tip of the river separating Sudan and Ethiopia and says, "I came from Wag Hamra. I left my mother and father behind. They insisted that I go out with my children and leave them, so that we had a greater chance to survive."
46,400 people, almost half of them children, have arrived in Sudan since the beginning of November.
The refugees come across the river either on foot or in small boats that carry some of their belongings. From the banks of the river, they walk to a large square in the city, where the humanitarian organizations greet them and the UNHCR tallies them to keep track of the scale of the displacement. There, they sleep under the shade of the trees with worn-out blankets. They use firewood for cooking and heating when the camp authorities give them the permission to do so.
Ahmed Omran, the UNHCR official at the temporary refugee camp in Hamdayit, tells Mada Masr that he is concerned about the organization's ability to cope with the huge influx of Ethiopian refugees. "We record about 1,000 to 1,500 refugees daily, all of whom all want to be transferred to the Um Rakuba camp in the state of Gedaref," he says from the tent that was set up by UNHCR to tally and register arriving refugees.
"The numbers we are registering do not correspond to all the refugees who enter Sudan via the Hamdiyat border crossing," he says. "We register those who arrive here. This is the capacity that the UNHCR has, and its employees are under tremendous pressure. We register the personal information of those who arrive here and then transfer them to the permanent shelter. But many do not even come here."
Nour al-Dhao, another UNHCR official in Kassala, says he is concerned about the dire conditions of the temporary camp in Hashba, as there is no comprehensive provision of food, drinking water or shelter. He tells Mada Masr that he expects the refugees fleeing from Tigray to soon reach 50,000, a steep figure for humanitarian organizations with meager capacities.
According to the most recent briefing issued by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 46,400 people, almost half of them children, have arrived in Sudan since the beginning of November.
The UNHCR and partners said that they are increasing the capacity of the Um Rakuba camp in Gedaref, where more than 10,000 refugees from Ethiopia are already hosted, according to the briefing.
However, while those who have made it to Sudan must navigate the already overburdened humanitarian network, for many, their thoughts remain with those they left behind. "Seven days have passed now since I parted with my sons," Tesfai says from the camp in Hashaba. "They have not come to the camp, nor has anyone given us any news about them. All the people we talk to say is that the streets of our neighborhood are filled with bodies of dead men."