After surviving gun battles, kidnapping attempts, angry militia attacks and multi-day treks to safety with nothing to eat but moringa leaves, the Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia fear their suffering will not be over, as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed works to end a brutal conflict in the northern Tigray region, which has made them particularly vulnerable.
Nearly 100,000 refugees from Eritrea, on the border with Ethiopia to the north, were registered in four camps in Tigray when fighting erupted in November between the Abiy government and the regional ruling party, the Liberation Front. of the people of Tigray (TPLF).
Two of these camps, Hitsats and Shimelba, were caught up in hostilities and remain inaccessible to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and its Ethiopian counterpart, the Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA ).
The information vacuum has sparked terrible speculation about the fate of the refugees.
The UN has sounded the alarm on targeted assassinations and reported kidnappings by Eritrean soldiers, whose role in the conflict is widely documented but officially denied by Addis Ababa and Asmara.
The US State Department cited “credible reports” of looting and sexual violence in the camps last week.
Mai Aini, one of the two camps in southern Tigray where the UN has regained its access, now shelters hundreds of refugees from Hitsats.
“Most people, if you search this camp, they will start to cry when they talk about what happened,” said Girmay, who, like other refugees, insisted on using only one. name only, fearing retaliation.
“Our friends can be alive or dead. We do not know.
‘They came and killed’
After the fighting reached Hitsats in late November, pro-TPLF militiamen targeted refugees in retaliatory killings after suffering battlefield setbacks against Eritrean troops, several refugees told the agency. AFP press release. One morning, militiamen shot dead nine young Eritrean men outside a church, they said.
Pro-TPLF forces have been based in Hitsats for weeks, forbidding starving residents from going out in search of food and shooting several who tried, anyway.
“At first we couldn’t believe it because they speak the same language as us,” Girmay said of pro-TPLF forces. “Before we were friends… Suddenly they came and killed.
Eritrean soldiers also committed abuses, the refugees said, arresting dozens, possibly more, and driving them to an unknown destination.
“The Eritrean soldiers grabbed some people and started asking them questions. I counted 26 or 27, ”said one refugee. “The next day, they took them elsewhere. We don’t know where they are.
The Ethiopian government is investigating the abuses and will attempt to account for the entire pre-conflict population of Hitsats, which it estimates to be around 11,000, said Tesfahun Gobezay, executive director of ARRA.
“Regarding Eritrean soldiers taking Eritrean refugees, we do not yet have strong evidence,” Tesfahun told AFP.
“How can I feel safe?
Eritrean forces took control of the Hitsats in early January and forced those remaining in the camp to evacuate, refugees said.
“They threatened to kill us and people were afraid,” said a refugee now in Addis Ababa, who asked that his name not be used.
About 3,000 refugees from Hitsats and the other inaccessible northern camp, Shimelba, have since reached the two camps in southern Tigray, many traveling on foot without water and leaving only for food.
In Mai Aini, some newcomers complained about poor access to clean water and not having a place to sleep.
But their greatest concern, shared by some long-time residents, was for their safety, with many fearing that pro-TPLF militias could attack the camp despite an extensive federal military presence nearby.
“How can I feel safe here?” said Natnael, who has lived in Mai Aini from a young age. “There are many militias around the camp.”
ARRA’s Tesfahun said progress had been made in restoring basic services to the southern camps.
He also said the camps were safe, adding that “safety is more of a feeling than reality, so they may feel that they are still not safe even though reality shows otherwise. “.
It remains to be seen what happened to the two camps in northern Tigray which are still out of contact.
Satellite images show extensive damage to both, suggesting a campaign to destroy them, British investigative firm DX Open Network said.
“There are clear and consistent patterns in both camps over a two month period, demonstrating that these refugee camps have been systematically targeted despite their protected humanitarian status,” he said in a statement.
Long before the conflict, Abiy’s government made no secret of its goal of getting rid of the camps in the north and relocating the refugees.
Tesfahun said the plan was “sabotaged” by the TPLF, but was in the process of “resuming”.