Ethiopians seeking refuge in neighboring Sudan have described the horror of intense fighting in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia, where deadly fighting between federal government troops is rebels who have raised international alarms.
With a communications outage and disrupted transport links across much of the troubled state, the reports of exhausted and frightened refugees pouring across the remote border into Sudan provide some of the earliest witness accounts of the 10-day conflict that reportedly led to hundreds of people were killed.
“The government wants to get rid of the Tigray people, so we fled. The people there live in conflict, ”Gowru Awara, an Ethiopian refugee in the Sudanese state of Gadarif, told Al Jazeera.
“People were slaughtered with knives. Pregnant women have their bellies open. The government is bombing civilians and killing us all. “
Both sides were charged with atrocities against civilians. The loss of communication makes it difficult to verify claims on either side of the fighting.
“We are hungry and fear that they will kill us,” an old woman told Reuters in the Sudanese border town of Hamdayat, referring to government forces fighting against loyalists of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) controls the region.
She spoke shortly after paying 30 Ethiopian biir (about 80 US cents) to the owner of a small boat to take her across the river while women and children watched swimming. Refugees said a person drowned trying to cross the night before.
Ethiopians who have fled the ongoing fighting in the Tigray region can be seen at the Setit on the Sudan-Ethiopia border [Tayeb Siddig/Reuters]Niqisti, 42, said her brother was shot dead by government militiamen outside her home in Humera, Tigray state, and her small restaurant was ransacked. It was not possible to verify your account.
“They bombed artillery and the air force raided,” said Asmara Tefsay, a 31-year-old mother. “Then we saw the soldiers approaching me and I fled with my two children, my mother and my father.”
The refugees quoted by news outlets appeared to be traumatized by the intensity of the bombing carried out by the Ethiopian army. Many told stories of artillery attacks and shooting in the streets, with fighting spilling over into the neighboring state of Amhara.
“I saw women giving birth on the street, but then I moved on because they feared the Ethiopian soldiers would kill them,” said Roni Gezergil, an engineer aged 25.
Gabera Solasi, a 22-year-old math student at the university, sought the only protection he could find as the heavy bombing drew near.
“I hid in a well during the bombing and then fled during a break,” Gabera told the AFP news agency. “Now I’m in Sudan and I think the war will go on. I’m not sure if I can ever go back to university. “
Ethiopians fleeing intense fighting in their homeland of Tigray gather in the neighboring Sudanese village 8 east of the city of Gadarif [Ebrahim Hamid/AFP]Sudanese officials registered refugees but were unable to feed the several thousand people who made the trip.
“People are hungry and the flow of refugees continues, but we have little to offer,” said Hamdayat official Salah Ramadan.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, ordered military operations in Tigray on November 4 and said they were triggered by a TPLF attack on a federal military camp – a statement a senior TPLF official seemed to confirm on Saturday .
The outbreak of fighting last week immediately sparked fears that an ongoing conflict in the Horn of Africa could reverberate and attract outside forces.
“The military escalation in Ethiopia threatens the stability of the entire country and the entire region,” said Janez Lenarcic, European Commissioner for Crisis Management, on Twitter. “If it stays that way, a full-blown humanitarian crisis is imminent. I demand unhindered humanitarian access to Tigray. “
Abiy said government forces were targeting TPLF targets, including weapon depots and equipment, but several refugees said their areas were bombarded by artillery from neighboring Eritrea in support of the Ethiopian army. This could not be verified independently.
Tigray’s leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, said Tuesday that Eritrea had sent troops across the border in support of Ethiopian government forces but had not presented any evidence. Eritrea’s Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed denied this on Friday.
“We were shot at by artillery volleys across the Eritrean border,” said Naksiam Guru, a 22-year-old refugee who lives near the border. “I saw people die in the streets.”
Burhani Abraham, 31, who arrived days ago with his wife and three-year-old child, also reported shelling from Eritrea. “I’m very hungry,” he said, sitting in the overcrowded makeshift camp.
According to official figures, at least 21,000 Ethiopians have come to eastern Sudan to seek help [El Tayeb Siddig/Reuters]
Separately on Saturday, Tigray’s regional government said it had fired missiles at two airports in the neighboring Amhara region, adding that such strikes would continue “if attacks against us don’t stop”.
The Ethiopian central government in Addis Ababa said the airports in Gondar and Bahir Dar were damaged in the strikes late Friday and claimed that Tigray regional forces had “repaired and used the last weapons in their arsenals.”
Either side views the other as illegal, the result of months of failure amid dramatic power shifts after Abiy took office in 2018.
The TPLF, which once dominated the country’s ruling coalition, disbanded last year, and Addis Ababa says members of the region’s ruling “clique” must now be arrested and their well-stocked arsenal destroyed.
Amid growing fear of ethnic targets, the TPLF issued a statement denying allegations that dozens or even hundreds of civilians were “hacked to death” in the city of Mai Kadra on Monday. The massacre was confirmed by Amnesty International, which quoted a man who was helping remove bodies as saying that many of the dead were ethnic Amharas.
The Debretsion statement alleged that Abiy’s repeated allegations against the TPLF armed forces were being “increased with the intent of inciting hatred [ethnic] Tigrayans in Ethiopia ”.
The government-appointed but independent Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has sent investigators to Mai Kadra, Aaron Maasho, senior adviser and spokesman for the group, told Al Jazeera.
“The team will conduct an investigation that will be made public,” he said.
In the Sudanese state of Gadarif, Gidey Asafa said the fighting forced her and her family to flee Mai Kadra with nothing but clothes on their backs.
“We saw people being slaughtered. There was blood everywhere. We fled because we didn’t want to die, ”she said to Al Jazeera. “Some women have lost their husbands. We only came with our lives. These clothes were given to me by the people here. “
The Sudanese villagers are offering what they can, but some fear that the thousands from Ethiopia will strain their already very limited resources [Ebrahim Hamid/AFP]Alsir Khaled, regional director of the Sudanese refugee agency, said at least 21,000 Ethiopians had come to eastern Sudan to seek help by Friday evening.
“They keep coming back,” he told AFP, adding that many came from the Ethiopian city of Humera, where some of the worst fighting has been reported.
Journalists who toured the area said the Ethiopians received little support from the state or from charities, with aid coming mostly from villagers.
“During the two-day walk, I only drank water, there was nothing to eat,” said Tsefay Salomon, a 23-year-old student.
“When we crossed the border, some Sudanese took us to this village in a car. The local church has given us food, but it’s so little that we keep it specially for children. “
The Sudanese villagers are offering what they can, but some fear that the thousands from Ethiopia will strain their already very limited resources.
“Instead of being in camps, many have settled in our fields,” said local farmer Jamal Adam.
“They felled our trees to protect themselves from the sun while others sleep in our fields under the stars. It is now sorghum harvest time and I risk losing it all. “