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Conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region Forces Thousands to Flee Violence

Ethiopian refugees who fled fighting in Tigray province lay in a hut at the Um Rakuba camp in Sudan's eastern Gedaref province, Nov. 16, 2020.

The border town of Hamdayat, Sudan, is now home to thousands of refugees from Ethiopia’s Tigray region fleeing violence. Among the estimated 8,000 who have arrived in recent days are the parents of seven-month-old twins born prematurely, laying on a bed in a makeshift shelter. The family was forced to leave the hospital in Tigray where they were getting medical care.

“They were in incubators but when the city was bombed, we ran away and came here,” their father Burhano Qobrfay told Reuters at the village located in eastern Kassala state. “Their mother doesn’t have much milk. We are using flour and mixing it to feed them. That is not recommended by doctors. Our children are dying right before our eyes.”

The more than week-long conflict in Ethiopia between the federal government and the regional ruling party, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has forced more than 20,000 people to flee to Sudan, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region prepare to cross the Setit River on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in Hamdait village in eastern Kassala state, Sudan, Nov. 14, 2020.

The U.N. and local agencies said they are helping people who are fleeing the conflict.

“If it wasn’t for Sudan, many would be dead,” Qobrou Qonzou, a refugee seeking shelter in the border town of al-Fashqa told reporters. “Where do we go? If we go to Eritrea, they will slaughter us. If we go to Gonder, they will slaughter us. Where would we go if it wasn’t for Sudan?”

The violence escalated last week after fighters loyal to the TPLF allegedly attacked a federal government position in what the government called an attempt to loot weapons and equipment. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed responded by ordering airstrikes and sending in troops.

The Ethiopian federal government says its onslaught is a limited military action against some members of the TPLF. The TPLF says this is a war against Tigray.

FILE - People walk in front of the head office of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the ruling party in the region, in the city of Mekele, northern Ethiopia, Sept. 6, 2020.

Mass killings targeted civilians

Although military clashes, including aerial bombardments, have received most of the media attention, there are reports of attacks directed against civilians.

In Mai-Kadra, Ethiopia, Amnesty International said it has documented a mass killing of hundreds of civilians by attackers wielding knives, axes and machetes. Amnesty International says those killed were not involved in the military operations.

“They were all, indeed, men of working age, and we were told by eyewitnesses that these were day laborers who were not involved in the ongoing military offensive,” Sam Dubberley of Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Team told VOA in a Skype interview. “We saw scores of bodies in the videos and we’ve been told there were hundreds of people killed in this attack.”

The Ethiopian government has blamed the attack on the TPLF, which has denied involvement. The regional ruling party said the allegations are part of a continuing effort to demonize Tigrayan people.

“The false allegations of TPLF’s involvement in these killings are being proliferated with the intent to incite hatred towards Tigrayans in Ethiopia,” the political party said on its official Facebook page.

The United Nations high commissioner for human rights said the Amnesty report has not been verified. During a press briefing in Geneva on Friday, the commissioner’s spokesperson, Rupert Colville, called for a full inquiry to determine what happened.

Dubberley, the head of Amnesty’s evidence lab which examined video and photo evidence of the attacks, told VOA the rights group was painstaking in its investigation.

“We spent a lot of time going through these images trying to establish exactly where and when they were taken,” he said. “And then we also sent some of the images to an independent pathologist who confirmed the nature of the wounds.”

Dubberley said there is little reliable information filtering outside the country due to a government-imposed internet shutdown in the Tigray region. He called on the government to allow independent investigators and human rights groups to do their jobs.

“As human rights investigators, human rights monitors, it is making the job of humanitarian workers all that much harder to really ensure that civilians are protected,” he said. “If the Ethiopian authorities want to be seen to be doing the job of ensuring accountability on all sides, that internet shutdown needs to be lifted.”

Conflict impacts Eritrea

On Saturday, three missiles hit the capital city of Asmara, according to diplomats who spoke to Reuters.

Rockets Hit Airports in Eritrea’s Capital, Ethiopia’s Amhara State
Ethiopia’s Tigray regional government carried out attacks, warns of others

Debretsion Gebremichael, the Tigray regional president, confirmed that his forces fired rockets at the airport in Asmara.

TPLF leaders allege the Ethiopian government has received backing from Eritrean forces and other non-African forces, including drones. “The concerted attack on the people of Tigray was carried out by the entire national armies of Ethiopia and Eritrea, the forces of Amhara Regional State, and non-African forces.”

Eritrean officials have denied any involvement by Eritrean forces in the conflict.

Several refugees say their areas have been shelled by artillery from neighboring Eritrea to support the Ethiopian army. Neither Reuters nor VOA have independently verified this claim.

Members of the Amhara Special Force return to the Dansha Mechanized 5th division military base after fighting against the Tigray People's Liberation Front, in Danasha, Amhara region near a border with Tigray, Ethiopia, Nov. 9, 2020.

Getachew Reda, the Tigray Central Command spokesperson, said in order to stop the military incursion, there are no alternatives left but to strike strategic targets in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

“We will strike critical military and city infrastructures as targets,” he said on a television show speaking in Amharic before the reported missile strikes in Eritrea’s capital.

Meanwhile, the number of those seeking refuge in Sudan is growing rapidly.

Refugees from the Tigray region of Ethiopia wait to register at the UNCHR center at Hamdayet, Sudan, Nov. 14, 2020.

A woman from the Qimant ethnic group who fled to Sudan said she and other women fled with nothing but children clinging to their backs.

“They (the children) don’t have anything to drink and eat. All of us are suffering,” she told AFP while sheltering in Gedaref State, Sudan. “We don’t have clothes. We have borrowed from our neighbors to wear the clothes we have. We ask the Tigray (regional government) and governments around the world to raise their heads and look at us.”

Fabrik Tessafay, a Tigrayan refugee who is one of the thousands fleeing conflict and sheltering in Hamdayat, told the Associated Press: “war is meaningless, even if the central government is cooperating with the Eritrean government and with the Amhara region, together they fight or kill, specifically the Tigray people."

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