Three Ethiopian travelers sit inside a blue bus with white-bordered windows, saying goodbye to someone whose arms rest on the window frame.

Borders

Tensions mount at Sudan-Ethiopia border as refugees flee Tigray conflict 

More than 50,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled the conflict in Tigray. With heightened insecurity at the Sudan-Ethiopia border, many refugees are reluctant to return home, despite the reassurance of a return to normal.

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Refugees who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region ride a bus going to the Village 8 temporary shelter near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, Dec. 1, 2020. 

Credit:

Nariman El-Mofty/AP

In the past week, tensions have surged along the border between Sudan and Ethiopia where more than 50,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled since the onset of the conflict in Tigray.

Last week, Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok accused Ethiopian forces and militias of ambushing their soldiers in the long-disputed border area of al-Fashaqa. Along the same border is Hamdayet, a transit center for refugees situated along the Tekezé River, which separates Sudan from Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The increasing tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan add a new dimension to insecurity facing refugees at the border. 

Related: UN: Ethiopia's conflict has 'appalling impact on civilians'

Birhane, an elementary school teacher, arrived here with his wife, Mebrehit, last month. They asked to use their first names only, fearing repercussions for their family in Ethiopia.

Birhane and Mebrehit live in Mai-Kadra, in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, but had traveled to Humera for medical treatment just before the onset of the conflict between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Five days before the fighting began in early November, Mebrehit gave birth to twin girls prematurely.

“We were in the hospital just before they starting the bombing,” Birhane recalled. “Fire, shooting. Heavy guns from the Eritrean side. Everyone was fleeing. And most of the doctors and health professionals were fleeing with the people.”

The Ethiopian government has denied receiving support from neighboring Eritrea, which recently struck a peace deal with Ethiopia, soon after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018. But several refugees told The World otherwise.

Birhane explained that Humera, where they were staying, is just across the river from Eritrea.

After three days of aerial bombardment, the parents fled on foot, each clutching one of the twin girls in their arms. They say they passed by dead bodies and butchered limbs.

Prime Minister Abiy has claimed no civilians were killed in its military operations in Tigray, yet all parties in the conflict have been accused of human rights violations. 

Related: Ethiopians from conflict-torn Tigray region face profiling

In Mai-Kadra, where the couple lives, more than 600 people were massacred by a Tigrayan youth group according to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

Birhane and Mebrehit are surprised they made it to Sudan alive but seared in their minds are those who didn’t, including a teenage boy named Zaray.

“He died by the heavy guns. And we buried him as we were running toward Hamdayet. He was buried in Saint Michael Church in Humera,” Birhane said. 

Finally, they reached Hamdayet, where The World interviewed the couple. 

“We have to think that we are lucky because now it’s a very peaceful area. There is not any sound … from guns,” Birhane said.

Still, the conflict has taken a toll on Mebrehit. The pair went without food for days, and she still can’t breastfeed her twins, who both weigh less than 3 pounds.

“They keep telling me to eat,” Mebrehit said, referring to the various humanitarian service providers at the camp. “Because if I eat good food, I will produce milk. ... But I don’t have money.” 

At night, she sometimes goes to bed hungry, sleeping in the tent alongside her babies and other mothers. Birhane sleeps outside in the open. He returns to the tent when he hears his infants crying.

Since claiming a major victory in Tigray’s capital of Mekelle in late November, Ethiopia’s government has pushed a narrative of a return to normal in the region. They’ve begun humanitarian activities, allowed limited international ones and called on refugees to return home.

According to local Sudanese media, Ethiopia’s ambassador recently met with Sudanese officials in eastern Sudan to discuss repatriating refugees.

“It [would] be very fortunate to go back home. But I don’t believe this [Ethiopian] government."

Birhane, refugee from Tigray, Ethiopia

“It [would] be very fortunate to go back home. But I don’t believe this [Ethiopian] government,” Birhane said, echoing the sentiments of many refugees interviewed by The World.

Related: Ethiopians struggle to reach loved ones inside Tigray region

Instead, they hope to move on to Um Rakouba, a refugee camp now hosting more than 20,000 people. It’s hours away from Hamdayet, further into Sudan, in the opposite direction of home. But the couple hopes it will be closer to safety and better resources.

Refugees at Hamdayet told The World they were also receiving pressure to move on to Um Rakouba, which the UNHCR says is upscaling to match the humanitarian need in comparison to Hamdayet, a temporary transit center that has become overcrowded in recent weeks.

Insecurity at the border could also be a driving factor.

“We have more soldiers at the border near Hamdayet. This area is not safe for refugees."

Yagout Mohammed, Sudanese Red Crescent

“We have more soldiers at the border near Hamdayet. This area is not safe for refugees,” explained Yagout Mohammed, of the Sudanese Red Crescent Society over the phone.

The UN Refugee agency generally recommends that refugee camps be at least 31 miles or one full day of travel from borders and other "potentially sensitive areas," said Giulia Raffaelli, a UN representative. 

The border clashes also follow earlier reports of “obstacles” facing refugees trying to cross the border and claims that armed forces in Ethiopia were blocking them.

Tetemke Asmelash, a father of three, has experienced border insecurity firsthand. Lying on a cot, an IV line ran through his hand, with white gauze tied around his leg — a gunshot wound, he explained. 

Asmelash was living with his family in Hamdayet, but recently crossed the river back to Ethiopia, to an area he claims is his own land.

“I brought my children here to the refugee center and then went back to harvest my sorghum,” in order to feed his children, he said.

Asmelash said he and his two companions soon encountered Amhara militiamen known as Fano.

“They came to us while we were running from them and shot us,” Asmelash said, speaking softly through swollen lips. 

Amhara militiamen are believed to be working alongside Ethiopian security forces during the conflict in Tigray. 

“Our people in Tigray are being killed,” said Debesay Tareke, his friend.

He filled in details as Asmelash struggled to speak through his swollen lips, where, he said, medical staff found bits of metal.

“You need to understand that our people are in danger. ... We need the world to know this and help us go back home safely.”

Debesay Tareke, refugee from Tigray, Ethiopia

“You need to understand that our people are in danger,” said Tareke. “We need the world to know this and help us go back home safely.”

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