By Morgane Wirtz**
Since the start of the conflict in Tigray in November 2020, Sudan has hosted more than 60,000 Ethiopian refugees. They are in addition to the tens of thousands of Eritreans the country receives each year. Some are fleeing massacres; others have been forced to fight.
HAMDAYETE, Sudan (IDN) — The Sudanese village Hamdayete lies on the banks of the Tekeze River, on the border between three countries. In the North-East, Eritrea. In the South-East, Ethiopia. In the West, Sudan. Due to its geographical position, Hamdayete is a reception centre for many refugees.
“According to our general program, we are receiving between 7500 and 9000 refugees from Eritrea per year”, states Musmar Ahmed Alnabi from the Sudanese Government’s Commissioner for Refugees (COR). This year, Sudan also received 62,166 Tigrayans, fleeing civil war in northern Ethiopia, says the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The majority of them crossed Tekeze River, to be hosted at Hamdayete, and then resettled in the refugee camps of Al Tanideba, and Um Rakuba.
On June 28, the Ethiopian federal government declared a unilateral ceasefire in Tigray. Mekele, the region’s capital, was taken over by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). For many analysts, this does not mean the end of the war. And the Tigrayan refugees know that whatever happens, their region has been devastated. Everything has to be rebuilt.
In her straw house, in a Sudanese refugee camp, Banchi Wolu roasts coffee beans. The furniture of her shelter is simple, a bed, a mosquito net, a small table and stools. She also has the necessary equipment for the preparation of traditional Ethiopian coffee and an incense burner. She has been living there for eight months with her 13-year-old son, Obama.
They come from Mai-Kadra, a Tigrayan town on the border with Sudan, known to have been the scene of a massacre on November 9, 2020. Hundreds of civilians have been killed. According to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, most of the victims were Amhara.
However, the testimonies of refugees stated, victims were Tigrayan or both Amhara and Tigrayan. “In the city, the Amhara citizens started to kill innocent Tigrayans. I saw dead people and dead people. They were killed by knives. Not by gun”, remembers Banchi Wolu. “They killed them using knives in their hearts and throats. Even the militia and the military, when they were seeing a child, they said: “This child is young now, but in the future, he will kill us, so we should kill him now””, adds her son Obama.
“When we were out of Mai-Kadra, the military of Amhara region and Abiy’s military’s started following us, shooting guns in the air, behind us. When we went out, on the way to Humera, we heard the heavy weapons. So, we turned back and made our way to Sudan’s border”, explains Banchi Wolu.
Forced to fight
The Somali and the Eritrean army support the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) in the Tirgayan conflict. Hagos * fought in Tigray against the TPLF. He is Eritrean and managed to flee to Sudan a few days ago. His face is riddled with scars.
“I reached the Ethiopian border on 2 November 2020. It was a large army. Before that, I was in the prison in Eritrea. Directly from the prison, we were sent to Ethiopia. I came with 160 other prisoners”, he remembers. Hagos and his companions were not informed that they were being sent to the front.
It was only when the vehicles escorting them stopped at Badme, on the border with Ethiopia, that they realised they were being sent to war. “I participated in some fighting against the army of Debretsion. I was there for three months. We lived in the houses of the normal people of Tigray who had escaped,” Hagos states.
In Eritrea, military service is compulsory and has an indefinite duration. Some of the soldiers sent to Tigray were therefore not volunteers but forced to participate in the war. “There were people who rejected to fight. They said: “Why should we die in another country?” Now all of them are in prison. Most of them are in Mai Serwa. They are in very bad condition,” Hagos explains.
Mai Serwa prison is composed of dozens of containers, with no windows, locked with a padlock. Five hundred prisoners are recorded to be held in this detention centre by Amnesty International. Hagos took advantage of a foot injury and a hospital visit to escape the war.
Today, many people with different backgrounds are thus living in Eastern Sudan; Tigrayan refugees, Eritrean refugees, deserters from Eritrean military service, TPLF fighters, Eritrean, Ethiopian and Sudanese intelligence members. The region is also the scene of various ethnic and territorial conflicts.
“After the civil war in Ethiopia, the Sudanese authorities thought it was a suitable time to recapture the area of Al-Fashaga, disputed between the two countries. They attacked this zone and pull away the Ethiopians. Ethiopia is angry and now all of them are gathering their soldiers. Maybe there will be a war between the two countries. This situation, I think, could affect the Ethiopian refugees. Some Sudanese people consider the Ethiopians as enemies,” states Hammit Ibrahim, journalist settled in Kassala.
Sudan is not a safe haven for Eritrean refugees either. According to some of them, people have been threatened with return to Eritrea by the Sudanese authorities. “We know a group of ten people. When they told them that they wanted to deport them, four of them went fast, escaping. But they caught the other six and deported them,” Eritrean refugees state.
Eastern Sudan is also an area where the Rashaida live. The members of this tribe are known for their involvement in human trafficking. Nura* fled Tigray ten years ago. While living in Shegarab refugee camp, she felt constantly threatened.
“I have not only heard about people being kidnapped by the Rashaida. My sister, directly. I saw her with my eyes, they kidnapped her,” she states. “They brought her to Sinai. She talked with us. They wanted a ransom, 40,000 US dollars,” she adds. Human trafficking to Sinai ended in 2013. “There is always this, but it happens less often. Today, it is to central Sudan that the victims are being taken and tortured against ransom,” says journalist Hammit Ibrahim.
Nura today, fears for her children. Her 17-year-old daughter has already tried to leave to Libya. “There are smugglers working, but in another way. There are doing something for our children like to wash their brain. They are speaking about Libya, saying it is a very nice country. They say: “You will lose your youth here in Sudan””, she explains.
“I followed them because our life is very hard and I see my mother living in a very bad situation, so I try to help her,” her daughter justifies. “A large number is leaving. Also, a large number died by the Mediterranean Sea. Every day we hear news,” they add.
Insecurity, harshness of life and inoccupation are calling many refugees in the region to leave. Those who do not dream of Europe talk about returning home and fighting alongside the forces of TPLF.
“I want to be a warrior for my country. I want to save my country. I miss my city and my country. If I got the chance, I will go,” says Banchi Wolu, the refugee from Mai-Kadra. I turn to her 13-year-old son to ask if he too would like to go and fight. Simply, he replies: “Yes, me too“. [IDN-InDepthNews – 08 July 2021]
*Names have been changed.
Photo: Refugees from Tigray watch an interview of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Um Rakuba refugee camp, in Al-Qadarif state, eastern Sudan on June 24, 2021. Credit: Morgane Wirtz at hanslucas.com
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** This article has been produced in cooperation with the Brussels-based Europe External Programme with Africa (EPA).
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