Before Ethiopian army shelling hit Humera in early November, life in the airy, agricultural city of Tigray was idyllic, says Brhane Haftu, a geography professor.
“He was rich, not because of money, but because of happiness. I had my house, my own basement, my television, my kitchen, my refrigerator, ”says the 31-year-old, flipping through photos on his smartphone of his wife and five-year-old daughter. “I didn’t even realize how good things were for me.”
From the distant vantage point of a growing refugee camp in Hamdayet, across the border with Sudan, the vague outlines of Tigrayan structures and the life it offered faintly emerge from the horizon. Yet while visible, to many, any prospect of going home feels remote. Haftu and his daughter are among the 3,000 in the camp. His wife is still alive in Tigray, wait: a communications blackout means three weeks have passed since they last spoke.
“Now I have nothing. I have a yellow t-shirt, a pair of jeans, a pair of sneakers. I wash it every day and wear it the next day. “
Even before Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed, ordered a military offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on November 4, the conflict had started to feel imminent after weeks. intense tensions, Haftu said. But when operations started leaving several dead and wounded in Humera, it still felt unreal. “I was hiding at home for a week. I didn’t want to leave Humera but then I had to go. They were killing and killing. It was too much, ”he says.
He and his wife were both teachers at a school in Tigray. In the mornings, he would run across their fields and near Humera’s vast farmlands, which produce sesame and corn. Now the conflict has changed Ethiopia permanently, he says. For many young refugees in the camps, any real hope of returning has vanquished.
“I don’t see my future in Tigray. My future may be in Sudan or somewhere abroad, ”he says. “All my belongings are gone, they have evaporated. I have no hope for Tigray, he has completely changed. “
Until recently, 44-year-old Abiy was hailed as a young reformer leader, a star on the continent, who restored relations with the historic enemy Eritrea and steered his country’s delicate ethnic federation toward change.
However, a military campaign against the TPLF, whom it accused of attacking federal military camps and aiming to destabilize the country, quickly reshaped its leadership. The conflict with the TPLF, which effectively ruled Ethiopia for 28 years prior to Abiy’s historic victory in 2018, has sparked international outrage and urgent calls for scaling down, which have been ignored.
The Ethiopian government has set out to close the region in the eyes of the world, disrupting communications and preventing access. Accounts of atrocities committed by both sides of the conflict have emerged, but it has been impossible to verify independently.
More than 45,000 refugees have fled the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia in the past month in the wake of the bitter and deadly conflict. Many wait restlessly, hoping to return home. Others hope to collect belongings they abruptly abandoned.
Some, like Haftu, who walked for days in the forest and crossed the Sittet River, cannot imagine returning to a country where the armed conflict may have fundamentally changed.
The specter of a humanitarian crisis now looms over everything. Refugees in Hamdayet, one of two camps along Sudan’s southern border, say many have tried to flee Tigray but were stopped by Ethiopian forces. One of the poorest countries in the world, suffering from one of its worst economic crises, is now home to a growing number of Ethiopian refugees fleeing Tigray.
Fears have also increased over the fate of some 100,000 Eritrean refugees in north Tigray, living in camps, in areas that have reportedly seen heavy fighting. The UN warned that food supplies were dwindling, leaving many at risk of starvation.
Ethiopia last week gave in to urgent requests for access from UN aid agencies, but on Friday the UN said it continued to receive “disturbing reports” from camps that remained inaccessible.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Babar Baloch, said: “We hope that the recent agreement will allow full and unhindered humanitarian access to the Tigray region.”
In recent days, Eritrean refugees have started arriving in Hamdayet and Um Rakuba camps.
Last week, Abiy declared victory in the region after Ethiopian forces entered the regional capital, Mekelle. However, reports of clashes have continued. The UN also reported that the armed conflict had continued in many parts of Tigray.
A controversial conflict in which Abiy said the TPLF was the target has precipitated a wave of ethnic violence.
According to Amnesty International, large numbers of civilians, possibly hundreds, were massacred with knives and machetes in a town south of Humera in early November. Eyewitnesses said that forces loyal to the TPLF were to blame, although Amnesty said it could not independently confirm the reports.
Many in the camps say they fled Ethiopian forces’ attacks and abuses against civilians and widespread atrocities by “Fano”, a group of ethnic Amharan militias said to work with Ethiopian soldiers.
Hiwot Aregawi, 27, lies on a rickety bed, one of two seriously injured youths in a makeshift room in Hamdayet camp. The bandages cover two gunshot wounds, on the leg and forearm, under a tattoo: “God is love”, written inside a shield.
He had fled his home in early November when the shots swept through Baker, a town in Tigray. However, Amhara’s forces suddenly appeared cutting off his path. As he fled again, he was shot five times. Then I lay down on the floor. My hand was bleeding up to the head, so they considered me dead, ”he said.
The helpers saw it and hid it in their house. However, when Fanos found out he was nearby and began raiding houses to find him, he was forced to flee again. “It was because I am Tigrayan,” he said.
Both young men lay restless, healing wounds, hoping to heal and then return to Tigray and fight. “I hate them because they hate me. I want to go back and fight for Tigray, ”he said.
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.