Fleeing Ethiopians tell of the ethnic massacre of the Tigray War

HAMDAYET, Sudan – The gunmen who stopped Ashenafi Hailu on the dirt road were dragged in a loop to save bullets.

Mr. Ashenafi, 24, was racing his motorcycle to help a childhood friend trapped by the Ethiopian government’s military offensive in the northern region of Tigray when a group of infantry men confronted him. They were told they were members of a rival ethnic group militia and took the cash and started beating ominously with laughter.

“Kill him!” Mr. Ashenafi remembered the saying of one of the men.

When they pulled the noose around his neck and began to pull on the road, Mr. Ashenafi was sure he was going to die and eventually fainted. But he said he woke up alone near a pile of corpses, including children. His motorcycle is gone.

Mr Ashenafi and dozens of other Tigray refugees fled the violence and settled near the remote town of Hamdayet, a community of only a few thousand people near the border, where I spoke to them. Their direct accounts, shared a month after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared war on the Tigray region, detail the devastating conflict that has become a grim source of looting, ethnic conflict and murder.

Many of the refugees have lingered here instead of moving on to refugee camps further afield in Sudan, staying closer to home to receive any news about their city or missing loved ones. But little information is coming, the Ethiopian government has been blocking mobile networks and the internet for weeks.

Nearly 50,000 people have fled to Sudan so far, with the UN calling Ethiopia the worst refugee migration in more than two decades. And their bills are in sharp contrast to each other Mr Abiy’s repeated statements, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for ending the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea, that no civilian will be injured.

The Tigers describe a campaign of indiscriminate military shootings and murders, rape and loot by government allied ethnic militias. Several told me they saw dozens of corpses along the route as they ran away from their shops, homes and farms and went on a long journey to the Sudanese border in the choking heat.

As the tigray fighting continues, it degenerates into a guerrilla war that could unravel the national structure of Ethiopia and the stability of the entire Horn of Africa region. These include Eritrea, which is allied with Ethiopia against the Tigray and was fired by rebel forces; and Sudan, which deployed its army vigorously to the troubled border of Ethiopia, even though it allowed refugees to cross.

The Tigray accounts for about 6 percent of Ethiopia’s 110 million people, they have been judges of power and money in the country from 1991, when they helped end a military dictatorship, until 2018, when anti-government protests brought Mr. Abiy to power. .

Mr Abiy sought to emphasize national unity and diversity in a multi-ethnic Ethiopia, even as he systematically began to exclude Tigray personalities from public life and condemned their abuses under their power. The conflict is now in stark contrast to the heritage it seeks and the stability of the whole country.

If Mr Abiy’s goal was to unite an increasingly divided country, “this conflict has made this even more difficult, and it has increased the likelihood of continued political instability,” said William Davison, a leading Ethiopian analyst at the International Crisis Group. was recently expelled from the country.

The deadly mix is ​​exacerbated by the involvement of rival ethnic militia groups. One is the militia of Fano, an Amharic ethnic group. Together with the Amhara regional government security forces, Fano was involved in the Tigray intervention, Mr. Davison said.

While Fano is a term loosely used for Amharic young militias or protesters, Mr. Davison added that “the name given to youthful Amharic vigilante groups also become more active in times of uncertainty not controlled by the authorities. “

Sudanese Tigray refugees said they were attacked and damaged by Fano fighters, ravaging their properties and extorting them when they wanted to flee. Many of the Tigers, including Mr. Ashenafi, said they were afraid of returning and that experience had made them sleepless and scarred.

After Mr. Ashenafi awoke and saw the corpses around him, he marched through the nearby forest to reach the home of his friend, Haftamu Berhanu, who had received him. In pictures taken by Mr. Haftamu and seen by The New York Times, Mr. Ashenafi lay on his back, white skin around his neck peeled off the loop.

After that, for days, Mr. Ashenafi was unable to speak or swallow anything and communicated with his friend by pointing fingers or describing things.

“It was heartbreaking,” Mr. Haftamu said of the days he cared for his friend.

“In our lives, I did not expect our government to kill us,” Mr Ashenafi said. “I am so scared. I don’t sleep at night.

Many of the refugees who arrived in Sudan were relocated to the Um Rakuba camp, about 43 miles from the border. But many are also staying near a refugee transition point in Hamdayet, hoping to return home or reunite with their families if it is safe.

In this dusty outpost, refugees meet every morning the natural border between the Tekeze River, Ethiopia and Sudan, for showering, collecting water and cleaning the clothes you bring with you. One recent afternoon, when the children were immersed in the river and Ethiopian music was playing from a nearby phone, the refugees recounted scenes of horror they had witnessed.

Many said they came from Humera, an agricultural city of about 30,000 inhabitants, near both the Sudanese and Eritrean borders. Thousands suddenly fled the city, carrying anything when shooting began around midnight in terms of the refugees heading in the direction of Eritrea.

Some first gathered at nearby churches, but after hearing other churches were fired, they began for hours footpath to Sudan. It was said that militia fighters began to flow in.

“The Amharic militia cut off people’s heads,” said a Humerai resident named Meles, who only wanted to identify with his first name for fear of retaliation.

Meles, who had a small cafe, said Fano’s reputation had preceded them and that he had just found a lot of corpses on the way to Sudan. As he spoke to me, a crowd gathered beside him on the river bank, many nodded and verbally confirmed his bill as he told me.

At least 139 children have arrived in Sudan unaccompanied and are now at risk of abuse and discrimination, according to Save the Children.

With the Tigray region between the Amhara region and Eritrea, which aligns with the Ethiopian national government, Meles said he is pleased that refugees like him have another escape option.

“Thank God you have Sudan to turn to,” he said.

“I had to speak fluent Amharic to survive,” said Filimon Shishay, a 21-year-old Tigrayai who said he met Fano and had to get rid of the $ 5 he had. “They hate us,” he said.

There has long been hostility between Tigray and Amhara. When the Tigray rebels seized power in 1991, Amharas claimed that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which ruled the region, had occupied the territories that historically belonged to them.

“It is widely believed that TPLF wanted to attach these areas in order to border Sudan and penetrate fertile land for economic development,” – Hone Mandefro, Ethiopian analyst, sociology and anthropology doctoral candidate at Concordia University in Canada, said in an email.

Davison, on behalf of the International Crisis Group, said that with Amhara security and militia forces operating in Tigray in recent weeks, as well as some Amhara administrators stationed there, “Amhara’s actual occupation of the area appears to be linked to . “

The move is likely to lead to violent Tigray retaliation, he said, as may have already happened in Mai Kadra, where human rights groups say forces loyal to the Liberation Front He massacred 600 people, most of them Amhara.

Many Hamdayet refugees blamed politicians, and especially Mr. Abiy, for pitting civilians against each other. “Amhara and Tigray are one,” said Negese Berhe Hailu, a 25-year-old engineer.

Hadas Hagos, 67, fled Humera’s home – which is part of the larger West Tigray area claimed by Amharas – and worried he couldn’t go back and see the family members left behind. The other refugees who followed informed him that their home had been looted.

“We fought for freedom and democracy,” Mrs. Hadas said, bursting into tears as she recounted how she fought her family and family against the Marxist regime in the 1980s and how she lost her brother to the war. – We don’t deserve a life like that.