Ethiopia’s Tigray disaster: ‘How the battle made my uncle a refugee in Sudan’

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A BBC reporter writes about a relative who is forced to flee the Tigray region of Ethiopia after the conflict between federal and regional forces broke out.

As a businessman and farm owner, my uncle, along with tens of thousands of others, became a refugee in Sudan. He doesn’t even have a pair of shoes because he lost them when he fled Tigray on foot and by boat.

He didn’t expect a conflict to break out. In early November he made a half-day trip from his home near the town of Adwa in central Tigray to the agricultural center of Humera in the west, leaving behind his wife and two children.

This is what he usually does at this time of year when he goes to his farm in Humera to harvest his sesame and sorghum crops to sell in markets around Tigray and Sudan.

Then his life – like that of many other people in Tigray with around eight million inhabitants – turned upside down.

Investment corridor hit by fighting

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that he had ordered a military operation to oust the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) from power in Tigray for crossing the “last red line” by taking control of federal military bases in the region.

Tensions had been mounting for some time, and the TPLF-controlled regional government organized elections in Tigray in September, despite a federal decision to postpone all elections due in August due to coronavirus.

Image rightsGetty ImagesImage descriptionTigrayans voted in an election in September – a move criticized by the federal government

Mr Abiy condemned the regional elections as illegal, while the TPLF said they no longer believe he was right in office because his government mandate has expired.

About a week after the conflict began on November 4, Ethiopian forces – supported by the special forces and militias of the neighboring Amhara regional government – captured Humera from the Tigray government forces.

Humera has a population of approximately 30,000 and was part of an investment corridor to promote development. Its crops – especially sesame and cotton – are exported, also to the USA and China.

This is highly unlikely this year. My uncle said he saw some crops on fire in conflict, but he doesn’t know if his were affected.

“My uncle fled at night”

The military operation sparked ethnic tensions, with both Tigrayan and Amhara civilians killed fighting for control of Tigray, despite rival forces refusing to attack civilians.

My uncle is Tigrayan and he said there has been a lot of property looting and killings in Tigrayan possession. He said he realized how much his life was in danger when he noticed that Amhara workers – who had worked and lived peacefully with them – were now telling the Amhara special forces and militia where to find Tigrayans in Humera.

Learn more about the Tigray crisis:

Media signatureThree consequences of the ongoing crisis in Tigray

  • Fears of ethnic profiles haunt the conflict in Ethiopia
  • Ethiopian soldiers are accused of blocking the border with Sudan
  • Plagued by conflict: “My little brother needs medicine”
  • Can Ethiopia ignore Africa’s diplomats?

My uncle said that there were also heavy shots from the direction of Eritrea, although the governments of both Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Mr Abiy have denied that Eritrea has joined the military operation against the Tigray government.

Fearing for his life, my uncle secretly left Humera at night with none of his belongings and walked a long way until he reached the Tekeze River. There he found hundreds of other Tigrayans. They all got into boats to go to Sudan.

He said he was relieved to get to the UN Refugee Center, but told me the tents were so full that he slept outside.

Media signatureAnne Soy from the BBC reports from a refugee camp on the Sudanese-Ethiopian border

He called me from a Sudanese cell phone number and said he had borrowed someone’s phone because their Ethiopian number was not working at the refugee center.

After that one conversation more than two weeks ago, I didn’t hear from him and couldn’t reach him. With phone lines still closed in many parts of Tigray, his wife and children do not know that he has become a refugee in Sudan.

“Air raid moved my family”

And I can’t tell if his family fled their homeland – Adwa was one of the cities that Ethiopian troops took before they captured Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region.

My parents and siblings live in Mekelle, and like thousands of others in the Diaspora, I have no idea whether they survived the heavy shots and bombardments that hit the city for most of Saturday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says the main referral hospital is having difficulty treating the wounded and there is also a shortage of body bags.

The TPLF said 19 civilians were killed by the Ethiopian army and more than 30 injured in Mekelle alone, but Mr Abiy said not a single civilian was killed during the week-long military operation in Tigray.

I last heard from my family through a contact. This came after the Ethiopian military carried out an air strike near the university campus in Mekelle on November 16.

“The most difficult time in my life”

My parents and siblings lived on campus. The contact informed me that they had decided to leave their family-owned home for generations to live with friends in another part of town.

I still couldn’t reach anyone in Mekelle. This is the most difficult time of my life and all I can do from abroad is pray for their safety and that of everyone else.

In recent years there have been conflicts in many parts of Ethiopia that have forced nearly two million people to flee their homes. But there was stability in Tigray.

This has now changed and although Mr Abiy declared the military operation over after the capture of Mekelle, there are still reports that fighting and air strikes are continuing in some parts of Tigray.

We don’t know when the nightmare will end; when wound healing begins; when families are reunited and closed when they lose loved ones; when all schools reopen; when the electricity and water supplies will be back; When agriculture and economy resume, when – in short – life returns to normal.

We have not named the people in this report for security reasons.

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