Eritrean refugees fear more bloodshed after fleeing Tigray

Internally displaced people protect themselves from the rain at a camp in the town of Azezo, Ethiopia, on July 12, 2021. The camp hosts Ethiopians as well as Eritrean refugees uprooted by the ongoing war in the region of Tigray.
8 min read
06 August, 2021

Ethiopia is the third-largest refugee-hosting country in Africa, sheltering 785,322 registered refugees and asylum-seekers as of 30 June 2021.

However, this figure should be treated with caution as Ethiopia does not have a well-developed urban refugees’ programme, regardless of its progressive 2019 Refugee Proclamation which guarantees, among others, freedom of movement (hence away from refugee camps and into urban locations), right to work and overall local integration.

Ethiopia is a State party to the United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees2 (1951 Convention). The UNHCR, the Ethiopian Government’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) and various implementing partners provide service delivery in the camps and urban centres.

Eritreans have been fleeing war-engulfed Tigray for the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa since January 2021, although none of the humanitarian agencies is providing support for them there

Eritreans constitute over 18 percent of the refugee population in Ethiopia and have recently been affected by the conflict between the federal government and regional state forces in Tigray in Northern Ethiopia which commenced in November 2020.

Following heavy fighting which took place in Hitsats and Shimelba Eritrean refugee camps, ARRA announced the official closure of those camps in February 2021. Some of the refugees have relocated to the two remaining camps, Adi Harush and Mai Aini. Those two settlements have also been sites of violent clashes, and on 15 July 2021, UNHCR announced that it is now unable to assist Eritrean refugees there.

Eritreans have been fleeing war-engulfed Tigray for the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa since January 2021, although none of the humanitarian agencies is providing support for them there. They are relying on help from family and friends who had moved to Addis prior to the Tigray conflict. Many people are destitute and seeking refuge at local churches.

I worked in Hitsats camp for an INGO in 2016 and I have been in touch with refugees there throughout the last five years. Given the communication blackout in Tigray, it took more than three months for me to reconnect with my friends once they reached safety in Addis Ababa.

Furthermore, many people remembered me from the camp and wanted to share their stories on WhatsApp calls, usually requesting that I share their testimonies on Twitter. A friend who was interpreting for me from Tigrinya to English is a man so I was only able to interview men; discussing accounts of sexual violence with a male interpreter would be culturally inappropriate. I spoke to 20 young men, the dominant demographics in Hitsats which provided protection for around 12,000 displacees at the time of the conflict. Approximately 44 percent of the camp’s residents were under the age of 18, according to data from the end of October 2018.

The conflict in Tigray has been accompanied by vicious wartime propaganda, hate speech on social media and a plethora of unverified, and often unverifiable reports and fake news. As each warring party was accused of grave human rights violations, alleged fabricating of military uniforms was widely discussed at the onset of the conflict, when the involvement of Asmara’s troops was being officially denied

Eritrean refugees who lived in so-called Shire camps in Tigray for 20 years became once again a scapegoat for longstanding regional rivalries.

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Hitsats and its surroundings became a scene of extreme violence in the period between 19 November 2020 when the Eritrean army entered the camp, and 4 January 2021 when Eritrean forces told refugees to leave the settlement.

My interlocutors told me that Hitsats was destroyed after that date as they could see smoke coming from burnt buildings from afar. Some of the alleged killings and human rights violations took place between 4-7 December 2020 in the villages of Zebengedena and Zelazile and its mountainous surroundings when a group of around 1,000 refugees fled the camp amidst heavy fighting between local militia groups and the Eritrean army.

They were hoping to get to another camp, Shimelba which is located within few days of walking. Refugees were however apprehended by various militia groups and subjected to retaliatory attacks as a response to the Eritrean army’s invasion into bordering Tigray. Those acts of mass atrocities also included mob violence as local villagers, including women, were joining armed militiamen in assaults on refugees.

Tedros (not his real name) has lived in Hitsats since 2019. On the evening of 5 December, a local militia group came to the camp, which was unfenced and completely unprotected as all the humanitarian organisations had left it, following earlier plans to close the camp

As sounds of guns were piercing the air, Tedros decided to flee the camp for Shimelba, with a group of 40 other refugees. As they did not know the way, they moved rather erratically on Tigray’s arid mountainous paths. Suddenly, they were surrounded by a group of 6-7 armed Tigrinya-speaking militia men in civil clothes. They were all above the age of 40-45, so perhaps retired military men as those men tend to own Kalashnikov guns in rural Tigray.

One of the victim's of the violence against Eritreans on the 5th December
One of the victim's of the violence against Eritreans on December 5 [The New Arab]

The attackers selected 10 men from the group of refugees and told them to wear Eritrean army uniforms. Refugees were also given knives and instructed to cut off women’s breasts. When the militiamen were getting ready to record the scene with their mobile phones using flash, an older Eritrean man started fighting with them with his fists. Others took this opportunity to escape; Tigrayans started shooting at those who dispersed in the night.

Tedros got shot in his hands but managed to run away. He took off the Eritrean army uniform and put on clothes he removed from a dead body found on the way. He also covered his injured hands with a t-shirt to stop bleeding. He made it to Zebengedena in the morning, when he was captured by a few other militiamen (initially 20). Local villagers, both men and women, armed with axes and sticks formed a mob chanting ‘we will kill you’.

Tedros together with other refugees was forced to walk back to Hitsats for 12h, without any break, and without food or water. People who were too exhausted to walk were shot: Tedros witnessed one person killed in front of him. Some militia men from this particular group had sniper guns. Four people died after arriving in the camp due to lack of medical help: this was a 49-year-old woman whose son I spoke to, two young girls and one boy.

Yonas (not his real name) spent one year in Hitsats in Zone D where mainly young unaccompanied people were living. On 5 December around 5 pm, just before the sunset, he escaped from the camp with five other boys. On their way to Shimelba, they met an older Eritrean woman who joined them as refugees moved in groups for safety reasons. Around midnight they were captured by a group of 12 militiamen in civil clothes, also Tigrinya speakers, armed with Kalashnikovs. They were all around the age of 45-50 years old and did not seem to be well trained. The militia group ordered the refugees to get undressed and rape the woman.

As the conflict in Tigray continues, carrying out independent investigation into alleged mass atrocities which were committed against Eritrean refugees who were meant to be protected by the Ethiopian state is still very difficult

Refugees were told to say ‘we are Eritrean refugees’ whilst they were filmed by militiamen with their mobile phones. A young man who refused to rape the woman was shot dead. After killing him, the militiamen threatened others that if they do not do what they are told to, they will also be murdered. The ordeal lasted for 2-3 hours. Around 3 am another militia group showed up with another group of captured refugees. Women were separated from men, and men were forced to walk back to the camp.

Yonas was in a group of around 200 refugees. They started walking in the early morning, passing dead bodies who were left to rotten in the heat. Militia group were joined by local people, less than 200, mostly men but also few women, of all ages. They were armed with axes and sticks. Women were insulting refugees and throwing stones at them, calling them ‘shabia’ (pejorative term for Eritrean army) and shouting ‘you killed our brothers, and now we will kill you’.

Upon return, refugees were locked up in a building of a Dutch NGO, ZOA where they were interrogated by the militia. ‘Are you shabia, is that why you escaped from the camp?’, they kept asking the refugees.

After two days, women came back, also on foot. Yonas spent a month hiding in his shelter and then on 4 January he fled the camp with other refugees. He suspects that the video of rape may have been used for propaganda purposes; the militia may say that it was a Tigrayan woman raped by Eritrean refugees to fuel the violence. ‘She was like a mother’, he recalled in a late evening interview, sobbing. He keeps having nightmares and cannot concentrate on anything. Tedros reported the event to an aid agency in Addis but was not provided with any psychological support. He does not know what happened to the woman that he was forced to rape.

According to the refugees I spoke to, between 4-7 December, around 150-360 refugees were killed by local Tigrayan militia groups around Zelazile and Zebengedena villages. The number includes 50-60 Eritreans who were murdered by hand grenades thrown at them when they were pushed into gold excavation pits. Between 400-500 women were raped in those locations according to male interviewees.

As the conflict in Tigray continues, carrying out an independent investigation into alleged mass atrocities which were committed against Eritrean refugees who were meant to be protected by the Ethiopian state is still very difficult.

Dr Natalia Paszkiewicz is an anthropologist with a particular interest in migration and refugees studies. She has been working with refugees for nearly 20 years in the UK, Malta, Ethiopia and Djibouti, both in academia and in the non-governmental sector.

Follow her on Twitter @NataliaPasz