NAIROBI, Kenya – Thousands of Eritrean refugees are increasingly caught amid the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where witnesses and UN officials say forces attacked their camps, abducted or killed some residents and stole their food and property.
The refugees are among the most vulnerable groups in the conflict in Tigray, which erupted in November between region forces and Ethiopian federal troops. He left thousands dead.
The refugees say they are being targeted by both sides. Troops from their native Eritrea, who have sent forces across the border to support Ethiopian soldiers, have been accused of destroying a refugee camp and kidnapping. And the refugees say they were also attacked as scapegoats by Tigris, who claim to have been widely abused by Eritrean soldiers.
Prior to the conflict, some 50,000 Eritrean refugees – many of whom had fled their country’s authoritarian government and its indefinite military policy – were present in four camps in Tigray, according to the United Nations. Another 42,000 were scattered elsewhere in the region and the rest of Ethiopia. Two camps were destroyed early in the war, and the fate of thousands of their residents is unknown.
Last week, Tigray forces occupied the remaining two camps, Mai Aini and Adi Harush, after launching an offensive on forces from the neighboring Amhara region as they tried to reclaim more territory after the withdrawal of Eritrean and Ethiopian federal forces from the region last month.
Camp residents Adi Harush told the Associated Press that Tigray’s forces have since abducted more than a dozen refugees and raided dozens of homes, stealing cell phones, food and other necessities. “There’s a lot of daily robbery,” said one resident who, like the others, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Last week, the representative of the UN Ethiopian Agency for Refugees, Ann Encontre, expressed alarm and confirmed the death of at least one Eritrean refugee. “Tens of thousands of refugees, frightened for their lives, are currently trapped and unable to move due to insecurity and the constant movement of troops,” she said.
The Ethiopian Refugee Agency in a statement on Thursday called it “a steady situation with hostages”.
Fighting continues south of the camp, where Amhara forces are massaging with the intention of occupying the area. Refugees in Ada Harush said Tigray forces placed weapons in the camp to repel the attack.
Separately, UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi has condemned in recent weeks the arrests of “hundreds” of refugees in Shire, a city controlled by Tigray forces, and cited “credible and substantiated reports of retaliatory attacks, kidnappings, arrests and violence against Eritrean refugees for their perceptions.” to one side or the other ”since the beginning of the conflict in November.
Tigray’s forces have denied targeting Eritrean refugees, and in a statement Thursday said they were “seriously concerned” about reports of attacks. A spokesman for the force, Getachewa Red, could not be reached for further comment.
Meanwhile, the whereabouts of about 9,200 Eritrean refugees from two other camps, Hatsats and Shimelba, are unknown, according to a UN fight that erupted in Hatsats in November when Eritrean troops occupied the surrounding area from Tigray forces.
The Eritreans later withdrew from the camp, and Tigray’s forces recaptured the area. Several refugees said Tigray forces retaliated against them, killing 10 people in front of the camp church.
“We were all scared, so we left the camp, but the militia in Tigray followed us,” one Hitsat resident said. “When they caught us, they threw grenades. A lot of people I know died that day. … I think they wanted revenge because the Eritrean government attacked them. “
Other Eritrean refugees have reported similar reports of attacks by Tigray forces after fleeing the Hatsats. One said 40 of the 60 people he traveled with were killed near the settlement of Zban Gedena.
Another refugee said dozens of people he fled with were killed in the same area. “I was never as scared as I was that day,” he said.
Many camp residents were apprehended by Tigray forces and taken back to Hatsats.
“That’s when hard times started,” said the refugee who had been collected. “For a month there was nothing to eat or drink. We ate leaves and grass to survive. “
Several residents said Tigray forces beat camp residents and stole their food while they controlled Hitsats in December. Eritrean refugees described similar difficulties at the Shimelba camp and said 16 refugees were killed there in January amid fighting by Tigray forces and Eritrean troops.
An internal UN assessment seen by the AP confirmed that the deaths, kidnappings and robberies took place in Shimelba and Hitsats, but concluded that the perpetrators were “an unknown armed group”.
In January, Eritrean forces recaptured Camp Hitsats and ordered the remaining residents to leave, several refugees who witnessed it told the AP.
“Eritrean troops have ordered all refugees to return to Eritrea via the Sherar,” one Hitssat resident said. “In Sherar we were ordered by big trucks, but I managed to escape by hiding in the house.”
Other refugees said Eritrean troops forced thousands of refugees to reach the border, but suggested that while they could face further persecution by the authoritarian government in Eritrea, some could return voluntarily to avoid violence in Tigray. The Eritrean Ministry of Information did not respond to questions.
A refugee now in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, said he saw Eritrean soldiers take care of buildings at the Hitsats camp in petrol and set them on fire immediately after they were ordered to leave. Interviewed refugees also said troops had previously abducted residents of both Hatsats and Shimelbe.
The UN estimates that 7,300 Eritrean refugees from Shimelba and Hitssat have reached Mai Aini and Adi Harush. Now, a few months later, as Tigray’s forces expand the offensive, the refugees fear they will be hit by hostilities again.
In an SMS, one resident, Adi Harush, described a desperate situation without access to help and constant harassment by Tigray’s forces. “Gods, please help us,” he said.
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