Food and water are flowing into two camps in Ethiopia’s conflict-torn Tigray region, which houses about 24,000 Eritrean refugees, the UN refugee agency said on Tuesday.
Fighting between armed groups has escalated in and around the camps, Mai Aini and Adi Harush, and two refugees have been killed this month, it said, adding that they do not know who the groups are.
“The last distribution of food to the two refugee camps took place in June, when the ration was only enough for 30 days,” said Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in a news release in Geneva.
“There is a real risk of hunger among these refugees if supplies are not resumed, as they may have already run out of food supplies that got them,” he said.
Even clean drinking water runs out, he added.
“Health care services in Tigray are alarmingly limited, leaving hundreds of thousands of people, including those injured during the fighting, pregnant women and survivors of sexual violence without adequate access to the necessary drugs and basic care,” said Fadela Chaib of World Health. Organization (WHO).
There has been a “significant and worrying increase” in the number of reported cases of severe acute malnutrition among children in Tigray – which can be fatal, she said.
Conflicts broke out between the Ethiopian central government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in November. Three weeks later, the government took control of Tigray’s capital Mekele and declared victory. But the TPLF continued to fight and in a stunning turnaround of fortunes in late June, Mekelle and most of Tigray retreated after government troops withdrew.
UNHCR lost access to the camps on July 14, Baloch said.
Eritrean refugees began arriving in Tigray in 2000, towards the end of a devastating two-year border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia that left tens of thousands of people dead. They fled from the authoritarian rule of President Isaiah Afwerki, whose abominable registers of rights and forced military service systems have led some to call Eritrea “Africa’s North Korea.”
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 largely to usher in a surprising rapprochement with Isaiah after a stalemate for almost two decades. Nevertheless, Isaiah and the TPLF remained bitter enemies, with the result that Eritrean refugees continued to feel at home in Tigray.
The region “was good for all of us,” said Abdela Ibrahim, a former resident of the Shimelba camp who now lives in a camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Gondar, south of Tigray in the Amhara region.
But that changed when Abiy sent troops to Tigray in November last year to overthrow the TPLF, a move he said came in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps. From the beginning, Eritrean refugees were caught in the crossfire. Two camps in northern Tigray, Hitsats and Shimelba, were looted and then completely destroyed in what an aid group called a “rampage”.
When the fighting reached Hitsats in late November, the pro-TPLF military targeted refugees in retaliation after being hit by battlefield adversity against Eritrean troops.
Eritrean soldiers also abused, said the refugees, arresting dozens of people, probably more, and whipping them into an unknown location.
Eventually, Eritrean forces took control of Hitsats and Shimelba and forced those remaining in the camps to evacuate, the refugees said. Many began day-long walks to safety through an active conflict zone, often with nothing to eat except the moringa leaves.
Before the war, 92,000 Eritrean refugees lived in Tigray, including 19,200 in Hitsats and Shimelba, according to the Ethiopian Refugee and Return Office (ARRA).
More than 5,000 of those who escaped from the destroyed camps ended up in Mai Aini and an adjoining facility, Adi Harush, although they have never felt comfortable there, says ARRA chief Tesfahun Gobezay. Many are afraid of being associated with Eritrean soldiers, who have been involved in the mass rape of civilians in the Tigrayan and massacres that have killed hundreds.
The violence that started on July 13 in Mai Aini has undoubtedly increased these unrest. It began after the rebels, recently from taking back Mekele, launched a new offensive to reclaim disputed territory in southern and western Tigray, where Mai Aini and Adi Harush are located.