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‘We just ran’: Ethiopians fleeing war find little relief

Refugees from the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region wait for food served by volunteers in eastern Sudan on Monday.
(Nariman El-Mofty / Associated Press)

The baby was born on the run from war. Her first bath was in a puddle. Now she cries all night in a country that is not her own.

Wrapped in borrowed clothing, the child is one of the newest and most fragile refugees among the nearly 40,000 who have fled the Ethiopian government’s military offensive in the defiant Tigray region.

They have hurried into Sudan, often under gunfire, sometimes so quickly that they had to leave family behind. There is not enough to feed them in this remote area, and very little shelter. Some drink from the river that separates the countries, and more cross it every day.

“We walked in the desert. We slept in the desert,” said Blaines Alfao Eileen, who is eight months pregnant and has befriended Lemlem Haylo Rada, the mother of the newborn. One of the women is ethnic Tigrayan, the other ethnic Amhara. The conflict could have turned them against each other, but motherhood intervened.

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That, and tragedy. “I do not know where my husband is and whether he’s alive,” Eileen said.

Her journey took four days. “I slept on this scarf that I am holding,” she said, “and I would wake up and do it again.”

Africa’s second-most populous nation and its northern Tigray region wage war against each other in a clash that threatens to send millions of civilians fleeing for safety into politically fragile neighboring countries.

Almost half the refugees are children under 18. About 700 women are currently pregnant, the United Nations says. At least nine have given birth in Sudan.

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It has been three weeks since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent federal troops into Tigray after accusing the region’s forces of attacking a military base. Abiy’s government and the regional one each view the other as illegitimate, and the Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister warned Sunday that a final assault to take Tigray’s capital was imminent.

Civilians are caught in the middle of what some experts describe as a conflict akin to an interstate war, so heavily armed is each side.

Many people barely know what the conflict is about. People of all classes, from bankers to subsistence farmers, spend up to two weeks in so-called transit centers, waiting in makeshift shelters in arid, almost treeless surroundings just over the border in Sudan. The wait used to be just two or three days.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed left Ethiopians breathless in 2018 by making peace with enemy Eritrea. Now he’s girding the country for possible civil war.

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Some refugees have little to protect them from the heat and sun, and curl under possessions as meager as umbrellas. Men have begun weaving dried grass into temporary homes.

COVID-19 could be passing through the crowds, but the people’s focus is elsewhere. More wear crosses around their necks than masks on their faces.

The local Sudanese villagers have been praised for their generosity, but they have little to give.

More permanent camps for the refugees are several hours’ drive away, and there is sometimes not even enough fuel to transport them there. The threat of hostilities remains while they wait so close to the border.

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Ethiopia nears civil war, threatening the stability of one of the world’s most strategic regions. Here are key reasons for the international alarm.

Some humanitarian workers have used the bare floor of a local building as a makeshift hospital, treating wounds that refugees say were inflicted with machetes as Ethiopia’s long-pent-up ethnic tensions were unleashed. Authorities are trying to keep ethnic Tigrayan refugees separate from ethnic Amhara ones, out of concern about possible clashes.

“We don’t know who is fighting us,” said Aret Abraham. “We don’t know who is with us or who is not with us. We don’t know. When the war came, we just ran.”

There is little comfort to be found — not even a hot meal. The refugees can wait several hours to receive food. Sometimes they get none.

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“I have been here 14 days and have not received anything,” one said. “I have no clothes to wear.” But everyone wears the new plastic bracelet given to each refugee as the U.N. registers them.

People sit and wait. And wait.

One small girl, frustrated, twisted the head of a plastic doll until the head popped free. A man wept into the crook of his arm as he held up a tiny photo of his 12-year-old son. The boy was shot dead, he said.

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The more permanent camps were last used in the 1980s for Ethiopians fleeing a famine worsened by a years-long civil war.

For a long time, those images of starving people were seared onto Ethiopia’s reputation. It took decades to turn the country into one of Africa’s biggest success stories, with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Behind the boom, political repression kept hostilities among ethnic groups in check.

“We felt like we’d made it, and we were happy,” recalled Menas Hgoos, who now finds herself fleeing to Sudan a second time. “And now Abiy Ahmed is attacking us, we just left with only the clothes on our backs.”

Many of the new refugees are too young to remember past miseries. They are suddenly too burdened with their own — and with worries for those who did not make it out.

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“There are also a lot of people who live there who can’t escape here,” said Haftoun Berha, pausing to think of loved ones who are now impossible to reach. “That is so more sad.”


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