Africa

‘They left us for dead.’ Tigray refugees tell of horrors after Ethiopian troops vowed they’d be safe

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As he enters Sudan, fleeing Ethiopia’s Tigray province, border guards direct him to the first aid tent nearby.

The medical facilities here are basic and Huyeet grimaces as the grimy dressing is unraveled, revealing a gunshot wound.

Huyeet is 24, and like many of the people CNN met as they crossed the border, he refuses to give his surname. Even here, so far from home, he says he feels unsafe.

Huyeet says that when the Ethiopian Army captured his hometown, Humera, its soldiers reassured Huyeet and those with him that they would be safe.

Then the Ethiopian troops withdrew.

“The Amhara militia [Fano] came and I was shot in my leg with a bullet and as I fell on the ground the blood of the other wounded bodies splashed onto my face,” Huyeet said.

“As the militiamen came to inspect the bodies to see who was living and who was dead, they saw that I was covered with blood,” he recalled. “They thought I was dead, so they threw me into a stream.”

Huyeet said he was saved by a group of Tigray refugees, who fished him out of the water and bandaged his leg.

“The Fano, they left me for dead,” he told CNN, as medics cleaned his wound.

The Fano are an ethnic Amhara militia which is allied with the Ethiopian Army.

A spokeswoman for the Ethiopian government denied the existence of the “Fano” Amhara militia but — confusingly — did acknowledge that “the militia of the Amhara Region were engaged to the extent of securing border towns between the two regions.”

The Hamdayat refugee camp in Sudan borders Ethiopia.

Violence against civilians

It’s very hard to know what is happening in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, because the government has endorsed a communications blackout.

A CNN team at the Sudan-Ethiopia border spent days gathering testimony from refugees who say they were targeted because of their Tigray ethnicity.

The conflict in Tigray, between the Tigray Peoples Liberation Forces (TPLF) and the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, began in early November.

Capital of Ethiopia's Tigray region under control of Ethiopian forces, says PM after intense bombardment
Nobel laureate Abiy has accused Tigray’s leaders of undermining his democratic reforms.
According to the United Nations, 45,000 refugees have crossed into neighboring Sudan since he vowed “military confrontation” with Tigray.
The UN expects as many as 100,000 people to flee over the next six months, describing the situation as a “full-scale humanitarian crisis.”
International leaders have repeatedly expressed grave concern for the disruption of humanitarian access and for violence against civilians during fighting in the regional capital, Mekelle.

Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) took control of Mekelle, which is home to half a million residents — half of whom are children — late last month.

The Ethiopian government has denied bombing civilian areas and accused TPLF forces of sheltering in schools, churches and mosques.

CNN has not been permitted to travel to Ethiopia’s Tigray region by the Ethiopian government, although we have requested access.

A young mother and her newborn baby rest at the Hamdayat camp. She fled violence in Humera, an Ethiopian town near the border.

CNN is not able to independently verify Huyeet’s story but all the refugees we spoke to told a similar story.

Again, and again, they described how the Ethiopian army enters a town and tells civilians that they are safe. Then the Ethiopian soldiers leave, and other armed groups arrive.

Ethnic cleansing fears

Unlike Huyeet, Zeray Gabrgeorgis asked that we publish his name in full — he was separated from the rest of his family as they fled his hometown and fears the worst. He doesn’t believe he has anything left to lose.

At least 600 civilians were killed in northern Ethiopia massacre, rights commission says

Gabrgeorgis says that in his town — Sheraro on the Eritrea-Ethiopia border — the Eritrean military took over when Ethiopian troops left.

“They beat us with the machine guns, they would make us lie on the ground and put the weapon in our mouths,” he said. “If you are afraid, they will kill you, and if you don’t show fear, they turn you on your back and hit you with the back of the rifle.”

An Ethiopian government spokeswoman did not specifically deny refugees’ claims that Eritrean soldiers were involved but dismissed their claims as propaganda spread by regional Tigray forces.

“The people of Tigray, under Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s oppressive rule, have been consistently fed a ‘fear of the other’ propaganda over the past three decades,” she said.

CNN attempted to reach the Eritrean government for comment but was unsuccessful.

People sleep outside at the camp.

The testimonies — if true — speak to growing fears that the month-old hostilities in Ethiopia could draw in other regional actors.

They also raise concerns that it could descend into an ethnic conflict.

Western diplomats based in the region, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of exacerbating the situation on the ground, told CNN their biggest fear is that the conflict could descend into ethnic cleansing.

“How do you say you didn’t know, when all the signs are there — clear as day,” wondered one diplomat, voicing a frustration common among Western governments’ representatives there. “But how do you even begin to stop this?”

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