Refugees Come Under Fire as Old Foes Fight in Concert in Ethiopia
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”16″]“Forces from neighboring Eritrea have joined the war in northern Ethiopia, and have rampaged through refugee camps committing human rights violations, officials and witnesses say.”[/perfectpullquote]
Forces from neighboring Eritrea have joined the war in northern Ethiopia, and have rampaged through refugee camps committing human rights violations, officials and witnesses say.
At the border, in Humera, between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Two countries that once fought a bitter war now appear to be allied in a fight to subdue the Tigray region of Ethiopia.Credit…Eduardo Soteras/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
NAIROBI, Kenya — (eritreahub)—As fighting raged across the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia last month, a group of soldiers arrived one day at Hitsats, a small hamlet ringed by scrubby hills that was home to a sprawling refugee camp of 25,000 people.
The refugees had come from Eritrea, whose border lies 30 miles away, part of a vast exodus in recent years led by desperate youth fleeing the tyrannical rule of their leader, one of Africa’s longest-ruling autocrats. In Ethiopia, Eritrea’s longtime adversary, they believed they were safe. But the soldiers who burst into the camp on Nov. 19 were also Eritrean, witnesses said. Mayhem quickly followed — days of plunder, punishment and bloodshed that ended with dozens of refugees being singled out and forced back across the border into Eritrea. For weeks, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia has denied that soldiers from Eritrea — a country that Ethiopia once fought in an exceptionally brutal war — had entered Tigray, where Mr.
Abiy has been fighting since early November to oust rebellious local leaders. In fact, according to interviews with two dozen aid workers, refugees, United Nations officials and diplomats — including a senior American official — Eritrean soldiers are fighting in Tigray, apparently in coordination with Mr. Abiy’s forces, and face credible accusations of atrocities against civilians. Among their targets were refugees who had fled Eritrea and its harsh leader, President Isaias Afwerki. The deployment of Eritreans to Tigray is the newest element in a melee that has greatly tarnished Mr. Abiy’s once-glowing reputation. Only last year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for making peace with Mr. Isaias. Now it looks like the much-lauded peace deal between the former enemies in fact laid the groundwork for them to make war against Tigray, their mutual adversary.
“Abiy has invited a foreign country to fight against his own people,” said Awol Allo, a former Abiy supporter turned outspoken critic who lectures in law at Keele University in Britain. “The implications are huge.”
Mr. Abiy insists he was forced to move his army quickly in Tigray after the region’s leaders, who had dominated Ethiopia for 27 years until Mr. Abiy took over in 2018, mutinied against his government. But in the early weeks of the fight, Ethiopian forces were aided by artillery fired by Eritrean forces from their side of the border, an American official said.
Since then, Mr. Abiy’s campaign has been led by a hodgepodge of forces, including federal troops, ethnic militias and, evidently, soldiers from Eritrea.
At Hitsats, Eritrean soldiers initially clashed with local Tigrayan militiamen in battles that rolled across the camp. Scores of people were killed, including four Ethiopians employed by the International Rescue Committee and the Danish Refugee Council, aid workers said.
The chaos deepened in the days that followed, when Eritrean soldiers looted aid supplies, stole vehicles and set fire to fields filled with crops and a nearby forested area used by refugees to collect wood, aid workers said. The camp’s main water tank was riddled with gunfire and emptied.
Their accounts are supported by satellite images, obtained and analyzed by The New York Times, that show large patches of newly scorched earth in and around the Hitsats camp after the Eritrean forces swept through.