Ethiopia’s civil war: ‘We left them to die in their hospital beds. I don’t know how I will face God’

The Telegraph publishes one of the first accounts of the savage battle raging in northern Tigray EASTERN SUDAN21 November 2020 • 9:00pm

Source: Daily Telegraph

The women were midway through their labour when the hospital director came in and told Mihret Glahif she had to run for her life.

It didn’t matter that her patients were giving birth, the staff had to leave immediately. The civil war had arrived, and it was knocking on the door.

“We heard gunshots and bombs,” the 25-year-old nurse said. “We left all of the patients. Some of them were injured soldiers, some of them were women in labour. We left everyone.”

Ms Glahif’s, parched and hungry, was recounting the trauma of a brutal new conflict sweeping northern Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous nation.

“I shouldn’t have left them. I don’t know how I will face God,” she told the Telegraph after fleeing with thousands of others across hostile terrain with just her passport into the craggy sunbaked wasteland of eastern Sudan.

This newspaper today publishes some of the first accounts of the savage battle raging between one of Africa’s most powerful armies and the regional military in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray that has triggered a mass exodus and a desperate humanitarian crisis.

A communication blackout after the internet was cut means so far precious few details have emerged of alleged bombings, beatings, machete massacres and even ethnic cleansing.

Hundreds, probably thousands, have been killed since the conflict erupted two and half weeks ago; and accusations of potential war crimes are coming in thick and fast.

“The Amhara [militia] cut off the heads of four children. They cut the babies out of pregnant women. I saw it with my own eyes,” says Burani, a 35-year-old man who has just trekked two days across mountainous terrain with no water to find safety in neighbouring Sudan.

Composing himself as he drags with anger on what’s left of his cigarette, he pleads for help. “Why is the world not looking at what’s going on? Why is no one helping us??”

Kibane Hilufi, a doctor from the border town of Humera who also fled, says that bombs had rained down on his home from 3am to 2pm before he was forced to flee. 

“There were so many. So many. I think maybe 40 explosions. There were about 50 injured in the hospital. I think many more died.”

Mr Hilus alleges that the bombs came from near the northern border, raising fears that Eritrea, which has a long history of hostilities with Tigray, is also being pulled into the conflict.

Burani’s descriptions of knife massacres chime with an Amnesty International investigation that last week concluded hundreds of civilians had been hacked or stabbed to death in the city of Mai-Kadra, in what appears to be an ethnic cleansing.

People who saw the dead bodies told Amnesty that they had gaping wounds that appear to have been inflicted by sharp weapons such as knives and machetes, reports which the charity says have been confirmed by an independent pathologist.

“This is a horrific tragedy whose true extent only time will tell as communication in Tigray remains shut down,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.

Three people told Amnesty International that survivors of the massacre said they were attacked by members of Tigray Special Police Force, a regional paramilitary who are now at war with Ethiopia.

The conflict broke out on November 4 when the country’s central government accused the region’s local authorities of holding “illegal” elections and seizing a military base

Facing down the Tigrayans is the Ethiopian government led by Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has Russian-made MiG fighter jets, attack helicopters and federal forces at his disposal.

Tigray itself is a mountainous region home to some of the most battle-hardened fighters on the continent and many of Ethiopia’s top military minds.

Mr Ahmed won the Nobel Prize for signing a historic peace deal with Eritrea shortly after he was elected amid a wave of hope in April 2018. But his sweeping reforms have marginalised the regional Tigrayan government, which once dominated the country’s ruling coalition.

Experts say the conflict could tear the country apart, unleashing catastrophic ethnic bloodshed, destabilising the Horn of Africa and fracturing a key US security ally.

“Ethiopia is now perched precariously on the ledge — all signs point to a country in a pre-genocide phase,” Rashid Abdi, an independent expert on the Horn of Africa wrote last week.

Suggestions that missiles are being shot by Eritrean forces speaks to a wider question in the conflict. Eritrea’s dictator is a sworn enemy of the Tigrayan leaders and the country’s force may be fighting to some degree on the side of Ethiopia’s federal government in a pincer movement with civilians caught in between. 

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front launched missiles at Asmara, the Eritrean capital, last week, according to the regional president.

With internet and phone lines cut in Tigray and a crackdown on media freedom across Ethiopia, it is impossible to know exactly what is really going on.

It is thought that at least 35,000 people have fled across the border in the last week. At least 4,000 are crossing the border each day. The Sudanese government has said it is bracing for 200,000 refugees in the coming days.

Refugees walk for days to reach safety along paths once trodden by those fleeing the famine in the 1980s. More than half of them are exhausted women and children, carrying almost nothing.

All the witnesses the Telegraph spoke to now reside in what is known as Village 8, a makeshift refugee camp in Sudan’s Gedaref region.

The camp is a town which was originally built to house local Sudanese displaced the construction of a vast Chinese dam nearby. But the town was never completed. Instead at least 15,000 Ethiopians who have fled the fighting in the last two weeks, walking or swimming to safety, are now housed in the windowless concrete blocks.

Some of the medical professionals seeking asylum at the camp have begun to set up their own makeshift clinic on the site. The clinic’s roof is broken and clouds of dust hang over a tangle of IV tubes hanging on temporary stands.

Doctors and nurses are crippled with hunger after about 10 days with little food as the full scale of a humanitarian disaster unfolds before them.

The swelling camp has been living off meagre distributions of food from NGOs who have made it to the site, more than a day’s travel from Sudan’s capital of Khartoum.

A huge mound of aid arriving on Saturday triggered a panicked rush, with refugees seizing what they could before security forces intervened.

A Sudanese soldier stood atop of a pile of white sacks, containing food, soap and clothes. Scuffles broke out before many desperate refugees were beaten back by uniformed security with rubber tubes.

New arrivals fleeing savagery and terror in their home towns and villages drew up to the camp as the day rolled on.

As lorry-like tractors dumped them in the desert, tears streamed down weary faces – joy and despair colliding under the baking sun.

One refugee who had been in the camp for more than a week said: “I was so relieved when I arrived here but ten days in I don’t feel safe anymore there’s no food, no water, no soap.”

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