Among the thousands of people fleeing the five-week-old conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region are a few dozen men, women and children from Eritrea, one of the world’s most authoritarian states.
They were already living as refugees in Tigray, which had long been a safe haven for them during years of conflict and repression in Eritrea.
But when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government launched a military operation against Tigray’s ruling party, the Eritrean refugees’ illusion of safety was shattered as violence escalated around their camps.
“Suddenly soldiers came to our camp and they started shooting,” Kheder Adam told AFP in a Sudanese refugee camp. “The situation was very serious. There was a lot gunfire.”
Kheder and his family had originally settled in one of the refugee camps in the Sheraro area of Tigray near the Eritrean border around two years ago, he said.
For years, Ethiopia and Eritrea had been officially in a state of war.
In 2018, Abiy took power, ending years of political dominance by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front — sworn enemies of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.
Abiy and Afwerki signed a historic peace agreement that same year, winning the Ethiopian leader the Nobel Peace Prize.
After the dramatic shift in alliances, Abiy’s forces launched their operation in Tigray on November 4, Eritreans who had long benefitted from protection in Ethiopia appear to have become a target.
Since then, a few Eritrean refugees have managed to escape to Sudan.
The UN, meanwhile, has expressed fears for the safety for those still in Tigray, home to some 96,000 Eritrean refugees living in four refugee camps.
– ‘Refugee again’ –
Kheder, 30, who was separated by the recent violence from his wife and two children, aged three and one, was among several Eritrean refugees interviewed by AFP at a reception centre for new arrivals from Ethiopia in Hamdayit on the eastern Sudanese border.
“Some of the soldiers were Eritreans, some of them were (Ethiopian) federal soldiers,” said Kheder, of the attack on the camp in Tigray.
“They were shooting at all people. All — women, men, children,” he said.
His comments were echoed Friday by a US State Department spokesperson — though the Ethiopian government, a US ally, has denied the claim.
“I feel worried and sad to be a refugee again. There I was a refugee, and here I am also a refugee. It’s really difficult,” said Kheder.
He cited Eritrea’s notorious policy of universal, indefinite conscription as one reason why he fled his home country in the first place.
“They forced us” to undergo a mandatory national service in Eritrea, he said. “That’s why we decided to go to Ethiopia.”
The Eritrean regime once used its war against Ethiopia to justify its system of universal conscription.
But the system remains in place despite the fact that the war ended in the year 2000, followed by the peace agreement in 2018.
Rights groups say Eritrea’s national service often extends for years and any act of desertion or perceived disobedience leads to jail and torture.
– ‘Safe’ in Sudan –
Along with some three dozen other Eritreans, Kheder has found shelter in Hamdayit reception camp, with camp authorities keeping them separate from Ethiopian refugees.
According to camp manager Yaaqoub Mohammad, the Eritreans, like the Ethiopians, are safe in Sudan.
But he worries for the Eritreans still in Tigray, after what he describes, citing the refugees themselves, as “an attack” on refugee camps in Sheraro.
“The survivors fled to save their lives. Some of them were able to reach Sudan, while we don’t know where the others are,” Mohammad says.
On Friday, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said he was “deeply alarmed about the safety and well-being of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia” caught in the conflict in Tigray.
“Over the last month we have received an overwhelming number of disturbing reports of Eritrean refugees in Tigray being killed, abducted and forcibly returned to Eritrea,” he added in a statement.
Prior to the conflict, UNHCR and other aid agencies provided aid for Eritrean refugees in the camps in Ethiopia.
But most UNHCR staff have since been evacuated out of concern for their safety, and Ethiopia has restricted access to Tigray.
Speaking to AFP in Gedaref, a Sudanese town near the camps, UNHCR’s principal emergency coordinator Andrew Mbogori said Eritrean refugees find themselves in an especially difficult situation in Tigray.
“You can imagine, you are a refugee in a country and then this country conflict erupts so you find yourself in double trouble,” Mbogori said, adding they were “encountering a lot of difficulties”.
– ‘Living peacefully’ –
Seated on a bench under the blazing midday sun with fellow Eritrean refugees, Shishay Yacoubay, a 46-year-old with a short goatee, says he arrived in Hamdayit just days afer violence erupted in Tigray.
Like Kheder, he does not know where his wife and four children are, though he believes they may still be at Hitsats camp near Sheraro in Tigray, where they lived.
Shishay also said Eritreans were among those firing at the camp.
“We were living peacefully. But suddenly Eritreans and federal soldiers came and started to fire at civilians,” Shishay told AFP through a translator. “So after that I fled the camp, separated from my family.”
On Friday, the United States said it believed Eritrean forces had entered Tigray and urged their withdrawal.
“We are aware of credible reports of Eritrean military involvement in Tigray and view this as a grave development,” a State Department spokesperson said.
But Ethiopian ambassador to the US Fitsum Arega denied this, saying in a tweet: “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth!”
– Dissidents, deserters –
If confirmed, the presence of Eritrean soldiers in Tigray would represent a major shift in a conflict that has already pushed nearly 50,000 people from Tigray into Sudan, according to UN figures.
With Ethiopian-Eritrean relations restored, it may be that Eritrea no longer wants Ethiopia to host any dissidents or deserters, according to William Davison, senior analyst for Ethiopia with the International Crisis Group think tank.
“Some of the Eritrean refugees who ended up in Ethiopia would have been conscripted Eritrean soldiers who deserted,” he told AFP.
“It could be that the Eritrean government wants to punish them for leaving the military… Because of improving relations, the Eritrean government has gained more ability to influence the Ethiopian government not to be a host for dissidents.”
Speaking to AFP from her home in Sweden, Swedish-Eritrean journalist Meron Estefanos also believes draft evaders are being targeted.
“The demographics in the camps, with a lot of people (evading) the Eritrean national service, makes them a target,” said Estefanos, who is monitoring the conflict through a network of Eritrean contacts.
Rahwa, a 19-year-old Eritrean woman with a red cotton print scarf over her hair and black khol eyeliner, says she arrived in Ethiopia in early 2020.
She was with a group of women and children inside a grim concrete shelter — a small improvement on the straw and wood makeshift shelters and tents that tens of thousands of Ethiopians have made their temporary homes in Sudan’s camps.
“My parents are still in Eritrea and they want me to go back,” Rahwa said through a translator.
“But I don’t want to. If I go back, things will not be good for me,” added the young woman, who AFP is identifying only by her first name due to concerns for her safety.
Because she dropped out of school, she would be automatically drafted into the military, she said