Tigray unrest and refugees: Trapped in the crossfire

Despite claims by the Ethiopian government that the situation in its restive Tigray region is under control, a new humanitarian…

Despite claims by the Ethiopian government that the situation in its restive Tigray region is under control, a new humanitarian crisis is slowly unfolding involving people caught in the cross hairs of the conflict with insurgents of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).Already tens of thousands of people have fled the ongoing fighting between federal forces and insurgents of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

To date up to 40, 000 people have streamed into neighbouring Sudan from Tigray, adding to the worsening humanitarian situation in the area, where the effects of months of drought and an East African locust invasion has rendered life desperate for the new swarm of refugees. 

Relief agencies have been struggling to provide humanitarian assistance to some 178, 000 refugees who have been fleeing political repression, poverty and forced military conscription in Eritrea, one of the world’s most reclusive states.

They have been living in four camps inside troubled Tigray namely Mai-Aini, Adi Harush, Hitsats and Shemelba.

Tigray resembles a war zone where sporadic pockets of TPLF troops are still holding out against the invading Ethiopian federal forces.

Aside from blocking relief workers’ access to these camps and new ones holding Tigrayans fleeing the fighting both warring sides have been accused of carrying out atrocities on innocent civilians, an allegation to which the Ethiopian government has partially owned up.

There were reported instances when Ethiopian border guards blocked people terrified by the fighting from fleeing into Sudan, contributing to the escalation of the number of those being internally displaced.

It was also being reported that Ethiopia’s former foe Eritrea, has joined the fighting on the side of federal forces and have been helping them stop ordinary Tigrayans from leaving.  

Since the insurgency in Tigray looks set to be a long drawn-out affair, many humanitarian concerns are warning that refugees trapped in the fighting are staring food insecurity increasingly in the face.

The UNHCR which delivered food, medicine and other relief rations to the camps in Tigray as recently as October, has made repeated pleas to the warring sides to allow them access to those in desperate need of aid.

These pleas appear to be falling on deaf ears.

A UN estimate suggests that two million people in and around Tigray are in desperate need of assistance coupled with another one million thought to have been displaced by the fighting in the region.

Many Tigrayans who had fled to Sudan came away either with injuries from the crossfire or malaria and are being treated in camps.

Among those being treated in one of the camps by the International Committee of the Red Cross is 24-year old Million, who is nine months pregnant. 

Speaking of life in the camp she described it as a “black hole” where she has been told to stay because the baby could deliver at any moment. 

Million like tens of thousands of people living in Tigray had fled the regional capital Mekele as federal troops advanced on it early in December but left her husband behind with no news about his whereabouts.

Naga. a 30-year old refugee told the ICRC how armed men had arrived at his sorghum field in the town of Humera inside Tigray as he was about to harvest the crops and shot him.

With help from his wife, Yavish, using their donkey-drawn cart they had managed to flee with their young daughter to the Sudanese border where he was able to access treatment from the Sudanese Red Crescent.

He is unsure whether his assailants belonged to the Tigray rebels or the federal army.

In the Sudanese town of Hamdayet which straddles the river separating that country from Ethiopia, refugees face challenges typical of the camps hosting fleeing civilians.  

There it has been a daily struggle to find water and sanitary facilities for refugees living in all the camps that have witnessed surging numbers of fleeing civilians since the unrest in Tigray began in November.

With telephone and internet communications in Tigray still down, relief workers believe they are running the gauntlet in a region which may face one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes today.

United Nations scribe Antonio Guterres has called for a quick restoration of law and order in restive Tigray where a humanitarian crisis could blight the conscience of the world if it fails to do something about it.