AL QADARIF, Sudan – After waiting for days at the Sudanese border with Ethiopia, Amanael Kahsay boarded the back of the cargo truck that would take him to the safety of a new refugee camp in Sudan.
In the span of days, his concerns had gone from the routine worries of making enough money at the farm where he works to send back to his family, to simply surviving another day.
“First, I want to save my life. Food and clothes come later,” he said from the truck bed.
Kahsay fled from his native Ethiopia, without notice and in the middle of his usual work day, leaving behind all of his belongings and any knowledge about his loved ones. He is part of the first wave of Ethiopian arrivals in Sudan, refugees fleeing war in the country’s northern Tigray region.
He was working as a day labourer on a farm near the city of Mai Kadra when Ethiopian government-aligned ethnic militias known as Fano, from the neighbouring region of Amhara, descended.
“Fano from the Amhara region came, then took us all out from our homes. We saw our neighbours killed and slaughtered, in the same way as you cut wood, with an axe and knife,” Kahsay told VICE World News.
As chaos tore through the city, Kahsay said Ethiopian federal forces stood by as Fano fighters went door to door, demanding to see IDs in order to identify ethnic Tigrayans.
“We managed to escape and hide in a field for four days. On the fifth day, we made our way to the Sudanese border,” he explained, adding that Fano militants continued to terrorise civilians attempting to flee to Sudan.
On the way, he said, “youths were sent to kill us. [A group of] more than 70 were trying to kill us. We hid ourselves in the fields. They hunted us. On the way many were killed. We passed many dead bodies.”
In his own group of eight, only six of them made it to the border.
“They checked the IDs of people...if they find someone with Tigrayan origin…[they] slaughter with a knife.”
As Kahsay spoke of his journey from the relative safety of the camp in eastern Sudan, women and men sitting nearby wept quietly, reliving their own recent horrors as he spoke.
The violence he described was echoed by many firsthand accounts told to VICE World News at border crossings and at two new refugee camps that aid agencies are hurriedly setting up to accommodate the crush of over 50,000 new arrivals in under two months.
The nature of these attacks paint a stark contrast to the neat statements crafted by the office of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who until recently was celebrated by the international community as a reformer who had the potential to unite Ethiopia’s nine ethno-federal states.
Abiy declared war on the leadership of Ethiopia’s northernmost Tigray region in early November. The launch of large scale military operations on Tigray’s main cities and the capital, Mekelle, was in response to an attack by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, on the northern command of the federal army.
The TPLF constitutes both the political party that runs the regional government there and the regional army which dwarfs the manpower of the federal army in the region.
Before their attack on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian Defense Forces, the TPLF leadership ratcheted up tensions with the federal government by holding regional elections in September, despite a national ban on elections due to COVID-19.
The elections and attack were framed as provocations by Prime Minister Abiy but the relationship between the TPLF and the prime minister has been strained since he took office in 2018, unseating TPLF leadership which had ruled the country for nearly 30 years.
Since then, the TPLF claims they have been marginalised from positions of power and targeted by overly aggressive corruption probes.
For his part, Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2019 for ending a 20-year war with Eritrea, but has long had the TPLF in his sights.
“He felt as long as TPLF was lurking around and still held levers of economy and power, he would not be settled... And his fears were confirmed by [Eritrean Prime Minister Isaias] Afwerki, who has the same paranoia, related to the border war which goes back a decade… The two men met and confirmed their fears and suspicions about the TPLF,” said Rashid Abdi, a Kenya-based Horn of Africa analyst.
Planning for the war against Tigray “undoubtedly” dates back to before Abiy was feted by the international community as a great reformer and peacemaker.
“There is no doubt that both Abiy and Afwerki had a vested interest in this war and were planning it, probably going back two years,” Abdi told VICE World News. “All the to’ing and fro’ing between Eritrea and Ethiopia were actually related to this conflict. All the signs were there that the two leaders were planning something major.”
Now, with confirmed reports of Eritrean troops fighting alongside Ethiopian troops within Tigray, this early alliance with Eritrea is seen by regional analysts as a strategic move to bolster Eritrean support for his efforts to marginalise and eventually attack Tigray.
While Prime Minister Abiy has repeatedly assured the international community that no civilians were targeted in the offensive on Tigray, countless stories of refugees in Sudan contradict the official line.
“Their words and practices are unrelated,” Bahti Adal told VICE World News from Um Rukuba refugee camp in eastern Sudan.
Adal is settling in at the camp 11 days after fleeing Humera, one of the first cities to be attacked by federal forces and the target of a reported bombardment campaign by Eritrea, to its north.
“Everything happened suddenly... children were outside walking in the street. Bombs were falling. How could you protect yourself? Innocents were killed, young [people] and elders also,” she said, seated next to her brother and husband, who fled across the border with her.
Prime Minister Abiy declared the war in Tigray over at the end of November when federal forces took the regional capital Mekelle, and has several times called for refugees to return home. But TPLF leadership has said the fight is ongoing and has simply shifted to guerrilla warfare. The TPLF is battle-hardened from decades of war with Eritrea and an insurgency to overthrow Ethiopia’s Marxist dictatorship in the 1990s, so while they lack heavy weaponry, they are well versed in guerrilla tactics.
Reports from inside Tigray remain murky as parts of the region emerge from a six-week total communications blackout.However recent arrivals at the refugee camps tell of a conflict that has morphed from a military offensive to a gruesome, ethnic-conflict.
Gebrehywit Aragawe, a 44-year-old priest, crossed through Eritrea to arrive in Sudan with his wife, Latakidan, and two-year-old daughter, Hewa, and a small group of other families. Dazed, Aragawe explained to medical workers at the arrival point that his daughter ran into a cooking fire when government-allied militias descended on their village, Shiglil. As his wife swatted flies away from Hewa’s blistering burn wounds, Aragawe quietly told VICE World News that they had seven other children. “The militias stripped them and beat them in front of us,” he said. “All of them died.”
Government backed ethnic-militias along with federal forces continue to target Tigrayan civilians. And as the conflict becomes more entrenched, humanitarians say there has been an alarming drop in the number of arrivals from Sudan, from thousands a day to hundreds or dozens.
According to those still managing to cross and humanitarian sources, members of the Fano militias and federal troops are blocking refugees trying to cross along the main border posts.
Those still managing to flee Tigray have sought out alternative, riskier routes, including crossing through Eritrean territory to arrive at a transit centre in the border city of Hamdayet. From here, they wait to be transferred to refugee camps.
A Sudanese businessman who makes his living smuggling illegal goods and people across the border with Ethiopia told VICE World News that requests for his services from Tigrayans has increased significantly since the start of the war but that militias operating near the border have made his routes perilous.
Further south, others sneak through shoulder-high stalks of sorghum overnight, passing through farms that span the Sudanese border with Ethiopia, hoping to arrive to a welcoming farmer Adam Mohammed Rahma.
Rahma manages a sorghum and cotton farm and knew from the beginning of the conflict that he and his neighbours living along the porous, vast border would soon see the fallout.
“We heard the sounds of clashes and we expected that civilians and soldiers would come. They were afraid of the tarmac road because of their Federal army. So when this route is safe, they take it,” he told VICE World News from a farm that straddles a border area that now threatens to draw Sudan into its own conflict with Ethiopia.
Sudanese authorities have welcomed the influx of refugees and Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok has offered to broker a ceasefire between the TPLF and the federal government.
But the issue of disputed agricultural land at the border could tip Ethiopia’s civil war into a regional conflict that could entangle Sudan, Egypt, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.
Military sources at the border told VICE World News that they have recently advanced further into the long-disputed border territory, taking advantage of the removal of Ethiopian troops from the border to fight inside Tigray. The claim gives credence to an accusation lobbed by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy.
Last week, the Sudanese military claimed their forces were “ambushed by Ethiopian forces and militias inside Sudanese territory” in a December 15 cross-border attack that led to several deaths and casualties on the Sudanese side.
Military sources told VICE World News that the two countries are unlikely to go to war on the border, however increasingly strained ties between Sudan and Ethiopia might tip the scales for the TPLF.
Historically, the former regime in Sudan – toppled after a revolution in 2018-19 – supported the TPLF in a successful insurgency against Ethiopia’s Marxist dictatorship in the 1990s.
Today, the possibility of establishing supply routes from Sudan into Tigray could be instrumental to the potential success of the TPLF against the federal government. As it stands, the TPLF leadership has fled the main cities to regroup in the mountains and Tigray is fenced in: the federal government controls the roads into the region and Eritrea, to Tigray’s North, is supporting the federal army.
Prime Minister Hamdok has signalled an interest in neutrality and diplomacy but military leaders in Sudan wield significant power in the national government.
Lt-Col Swarmi Khalid, who served as the spokesman for the Sudanese army for several decades, told VICE World News that the Sudanese forces have not yet offered material or logistical support at the border to the TPLF.
But he added, “If Ethiopia continues to escalate, this may change things.”
“Sudan is particularly influential with Ethiopia and Eritrea,” Khalid told VICE News, “Ethiopia must remember that it must have a peaceful stand with the Sudanese government so that Sudan is not forced to enter into any conflict to support Tigray.”
And if Sudan does decide to lend support to the TPLF, through opening supply routes or otherwise, analyst Rashid Abdi agrees their influence could be decisive and extremely dangerous for the stability across the Horn of Africa.
“Sudan is extremely adept at these kinds of proxy conflicts and very opportunistic. [And] Abiy’s hands are so tied with Tigray so he cannot move against them. The Ethiopians will probably move at some point [but] if they move now, the Sudanese will just open a supply route to the TPLF and Egyptians will get in on the act so it could become a much more serious, regional conflict.”
Ethiopia’s international backers, including the US, have repeatedly urged negotiations between Addis Ababa and Tigrayan leadership but Abiy’s tough talk painting the TPLF leadership as a “criminal clique” may have backed him into a corner.
“The only path out of this is negotiated settlement yet he has criminalised the entire TPLF, tagged them with treason. So he’s locked himself to a place where he either fights to the death or surrenders,” analyst Abdi told VICE World News.
With the conflict unlikely to end any time soon, tens of thousands of refugees remain in Sudan, terrified to return despite the sweeping promises of safety from their prime minister.
“We know he is planning to exterminate us, all Tigrayans in general,” said Kahsay, the refugee who left everything behind in Ethiopia. “We don’t believe him at all,” he said of Abiy’s call for civilians to return to Tigray. “Until the Tigrayan government calls us to go, we’ll never go back.”●