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Thousands of refugees missing in Tigray

05 February 2021


An Ethiopian woman who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray, Ethiopia holds her refugee registration document as she waits to receive relief aid at a camp on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in Kassala State, Sudan, in December

An Ethiopian woman who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray, Ethiopia holds her refugee registration document as she waits to receive relief aid at a c...

AS MANY as 20,000 refugees have gone missing in the conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia, the head of the UN refugee agency UNHCR, Filippo Grandi, has said. Many are feared to have been forcibly returned to Eritrea by the Eritrean troops from whom they had fled; others might have fled to areas beyond the reach of any assistance.

Continued fighting in Tigray has made access difficult for the UN and other agencies. As a result, confirmation of the reported massacre at Aksum (News, 15 January) remains elusive. But a Belgian academic, Professor Jan Nyssen of Ghent University, has received eye-witness reports that support earlier accounts.

When Mr Grandi visited Ethiopia earlier this week, he was granted access to a refugee camp in southern Tigray. He said that the situation in Tigray was “extremely grave”. Satellite images circulating on social media appear to show that two refugee camps have been destroyed. Mr Grandi said that some of those who had escaped had resorted to eating leaves because they could find no other food.

He called for an urgent investigation into widespread allegations of human-rights abuses by all sides in the conflict: Ethiopian government troops, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and now Eritrean forces, said to have crossed the border to pursue the TPLF.

The shut-down of communications in Tigray since the start of the conflict last November means that reports of abuses emerge only from civilians who have been forced to flee the area.

Professor Nyssen has compiled a list of these reported abuses, many attributed to the Eritrean troops who have been supporting the Ethiopian government against the TPLF. His paper, The situation in Tigray at the beginning of 2021, includes reports of killings of civilians, children, and priests.

It also attributes the alleged massacre of up to 750 people in the church complex at Aksum, which reputedly houses the Ark of the Covenant, to Eritrean troops.

Mr Nyssen said that he had confirmed that a massacre had happened after phone calls to those who had escaped to Mekelle, the regional capital. “Through short phone calls — people are afraid to speak on the phone — with friends who came from Aksum to Mekelle, the information that people got killed at Maryan Tsiyon, the most important church of Ethiopian Christianity, is confirmed. People were separately engaged in collecting dead bodies from different areas and buried them hastily.”

A former member of TPLF, Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, has said that Tigray has been “destroyed” by the conflict. Speaking to Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Federation and an expert on the Horn of Africa, Mr Gebrehiwot described the situation in Tigray as “genocide by decree”, and said that wherever the Ethiopian and Eritrean troops went, civilians were shot.

“They kill whomever they find in whichever village they get in. In the village I was in yesterday, a small village, they killed 21 people, out of which seven of them were priests.”

UNICEF has issued an alert for the numbers of unaccompanied children who have fled the conflict, and the high levels of malnutrition that they face. The lives of 70,000 children are at risk, it estimated. The secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Jan Egeland, said that he had never seen a humanitarian response so impeded.

He said: “Twelve weeks since the fighting began, the basic elements of a response on the scale needed are still not in place. It is false to say that aid is increasingly getting through. Aid has only gone to the places with little conflict and more limited needs, and is not keeping pace with the humanitarian crisis as it inevitably grows over time.

“The entire aid sector, NRC included, must also recognise our failure to define the scale of the crisis, to respond early, to coordinate and to speak out — all of which has crippled the collective response.

“We must all act now and play our part to ensure aid reaches the millions of people suffering in Tigray.”

The Christian school-feeding charity Mary’s Meals, which has been working for years in the region supporting more than 24,000 children by providing a meal in school, has launched an appeal for Tigray to get food to children, wherever they are. The founder, Magnus Macfarlane-Barrow, said that Mekelle had been “overwhelmed” by displaced people and unaccompanied children who had lost their parents.

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