Eritrean refugees fleeing war-torn Tigray are desperate and fearful.
Simon Fikadu got up early to join the caravan leaving the Mai Aini Eritrean refugee camp in Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region, where he and his family have lived for the past seven years.
On a Tuesday morning in mid-July, officials had arranged for Simon and 19 other refugees to be driven more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) south to see the proposed site for a new camp, which they hoped would be secure from the ongoing, unpredictable combat.
Simon heard the first volleys of gunfire that would eventually envelop Mai Aini, including the mud-brick home where his wife and three children were still sleeping, as the cars moved away.
Over the next few hours, he would receive hundreds of frantic calls from his wife and other family members, who screamed in terror as bullets and artillery fire poured down around them.
The fights at Mai Aini on July 13 were just the latest illustration of how the Tigray war has upended life for tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees who had grown to consider the region as a haven from their oppressive country for more than two decades.
The war involves forces supporting Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, including Eritrean soldiers, against rebels allied with the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Eritrean refugees were caught in the crossfire from the start: two camps in northern Tigray, Hitsats and Shimelba, were looted and then completely destroyed in a “rampage,” according to one humanitarian organization.
Thousands of people have been reported missing.
Now Eritrean exiles fear that resurgent rebels will assault them again, and they are frantic to get out of Tigray once and for all.
“I’m completely taken aback. Please try to understand my emotion,” Simon urged UN officials as he toured the new encampment in Dabat, in the Amhara area bordering Tigray, his phone still vibrating with calls from Mai Aini.
“Please try to be not simply as a staff member,” he said in shaky English, pleading for a wholesale evacuation of the two camps that remain in Tigray. Please make an effort to be human.”
In 2000, Eritrean refugees began arriving in Tigray, near the end of a devastating two-year border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people.
They were fleeing President Isaias Afwerki’s dictatorial leadership, which has earned Eritrea the moniker “Africa’s North Korea” due to its poor human rights record and forced military service system.
Abiy was victorious. Brief News from Washington Newsday.