Aid agencies are racing to scale up the humanitarian response in remote areas of eastern Sudan, where more than 30,000 people fleeing the fighting have arrived in under two weeks.

An Ethiopian woman and her children who fled war in Tigray region carry their belongings as they arrive at the Um Rakuba camp, on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in Al Qadarif state, Sudan, November 19, 2020.
An Ethiopian woman and her children who fled war in Tigray region carry their belongings as they arrive at the Um Rakuba camp, on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in Al Qadarif state, Sudan, November 19, 2020. (Reuters)

At the Um Rakuba settlement in Sudan, refugees have queued for helpings of cornflour porridge and put up makeshift shelters under scrubland trees, their lives upended by fighting in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region.

Aid agencies are racing to scale up the humanitarian response in remote areas of eastern Sudan, where more than 30,000 people fleeing the fighting have arrived in under two weeks.

The United Nations is planning for as many as 200,000 refugees to arrive in the next six months and has been mobilising supplies to move people away from crowded transit points on the border to camps further into the country.

Axel Bisschop, the agency’s representative in Sudan, told reporters on Friday that “nobody at this stage can say exactly how many will come,” as deadly fighting continues between Ethiopian government and Tigray regional government forces.

The refugees are arriving in a very remote area, and humanitarians must create a crisis response virtually from zero even as up to 5,000 refugees continue to arrive every day.

“What definitely is clear is that fighting is ongoing and it is sporadic, you never know where it’s going to happen,” said Hameed Nuru, the Sudan country representative for the World Food Programme. “So it is this anticipation and not-knowing which is causing a lot more fear and causing people now to cross.”

READ MORE: Ethiopia's needless war

The mostly Tigrayan refugees fled with few possessions and many spent days on the run before crossing into Sudan. Aid agencies have stepped in with relief items such as jerry cans, blankets and dry food rations, but conditions remain tough at Um Rakuba, a rugged area surrounded by hills where officials are considering a camp for up to 10,000 people.

"I've been wearing the same clothes for 10 days because I don't have anything else," said 28-year-old Yohannes Gor, who arrived by foot after fleeing fighting in the Ethiopian town of Humera, close to the border.

"I live under this tree and sleep on the dirt. We receive limited food, a kind of cornflour porridge, but it doesn't fill you up. I lost all trace of my family and I don't know what happened to them."

Communication blackout

Phone and internet links have been cut in Tigray since Ethiopian government troops launched an offensive early this month against regional authorities they accused of staging a surprise attack on federal forces.

READ MORE: UNICEF: Ethiopia unrest puts 2.3M children in urgent need of assistance

Almost all those fleeing into Sudan have arrived at the border crossing points of Hamdayet and Luqdi, bringing first hand accounts of the fighting.

Convoys of buses have been ferrying refugees from there to settlement areas or camps, but poor roads complicate the transfers.

Several hundred kilometres to the south, at least 678 people have also crossed from Ethiopia into Sudan's Blue Nile state since Nov 17. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, is still verifying what caused them to flee, said Jens Hesemann, the agency's assistant representative in Sudan.

In the east of Sudan, a country deep in economic crisis, people have done what they can to help by donating small food items, but have few means, said Hesemann.

"The message we're also getting is that people are exhausting their resources, their resources are very limited in that area – they're asking us to do more," he said.

"This response needs support now, it's surpassing our current resources."

UN chief calls for Ethiopian 'humanitarian corridors'

UN chief Antonio Guterres called on Friday for the opening of humanitarian corridors to assist civilians caught in fighting in Ethiopia's Tigray region, noting that authorities had so far rejected attempts at mediation.

"We are very worried about the situation in Ethiopia," the secretary general told reporters in New York, warning of a "dramatic humanitarian impact" including in neighbouring Sudan.

"We have been asking for the full respect of international humanitarian law and also for the opening of humanitarian corridors, he said, adding that "until now, there has not been the acceptance by the Ethiopian authorities of any form of external mediation."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies