Thousands of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia have endured mass rights violations amidst the Tigray war and an information blackout. Here is my humble attempt to shed light on what happened during a terrifying three months of abuse.
On the early morning of November 27, 2020, in gloomy London under lockdown, I received a phone call from a former colleague from Ethiopia. Sobbing, she told me that three security guards who worked for our organisation had been killed in Hitsats Eritrean refugee camp amidst heavy fighting.
“Prepare for the worst,” she added.
At the time, there were around 11,000-12,000 refugees living in Hitsats, which was established in 2013 to accommodate a dramatic increase in the number of Eritrean refugees fleeing widespread human rights abuses under the dictatorial rule of President Isaias Afeworki.
The same refugees got caught in the conflict between the Ethiopian federal government and regional state forces in Tigray in northern Ethiopia starting in November 2020.
Hitsats was one of the Eritrean refugee camps that became the site of mass human rights violations over a dark three months of violence.
I searched for real-time satellite images of the camp to understand the scale of destruction, but in vain. The photos only became available around the end of January, when I resumed contact with some Eritrean friends who had by then fled Hitsats and reached Addis Ababa.
It took several months for any news to come out of Tigray, and there was lots of misinformation amidst still-unverified reports as journalists were not able to work there due to the Ethiopian government’s restrictions.
The extent of mass atrocities committed in Eritrean refugee camps in Tigray remains unknown. Mine here is a humble attempt to shed light on what happened to thousands of mainly very young people from Hitsats, who have become, yet again, victims of political violence.
I used to work in Hitsats in 2016, and I kept returning there for my postdoctoral research. I also stayed in touch with Eritrean refugees who left the harshness and isolation of the camp for a safer, though economically more challenging, life in Addis Ababa.
I had also been regularly speaking on the phone to refugees in Hitsats prior to the beginning of the conflict in Tigray, and I knew that due to Covid-19 as well as then-plans to close the camp, all international organisations had left by November 2020.
The camp was geographically isolated and exposed to military attacks as it was unfenced, blending into the Ethiopian part of the settlement under the same name.
Despite their humanitarian protection status, refugee camps are often attacked during conflicts; they are also usually located in politically volatile borderlands, which further increases the risk of violence.
I started formally interviewing Eritreans who fled to Addis to piece together the events from that period.
The fighting begins
The acts of human rights violations that took place in Hitsats and the surrounding areas involved four actors: various local militia groups who fight the Eritrean army that crossed into Ethiopian territory; the Eritrean Army; Tigray special forces who joined Eritrean opposition groups against the Eritrean army and the Eritrean opposition groups.
On November 19, 2020, the Eritrean army entered Hitsats, according to my interlocutors. Ethiopian federal government forces were reportedly not present in that location.
The Eritrean army started battling with a militia group that was already present in the camp. Refugees were unable to say where those militiamen came from, but some were reportedly from Hitsats.
Other militiamen came to the camp on motorbikes, which are widely used to travel small distances. Fighting continued for several hours every day, and refugees spent as much time as possible inside their shelters.
Monday, November 23 was the deadliest day inside Hitsats. In the early morning, militiamen attacked refugees on their way to Enda Mariam church inside the camp. Nine refugees were killed and nineteen were injured.
One man died by suicide on that day, fearing that the Eritrean army would reach his shelter.
Altogether, fighting lasted between 5 to 6 hours.
The following day, the victims were buried in the churchyard. Fourteen severely injured refugees were transported to Eritrean hospitals on November 26 and 29 on two ambulances left in an otherwise abandoned camp.
“We felt completely alone, stuck in the camp. There was nobody we could ask for help. The whole world has left us,” recounts Samuel, one of the refugees.
During those few days, the Eritrean army also abducted between 25-30 members of the refugee committee. It is unclear why they were targeted; however, kidnappings of well-known opposition activists used to occur in the camp before.
On November 30, a refugee who had a shop and lived on the Ethiopian side of Hitsats got arrested and detained by a local militia. He was a visibly disabled veteran of the Eritrean war of independence. His two sons told me that he was singled out by their neighbours when he was listening to Eritrean radio which is broadcasted through the border.
At this point, the remaining members of the refugee committee assessed that around 3,700 refugees were missing from the camp.
As there were no international aid agencies present, and monthly rations had then ceased, refugees ran out of food and potable water around the end of November. The church inside the camp had food supplies for some two days, and the Eritrean army gave some food to families and women. Others were forced to eat moringa leaves and drink contaminated water.
If conflict continued for longer, the refugees would face starvation.
The decision to leave
The decision regarding whether it was safer to stay in the camp or face possible retaliatory violence in the embattled region was not an easy one. Banks were no longer working, and financing an escape was challenging at that time.
Nonetheless, when heavy fighting resumed on December 4, a group of around 1,000 refugees decided to seek safety in another refugee camp, Shimelba, a nearby Eritrean refugee settlement. Shimelba was the oldest of the four so-called Shire camps, established in 2004 to accommodate refugees who fled the short but bloody Ethio-Eritrean war of 1998-2000.
The refugees fled in small groups to the surrounding mountains and walked towards Shimelba, passing through Zelanzile and Zebengedena villages. They did not know the exact way, so they moved erratically.
A few people that I spoke to were caught by a group of fifty militiamen on the night between December 4 and 5. They shared similar characteristics to those whom the refugees witnessed inside the camp: they were all men above the age of 45 – which would indicate that they remembered previous conflicts with Eritrea – and they wore civilian clothes and were armed with new Kalashnikov guns and hand grenades.
Some refugees also spotted men who carried sniper guns. They also noticed that the militia were not particularly well-trained as they could not aim from afar; however, they were organised to a certain extent as they communicated through codes and shootings in the air. Also, later, after alleged acts of mass atrocities took place, Tigray special forces had the authority to tell the militiamen not to kill the refugees, but to escort them back to Hitsats.
Solomon (not his real name) who fled the camp with his three-months-pregnant girlfriend, four other women and eight men, witnessed 4-5 hours of sustained violence on the night between 5 and 6 December. The group was initially surrounded by several militiamen who were later joined by thirty other men. They raped all the women, including Solomon’s pregnant girlfriend, and later shot them. His eight friends were also killed.
As the mountains around Shire are rich in gold, the area is full of illegal gold excavation ditches. The militia group rounded up around eighty refugees in a ditch just outside the village of Zebangedena, and later threw hand grenades inside. Solomon survived; he waited in the ditch for thirty minutes until the militia left, and then made his way out pushing away the dead bodies.
The horrors were not over yet, however.
On the morning of December 6, he got caught by another militia group who separated men from women and told refugees that men would have to walk back to the camp, whilst women would await transport in Zebangedena, and later join them back in Hitsats.
Other men that I spoke to told me that they could hear screaming of the women coming out of a local school. Those who tried to intervene were beaten and threatened with guns.
Solomon was part of a group of 300 refugee men who were forced to walk back to Hitsats that morning. Militiamen were joined by between 100 and 200 local villagers, both men and women of all ages, who were armed with axes, sticks and stones. They were all shouting, “you killed our brothers, and now we will kill you.”
The refugees had to walk for 12 hours non stop – this was the shortcut that only the local people knew – without any water or food. Those who were too weak to continue walking were beaten up or killed.
Women from the village(s) were throwing stones at Eritreans who fainted along the way. Some interviewees I spoke to said that their mobile phones and jewellery were stolen by the villagers. Refugees trying to help those less able to walk were pushed away by the mob.
Nobody was burying the corpses. They were just left there. Militia kept threatening to kill the Eritreans once they reached the camp.
Upon the arrival in Hitsats, refugees were locked up in a storage building belonging to a Dutch NGO, ZOA, located just on the outskirts of the local community. The militia interrogated them for a few hours, asking questions such as, “why did you try to escape from the camp? Are you part of the shabia (a pejorative term used for the Eritrean army)?”
A group of local people, including women armed with berbere, a hot mix of spices, mainly composed of chillies, which they wanted to rub into refugees’ eyes, tried to storm the building, shouting, “we will kill you”.
Eritreans accused of having any previous disagreements with the host community were told to pay them money. Later they were all released to their shelters.
Two days later, Eritrean women came back to Hitsats, also on foot and escorted by a militia group. They were all crying and did not want to tell anyone what had happened to them in Zebangedena. “They looked very weak and did not talk to anyone,” one young man told me.
Overall, there are consistent testimonies that between December 4 and 7 2020, around 150-360 refugees were killed around Zelazile and Zebangedena, including 50-60 murdered by hand grenades. 400-500 women were raped, according to male interviewees. I have not been able to speak to any women who were in Zebangedena at that time.
Local militia remained present in Hitsats throughout December.
Refugees, frightened and hungry, were hiding in their shelters. In some parts of the camp, militiamen armed with guns were looting the shelters, telling refugees to give them their belongings, including items such as blankets and other basic utensils.
On Sunday, January 3, the Eritrean army attacked again, and on the following day, they told refugees to leave the camp for their own safety.
Refugees walked to Shiraro for four days without any water or food. People were too exhausted to carry their belongings, and many were throwing everything away as they walked. I was told that a diabetic woman died on the way, and three other women died in labour.
In Shiraro, the Eritrean army told refugees that they would take women and the disabled to Badme, but in fact, they targeted young people fit for the military. In Shiraro, refugees were able to call their families and ask for money to escape to Addis. Eritreans were afraid of using public transport, so they hired private minibuses, which were not being stopped at the checkpoints.
Several thousands of refugees from Hitsats have by now reached Addis.
Many are destitute, begging outside churches. Others are staying with their relatives and friends in very dire conditions, with as many as ten people sharing one room. Some move from one friend to another, spending a night at one place and another somewhere else, not to overburden their hosts.
So far, unlike Eritreans from other camps, they were not forced by aid agencies to return to Tigray; nevertheless, they are not receiving any support from humanitarian organisations and their future in the Ethiopian capital remains uncertain.