Before shelling by Ethiopia’s army ripped through Humera in early November, life in the airy, agricultural city in Tigray was idyllic, says Brhane Haftu, a geography teacher.
“I was rich, not because of money, but happiness. I had my home, my own cellar, my TV, my kitchen, my refrigerator,” says the 31-year-old, flipping through pictures on his smartphone of his wife and five-year-old daughter. “I didn’t even recognise how good things were for me.”
From the distant vantage of a growing refugee camp in Hamdayet, across the Sudanese border, vague outlines of Tigrayan structures, and the life it offered, faintly emerge from the skyline. Yet while visible, for many, any prospect of a return home feels remote. Haftu and his daughter are among 3,000 in the camp. His wife remains alive in Tigray, he hopes: a communications blackout means it’s three weeks since they last spoke.
“Now I have nothing. I have one yellow T-shirt, one pair of jeans, one pair of trainers. I wash it each day and wear it the next day.”
Even before Ethiopia’s prime minister, the Nobel peace prize winner Abiy Ahmed, ordered a military offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on 4 November, conflict had started to feel imminent after weeks of escalating tensions, Haftu said. But when operations began leaving several in Humera dead and injured, it still felt unreal. “I was hiding at home for a week. I didn’t want to leave Humera but then I had to go. They were killing and killing. It was too much,” he says.
He and his wife were both teachers at a school in Tigray. On early mornings, he would jog around its grounds and near Humera’s vast farmlands, which produce sesame and corn. Now the conflict has permanently changed Ethiopia, he says. For many young refugees in the camps, it has vanquished any real hopes of returning.
“I don’t see my future in Tigray. My future is maybe in Sudan, or somewhere abroad,” he says. “All my belongings are gone, evaporated. I have no hope for Tigray – it has completely changed.”
Until recently, 44-year-old Abiy was lauded as a young reforming leader, a star on the continent, restoring relations with historic foe Eritrea and turning his country’s delicate ethnic federation towards change.
Yet a military campaign against the TPLF, whom he accused of attacking federal military camps and aiming to destabilise the country, has quickly recast his leadership. Conflict with the TPLF, which effectively ruled Ethiopia for 28 years before Abiy’s historic victory in 2018, has sparked international outrage and urgent calls for de-escalation – which have been ignored.
Ethiopia’s government has set about shutting the region away from the eyes of the world – halting communications and preventing access. Accounts of atrocities committed by both sides of the conflict have emerged but been impossible to independently verify.
More than 45,000 refugees have fled the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray over the past month, as the bitter and deadly conflict has ensued. Many wait restlessly, hoping to return home. Others hope to collect the belongings they abruptly abandoned.
Some, like Haftu, who trekked for days in the woods and across the Sittet River, can’t envision returning to a country that armed conflict may have now fundamentally changed.
The spectre of a humanitarian crisis now looms large. Refugees in Hamdayet, one of two camps along Sudan’s southern border, say many have tried to flee Tigray yet were stopped by Ethiopian forces. One of the poorest countries in the world, and suffering one of its worst economic crises, is now home to growing numbers of Ethiopian refugees, fleeing Tigray.
Fears have also grown for the fate of some 100,000 Eritrean refugees in northern Tigray, living in camps, in areas now reported to have seen heavy fighting. The UN warned food supplies were dwindling, leaving many at risk of starvation.
Last week Ethiopia ceded to urgent requests for access by UN aid agencies, but on Friday the UN said it continued to receive “disturbing reports” from the camps which remained inaccessible.
The UN high commissioner for refugees, Babar Baloch, said: “We hope that the recent agreement will allow a full and unhindered humanitarian access to the Tigray region.”
In recent days, Eritrean refugees have begun to arrive in camps in Hamdayet and Um Rakuba.
Last week Abiy declared victory in the region, after Ethiopian forces entered the regional capital, Mekelle. Yet reports of fighting have continued. The UN also reported that armed conflict had continued in many parts of Tigray.
A controversial conflict in which Abiy said he TPLF was the target has precipitated a wave of ethnic violence.
According to Amnesty International, a large number of civilians, possibly hundreds, were massacred with knives and machetes in a town south of Humera in early November. Eyewitnesses said forces loyal to the TPLF were to blame, although Amnesty said it could not independently confirm the reports.
Many in the camps say they fled attacks and abuse by Ethiopian forces against civilians and widespread atrocities by “Fano”, an Amharan ethnic militia group that is claimed to be working with Ethiopian soldiers.
Hiwot Aregawi, 27, lies on a rickety bed – one of two young men with severe injuries on a makeshift ward in Hamdayet camp. Bandages cover two gunshot wounds, on his leg and forearm, beneath a tattoo: “God is love”, written within a crest.
He had fled his home in early November when gunfire seared through Baker, a town in Tigray. Yet Amharan forces suddenly appeared cutting off his path. As he fled again, he was shot at five times. “Then I lay on the ground. My hand was bleeding up on to my head so they considered I was dead,” he said.
Helpers spotted him and hid him in their home. Yet when Fanos discovered he was nearby and began raiding homes to find him, he was forced to flee again. “It was because I am Tigrayan,” he said.
Both young men lay restless, nursing wounds, waiting to heal then return to Tigray and fight. “I hate them because they hate me. I want to go back and fight for Tigray,” he said.