Eritrean soldiers and Tigrayan militias raped, arrested and killed Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region in attacks that amounted to “clear war crimes,” according to an international human rights watchdog.
Thursday’s Human Rights Watch report detailed attacks around two camps in Tigray, where local forces have been fighting the Ethiopian government and their Eritrean allies since November in a conflict that rocked the Horn of Africa.
Tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees live in Tigray, a mountainous and poor province with about five million inhabitants.
“The horrific killings, rapes and looting of Eritrean refugees in Tigray are clear war crimes,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), whose work was based on interviews with 28 refugees and other sources, including satellite images.
Eritrea’s information minister did not immediately call back for comment, but Eritrea has previously denied atrocities and said their forces did not attack civilians.
A spokesman for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) said formal, uniformed Tigrayan troops had only recently moved into the area and that there may have been abuses by local militias.
“It is usually the last month or so that our troops moved into those areas. There was a huge Eritrean army presence there,” Getachew Reda told Reuters news agency. “If there were vigilantes who acted in the thick of the battle, I can’t rule that out.”
International researchers were welcome to visit the area, he said.
Prior to the Tigray conflict, Ethiopia received about 150,000 Eritrean refugees, fleeing poverty and an authoritarian government.
Much of the report focused on two camps – Shimelba and Hitsats – which had been destroyed during the fighting. HRW quoted the UN refugee agency UNHCR as estimate that 7,643 of the 20,000 refugees then living in the Hitsats and Shimelba camps are still missing.
UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, said it was “appalled” at reports of “tremendous suffering” in refugee camps, which it had no access to from November to March.
‘People were murdered in every house’
Although Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a brutal border war in 1998-2000 that left tens of thousands dead, President Abiy Ahmed began reaching out to Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, which won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, and Asmara has provided him with military support. in Tigray.
Eritrean troops arrived in the northern city of Hitsats on Nov. 19, killing residents and looting and occupying the refugee camp, HRW said. Some refugees helped direct looters, one resident told HRW.
“People were killed in every house,” one resident told HRW.
Four days later, Tigrayan fighters attacked an area near the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of the Hitsats camp, killing nine refugees and injuring 17, HRW reported.
“My husband had our four-year-old on his back and our six-year-old in his arms. When he came back to help me enter the church, they shot him,” one refugee told Human Rights Watch.
Two dozen residents of the town of Hitsats were reportedly killed in fighting that day, HRW reported.
According to the report, HRW had not been able to determine the extent to which Tigray’s formal forces directly commanded local Tigray militias operating around Hitsats.
Shortly afterwards, Eritrean soldiers detained 24 refugees, who were never seen again, HRW said. They also took the 17 injured refugees back to Eritrea.
Eritrean troops withdrew from Hitsat’s camp in early December. Tigrayan forces returned on December 5, sending refugees fleeing under attack.
Refugees around the villages of Zelasle and Ziban Gedena, northwest of Hitsats, reported being shelled and attacked with grenades. Tigrayan forces marched fleeing refugees back to Hitsats and shot some stragglers, refugees reported to HRW.
Some women also said they had been raped by Tigrayan fighters when they fled. A 27-year-old woman said Tigrayan fighters raped her along with her 17-year-old sister.
The Tigrayan forces withdrew from Hitsats on Jan. 4, HRW said. The Eritrean troops returned, ordered the remaining refugees to leave and then destroyed the camp.
In the northernmost camp, Shimelba, Eritrean forces killed at least one refugee, raped at least four others and murdered local residents, HRW said.
The violence and severe food shortages forced some refugees to return to Eritrea. Others fled south to two other camps, Adi Harush and Mai Aini. Tigrayan forces took over those camps in June and refugees have reported killings and looting.
“We are deeply concerned about the current situation of more than 20,000 Eritrean refugees living in the Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps in southern Tigray,” UNHCR told Reuters on Wednesday, saying there were severe food and water shortages and that health care was not available.