Hundreds of displaced families trampled down the stairs carrying stained mattresses, logs and kindling for cooking and sacks of clothing and food.
The families, more than 5,000 people in all, had fled battles in the northern Tigray region to Shire, a historical commercial center. Now they were being forced to move again.
When they arrived in Shire after the war broke out last November, schools and universities were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic so it made sense to use the buildings as temporary shelters. But now, the government wants students back in school, and one week ago, Axum University was evacuated.
“Authorities told us a month ago we had to leave,” said Kidan Weldemariam, a 47-year-old mother of eight on the day of the evacuation. “Since then, they have come every few days. The only difference is — now they are using force.”
As families packed, officials from the United Nations also briefly visited the camp. Scores of people crowded around as one official spoke to a soldier in uniform. She said that the new camp is not ready and the move is unjust. But when reminded her office helped coordinate this move, the official quickly conceded and told people to follow the soldiers’ orders.
Outside the building, three-wheeled vehicles known as “Bajajs” in Ethiopia lined up to transport the families to a location where the new camp was being set up. It is the cheapest way to travel in this part of Tigray and young men tied mattresses to the roofs of the blue cabs.
As droves of people continued to hustle up and down the stairs, Haben Tariq, 12, watched the action. “What do I do?” he asked.
Families were leaving as units, but he was alone. Like thousands of other children, he and his parents were separated as they fled the war last year.
“How can I find my mother?” he said. “Maybe if I tell my story she will find me?”
Worldwide, more than 80 million people are living outside their homes, forced to flee war or persecution, according to United Nations statistics. Nearly 60% remain in their home countries, sometimes forced to flee the same conflict over and over.
On June 20, the U.N. recognizes World Refugee Day, but there is not much to celebrate. In the past 10 years, the global population of forcibly displaced people has more than doubled.
In Tigray, many displaced families were split up in the chaos, with about 2 million people fleeing within Ethiopia and more than 60,000 others crossing the border to take refuge in Sudan.
At another camp in Shire, families crowd into tents propped up in the dirt surrounding classrooms, where as many as 35 people sleep in a room. With a newborn baby strapped to her back, Alem Belay, 26, said she hadn’t spoken to many of her family members since the war began last November.
Her family fled to Sudan, but she was pregnant at the time, so she couldn’t go with them. Alem fled to the nearest “safe” town, where her farm animals were confiscated and her husband was arrested.
“They said to him, ‘We know you are a fighter; where is your gun?’” Alem said. “He didn’t have a gun, but they took him, and our cattle.”
War in Tigray first broke out last November after months of heightened tensions.
Then, the Ethiopian government said, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front attacked northern federal bases and the Ethiopian National Defense Force swept through the region. Eritrean forces are now fighting alongside the federal government and both the Eritrean and Ethiopian sides have associated militias.
Civilians in Tigray have reported widespread looting, beatings and mass killings. Hundreds of women and girls have reported being raped by soldiers and many more assaults are believed to have gone unreported. The U.N. warns famine is occurring in some places.
And on top of these horrors, the economy has been crushed. Cities are packed with displaced families, while farms go untended and food is not grown.
“I was a farmer with good lands and I grew sorghum,” said Belay Abera, 67, as he packed his few things to move out of an Axum University dorm room. “But I was displaced just before the harvest and arrived here with nothing.”