They have survived gun battles, attempted abductions, attacks by angry militiamen and days-long treks to safety with nothing to eat but moringa leaves.
Yet Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia fear their suffering may not be over, as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed strains to end a brutal conflict in the northern region of Tigray that has rendered them uniquely vulnerable.
Nearly 100,000 refugees from Eritrea, an oppressive, authoritarian nation bordering Ethiopia to the north, were registered in four camps in Tigray when fighting erupted in November between Abiy's government and the regional ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).
Two of those camps, Hitsats and Shimelba, were caught up in hostilities and remain inaccessible to the United Nations refugee agency and its Ethiopian counterpart, the Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA).
The information vacuum has spurred dire speculation over the refugees' fate.
The United Nations has sounded the alarm over reported targeted killings and abductions by Eritrean soldiers, whose role in the conflict is widely documented but denied by officials in Addis Ababa and Asmara.
The U.S. State Department last week cited "credible reports" of looting and sexual violence in the camps.
On his first trip to Ethiopia since the conflict began, U.N. refugees chief Filippo Grandi over the weekend visited Mai Aini, one of two camps in southern Tigray where the U.N. has regained access.
The camp is now home to hundreds of refugees from Hitsats, some of whom told AFP of the horrors they left behind.
"Most of the people, if you search this camp, they'll start crying when they talk about what happened," said Girmay, who like other refugees insisted on using only one name, fearing reprisals.
"Our friends could be alive or dead. We don't know."
Aid urged for refugees
Grandi, at a news conference Monday in Addis Ababa, told reporters from VOA and elsewhere that he had pressed Abiy and other Ethiopian officials to safeguard Eritrean refugees. He urged them to account for refugees dispersed by the conflict –- either by force or out of fear –- and to ensure their protection. He repeated that Tigray’s humanitarian situation overall “is extremely grave,” and he called for Ethiopian officials to conduct a transparent investigation into alleged human rights abuses.
Grandi also urged Ethiopia’s federal government to ensure the speedy delivery of humanitarian aid — food, medicine and other supplies — into Tigray.
Ethiopia’s Minister of Peace Mufarihat Kamil, who traveled with Grandi to Tigray, leads a task force overseeing emergency aid and rehabilitation in the region. At a news briefing Wednesday, according to VOA’s Horn Service, she said the federal government has been delivering large amounts of grain and other necessities, prioritizing mothers and children age 5 or younger. She added that the government was coordinating with U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations to provide essential goods and services.
The Norwegian Refugee Council’s secretary general, Jan Egeland, complained Monday that he had “rarely seen a humanitarian response so impeded” as the one in Tigray. But Dina Mufti, spokesperson for Ethiopia’s ministry of foreign affairs, said at a news briefing Tuesday that claims of limited access to humanitarian aid were “exaggerated,” according to VOA’s Horn Service.
'They came and killed'
The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics for almost three decades. It was in power when Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a border war that killed tens of thousands between 1998 and 2000 and led to a two-decade stalemate.
After taking office in 2018, Abiy initiated a surprise rapprochement with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, a move that won him the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.
Yet Isaias and the TPLF — whose region borders Eritrea — remain bitter enemies, heightening the risks for Eritrean refugees caught up in the conflict.
Once fighting reached Hitsats in late November, pro-TPLF militiamen targeted refugees in reprisal killings after suffering battlefield setbacks against Eritrean troops, several refugees told AFP.
On one morning, the militiamen shot dead nine young Eritrean men outside a church, they said.
Pro-TPLF forces based themselves out of Hitsats for weeks, forbidding hungry residents from going out in search of food and shooting dead several who tried anyway.
"At first we couldn't believe it because they speak the same language as us," Girmay said of the pro-TPLF forces. "Before we are friends. ... Suddenly, they came and killed."
Eritrean soldiers also committed abuses, the refugees said, arresting dozens of people, likely more, and whisking them to an unknown destination.
"The Eritrean soldiers caught some people and started asking them questions. I've counted 26 or 27," one refugee said. "The next day they took them somewhere else. We don't know where they are."
Many refugees fled Eritrea to avoid its notorious system of compulsory national service, which inspires descriptions of the nation as an "open-air prison," and among their greatest fears is to be forced back.
Ethiopia's government is investigating abuses and will try to account for all of Hitsats' pre-conflict population, which it estimates at around 11,000, said Tesfahun Gobezay, ARRA's executive director.
"With regard to Eritrean soldiers taking Eritrean refugees, we don't have any solid evidence yet," Tesfahun told AFP.
'How can I feel safe?'
Eritrean forces assumed control of Hitsats in early January and forced those remaining in the camp to evacuate, refugees said.
"They threatened to kill us and people were afraid," said one refugee now in Addis Ababa, who asked that his name not be used.
Roughly 3,000 refugees from Hitsats and the other inaccessible northern camp, Shimelba, have since reached the two camps in southern Tigray, many traveling by foot with no water and only leaves for food.
In Mai Aini, some new arrivals complained of poor access to clean water and of not having a place to sleep.
But their biggest concern, shared by some longtime residents, was for their security, with several worrying that pro-TPLF militias could attack the camp despite an extensive federal military presence nearby.
"How can I feel safe here?" said Natnael, who has lived in Mai Aini since he was a boy. "There are many militias around the camp."
ARRA's Tesfahun said progress had been made in reestablishing basic services in the southern camps.
He also said the camps were safe, though he added that "security is more of a feeling than reality, so they may feel that they are still insecure even if the reality shows otherwise."
It remains to be seen what has become of the two camps in northern Tigray that are still out of contact.
Satellite imagery shows widespread damage to both, suggesting a campaign to destroy them, the British-based investigations firm DX Open Network said.
"There are clear and consistent patterns across both camps over a two-month period demonstrating that these refugee camps were systematically targeted despite their protected humanitarian status," it said in a statement.
Well before the conflict, Abiy's government made no secret of its goal to get rid of the northern camps and relocate the refugees.
Tesfahun said the plan had been "sabotaged" by the TPLF, but that it was now "resuming."
With reporting from VOA's Horn Service.