UM RAKOUBA CAMP, SUDAN - “Peace may come tomorrow,” says Kafla Gabragargis, 25, a farmer, wearing a muted tie-dye T-shirt and jeans.
He laughs readily at his joke, and other young men around him join in. Seconds later his eyes are red and watery, and his laugh morphs into rhythmic gasps through a strained smile.
Only weeks before, he had jumped over dead bodies at a run as his friends, family and neighbors fled their town in Ethiopia. Soldiers stormed homes, beating people and looting valuables, while gunfire whizzed through the streets, he tells us.
During the attack on their town, the people didn’t all run in one direction, and Gabragargis soon found himself alone in the forest. He made his way across the border to Sudan and now sleeps on a crowded tarp shaded by another tarp propped up with sticks from the vast, isolated and splintery countryside surrounding them.
A tarp is where people arriving at Um Rakouba camp stay while they wait to be registered for humanitarian aid and perhaps the materials to build a small hut. This is one of three refugee camps in Sudan housing a total of more than 46,000 newly displaced Ethiopian people, and by most accounts is the most hospitable.
But under every tarp and thatched roof here, the agony of the past month is palpable.
“Who in your family is still missing?” I ask Gabragargis. Our translator, Haftom, repeats the question in the Tigrinya language.
“All of them,” he replies. “If they survived there is no mobile phone service. The government has cut it off.”
"But who?” I repeat. “Your mother? Father? Brothers? Aunts?”
He looks confused and starts counting silently, pausing at eight, but clearly not finished. Other people had looked puzzled by the same question that day. I had thought missing loved ones would be an easily countable list.
“It was everyone,” he says. “Absolutely everyone.”
On a nearby tarp, where dozens of families occupy a few square meters apiece, Ageza Neba and her daughter, Ksana Giday, 19, make traditional Ethiopian coffee in a banged-up kettle on a small fire.
Their tarp is roofed and walled with plastic sheeting, and the air is thick with heat, sweat and flies.
Neba makes no attempt to count her long list of missing family members. Her 20-year-old son is inside the war zone and could easily be mistaken for a soldier and killed, she says softly.
“I don’t know if he is alive or dead,” Neba says, repeating the words of almost everyone we meet in Um Rakouba camp.
It’s not just soldiers being killed on the streets, Giday adds.
“I saw two civilians slaughtered with knives and two shot to death,” she says, pouring the coffee and offering us two cups. “And that’s just what I saw with my own eyes. Can you imagine how many more?”
There is no way to accurately count how many more are dead or missing in Tigray, Ethiopia, because the region is all but completely cut off from aid workers, journalists, and internet and phone service.
“I have seen bad things before,” Neba says. “But I have never seen anything like this.”
Giday is too young to remember much about the last time this conflict flared, in 2007. To her, only a few months ago, her home was a place with a promising future.
“I loved my job,” she says, rinsing the small coffee cups with water from a jerrycan. As a secretary for a real estate company, she was learning computer skills and taking home a good salary.
“I was going to learn more skills on the job and take care of my family,” she adds, appearing momentarily cheered by the thought.
A half-hour later, she strolls by us outside, wearing faded blue jeans under her airy gray dress.
Casually, she mutters something to Haftom, the translator, who also fled his home last month. He is a 23-year-old with a degree in the business of agriculture, and in Tigray he was working for a German NGO, helping farmers increase their crop output and earnings.
Now, like everyone else here, he is marooned in a desert camp in one of the poorest parts of Sudan. He has barely any contact with the outside world, let alone job opportunities. He has no idea where his parents are.
“If [your foreign colleague] is taking people to Europe, tell her to take me first,” Giday tells Haftom, brushing it off as if it were a joke. “There is nothing here.”
In a coveted sliver of shade up a hill, Ouatash Mesafin sits with her husband, Keshemutu Howas. One of their grandchildren crouches underneath his grandfather’s legs.
The family has been in the camp since the war began more than a month ago and have a tiny, crowded but relatively comfortable hand-thatched hut.
When mortars started falling in their town, they dropped to the ground and crawled to hide. Six hours passed and the bombing didn’t let up. They ran for the forest with only one plastic jerrycan of water.
But after three days, they couldn’t take it anymore.
“If a baby cried, we’d have to cover his mouth,” Howas says. “Or else we could get shot.”
“If a bird flew by, I jumped,” Mesafin adds. “There were also foxes, hyenas and gunfire.”
Since then, they haven’t heard from their parents, siblings or other relatives, but their three daughters and two grandchildren live with them in the hut.
Unlike everyone else we meet that day, the couple is optimistic about the war ending, if for very different reasons.
“We need to go home,” Mesafin says, with a relaxed smile. “God will bring us peace.”
Her husband nods, adding how he sees the war ending. Howas, like leaders on both sides of the conflict, sees the end as total victory or total defeat.
“Tigray will never give up,” he says. “They will fight to the death, and then everyone else will fight or die.”