Ethiopia: Eritrean refugees victims of “war crimes” in Tigray

Eritrean refugees have been the victims of abuses, including summary executions and rape, which constitute “overt war crimes” during the conflict raging in northern Ethiopia, says Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a report released Thursday.

The NGO details the role of Eritrean soldiers as well as rebel fighters from the Ethiopian region of Tigray in these large-scale abuses, also marked by forced repatriation and extensive destruction in two refugee camps.

“The horrific killings, rapes and looting against Eritrean refugees in Tigray are clearly war crimes,” said HRW director for the Horn of Africa, Laetitia Bader.

“For many years, Tigray has been a refuge for Eritrean refugees fleeing persecution (in their country)”, she recalls: “But today, they no longer feel safe there”.

Northern Ethiopia has been ravaged by heavy fighting since November, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent the army to Tigray to remove regional authorities from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which he accuses for orchestrating attacks on military camps.

The Eritrean regime (sworn enemy of the TPLF, which ruled Ethiopia during the bloody border conflict between the two countries from 1998 to 2000) militarily supported Addis Ababa by sending troops to this region which borders its southern border.

Before the start of the conflict, 92,000 Eritrean refugees were in Tigray, including 19,200 in Hitsats and Shimelba camps, according to the Ethiopian Agency for Refugees and Returnees (ARRA).

Missing refugees

Eritrean and Tigrayan forces first clashed near Hitsats about two weeks after the start of the war.

HRW claims to have received “credible information” that Eritrean troops killed 31 people in the town of Hitsats. But the real toll is “probably much higher”, adds the NGO.

AFP was also able to establish how, once the fighting reached Hitsats camp, pro-TPLF militiamen targeted refugees in retaliation, killing nine young Eritreans outside a church.

When the Eritreans took control of the camp, they allegedly transported 17 injured refugees to Eritrea for treatment, according to the HRW report.

But most of these refugees are still missing, as are 20 to 30 others who have been detained “including members of the refugee committee and suspected members of the opposition, including two women,” the organization said.

After regaining control of the area in early December, Tigrayan forces began robbing, imprisoning, raping and attacking refugees with weapons, including a grenade, potentially killing dozens of people, she said.

Eritrean forces returned the following month and forced those who remained in the camps to leave. Satellite images indicate that the camp was largely destroyed soon after, according to HRW.

“Forced repatriations”

Thousands of refugees in Hitsats and Shimelba are still missing.

Hundreds of them had no choice but to return to Eritrea in what HRW calls “forced repatriation”.

Some went to Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps further south. But these then came under the control of the TPLF in July.

The ARRA accused the TPLF of deploying heavy artillery to Mai Aini and Adi Harush, looting vehicles and aid warehouses and preventing the refugees from leaving, which amounts to ” ‘hostages’.

The TPLF rejected these claims, pledging to ensure the protection of refugees.

The Ethiopian authorities are trying to speed up the resettlement of refugees from southern Tigray to a 90 hectare site in the Amhara region, neighboring Tigray. But the region was taken over by fighting in July.

HRW calls on all parties to the conflict to grant refugees freedom of movement and unhindered access to assistance.

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