Eritrean government forces and Tigrayan militias have engaged in killings, rape, and other fatal assaults against refugees, says a new HRW report.
“My husband had our 4-year-old on his back and our 6-year-old in his arms. As he came back to help me enter the church, they shot him.”
This testimony comes from one refugee whose husband was shot dead by Tigrayan rebel fighters after entering and attacking a refugee camp near an Orthodox church in Hitsats on November 23.
These were neither the first nor the last attacks against them.
Between November 2020 and January 2021, Eritrean refugees were subjected to many cases of abuse in Hitsats refugee camps in Tigray.
The lethal violence occurred amid ongoing fighting between local forces and the Ethiopian government, which is backed by their Eritrean allies, since November. The ongoing conflict has shaken the Horn of Africa.
“Eritrean refugees have been attacked both by the very forces they fled back home and by Tigrayan fighters,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
HRW, the international rights watchdog, investigated crimes by interviewing refugees and probing satellite imagery before revealing the report on Thursday.
November: bloodshed with detentions
On November 19, Eritrean forces entered Ethiopia's Hitsats town and indiscriminately killed many residents while occupying the refugee camp.
Four days later, on November 23, the Tigrayan militia arrived at the camp and attacked refugees as the heavy clashing started with Eritrean soldiers at around 6 a.m near the Orthodox church for several hours. Nine refugees were killed while at least 17 were severely wounded.
The first person to take a bullet was a 27-year-old man. He was shot three times near the church but survived, according to his cousin.
“The third bullet was hardest to get out. There was no anaesthetic; it was horrific. He screamed so much.”
The Tigrayan militia withdrew from the town after the combat.
Later, on November 26, Eritrean forces detained at least two dozen refugees who were regarded as opposition supporters. Their locations remain unknown.
According to one refugee, the forces had sources in the camp to gain information about them.
“We were so scared. We didn’t trust each other anymore, and we didn’t dare to speak among ourselves.”
The Eritrean forces pulled out of the camp in early December.
December: torturing rapes with remaining killings and arbitrary detentions
On the evening of December 5, Tigrayan forces returned to the scene by shooting into the refugee camp and causing hundreds to flee.
In the following days, the militia stormed, randomly detained and raped some of the refugees who had fled to Zelasle and Ziban Gedena towns, placed in the north of Hitsats and forced them to get back to to the camp.
Two refugee women indicated that the militia sexually abused them along with the other four women.
“Two militia fighters caught us and told the boys with us to stop, but the boys fled. We were already so tired; we had no strength to run.” a 27-year-old woman told HRW with her 17-year-old sister while they fled from Hitsats.
''They beat my sister and me. We fell to the ground; then they abused us. We lost consciousness after the rape.''
The arrested refugees received inadequate food and water while two of them expressed they had to drink their urine due to the lack of water.
While forcing refugees back to the camp, four of them witnessed the militia killing several refugees who became tired on the way. They were walking back to the camp which was a few hours miles away but still, it was exhausting because of the constant suffering from hunger and thirst.
“One person, who I helped myself, he was very tired,” a 25-year-old refugee said. “But the militia fighter told me, ‘Leave him.’ And then they shot him''
January: burning and destructing the camp
On January 3, the Tigray militias departed from Hitsats as massive clashes near the camp area resulted in the Eritrean forces capturing the camp and town.
The day after, the forces ordered refugees to leave along the main road to Eritrea. The forced refugees were desperate and terrified but believed they had no choice but leave.
''The journey was terrible. There were fields that were burning, houses burning. A lot of sadness'' said a refugee.
''The Eritrean soldiers did not even help women who gave birth along the way but forced them to keep walking.''
One refugee who stayed around the camp until January 5, testified the Eritrean forces destroyed and burned shelters and humanitarian infrastructure in the camp. They left the notable part of the camp in wrecks.
“The camp is no longer there, it’s burned down. It wasn’t just the camp; they also burned some homes of civilians [in the town].” he said while seeing the Eritrean forces diffusing fuel and lighting up the camp on fire.
Now, without any assistance and support, the refugees are more likely to further abuse and exploitation amid the Tigray conflict.
“For years, Tigray was a haven for Eritrean refugees fleeing abuse, but many now feel they are no longer safe,” Bader said.
“After months of fear, abuse, and neglect, Ethiopia, with support from its international partners, should ensure that all Eritrean refugees have immediate access to protection and assistance.”