HAMDAYET, Sudan – The atrocities are burnt down in the skin and minds of the Tigrayans, hiding thousands within the sight of the homeland they fled in northern Ethiopia.
They arrive in heat rising above 100 ° C and carry the pain at gunshot wounds, cracked vaginas, welts on beaten backs. Memories visible are the memories: dozens of corpses strewn on river banks. Warriors who rape a woman one by one to speak her own language. A child, weakened by hunger, left behind.
Now, for the first time, they are also bringing evidence of an official attempt at what is called ethnic cleansing in the form of a new identity card that eliminates all traces of Tigray, as confirmed to the Associated Press by nine refugees from different communities. The cards are written in a not their own language issued by authorities of another ethnic group and are considered the latest evidence of a drive by Ethiopia and its allies to destroy the Tigraian people.
Amhara authorities, now in charge of the nearby town of Humera, took Seid Mussa Omar̵
“I kept it to show the world,” Seid said. “This is genocide … Your goal is to erase Tigray.”
What started as a political conflict in one of Africa’s most powerful countries has turned into a campaign against minority Tigrays, according to AP interviews with 30 refugees in Sudan. The Ethiopian government of Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed is accused of joining Abiy’s ethnic group – his mother was Amhara – and soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, who have long been enemies of Tigray’s now fleeing leaders, to punish about 6 million people.
Ethiopia claims that life in Tigray is returning to normal. But the refugees said there was still abuse. Almost all described killings, rapes and destruction of crops that without massive food aid could tip the region to starvation.
For months, the Tigray has been largely sealed off from the world with access to electricity and telecommunications separated, leaving very little to claim that perhaps tens of thousands of people have been killed.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken claimed last month that “ethnic cleansing” has taken place in western Tigray, the first time a top official in the international community has openly described the situation as such. The term refers to forcing a population from a region through deportations and other violence, often including homicide and rape.
Refugees said Amhara authorities have taken over communities and ordered Tigrayans out. Goitom Hagos of Humera told the AP he saw thousands of Tigrayans loaded into trucks and did not know what happened to them.
Some Tigrayans were ordered to accept the Amhara identity or leave, refugees said.
The Tigray conflict began in November as a political clash between past and present. Tigray leaders had dominated the country’s government for nearly three decades, creating a system of ethnic-based regional states. But Abiy joined in 2018 and moved to centralize power. He excluded the Tigray leaders and made peace with Eritrea and achieved a Nobel Peace Prize.
The challenging Tigray leaders saw the central government as illegal after last year’s election was delayed and kept their own voice. The government launched a military offensive, saying Tigray forces had attacked a military base. Witnesses say Amhara and Eritrean forces essentially share much of Tigray between them.
Ethiopia says it rejects “any notion and practice of ethnic cleansing.” An Amhara regional spokesman declined to comment.
The killings continue. In early March, 30-year-old Alem Mebrahtu tried to cross the Tekeze River between the parts of Tigray below Eritrean and Amhara. Separated from her children in the conflict, she had heard that they were in Sudan.
About 50 bodies were strewn near the riverbank, she said. “Some were with the picture side down. Some looked up at the sky. Exhaustion pressed deep under her eyes, she began to cry.
Reluctantly, she tries to learn Amharic to protect herself.
“Their goal is to leave no Tigrayan behind,” she said.
The refugees said rapes are also widespread. A woman said when she returned to her looted home in Humera that she was apprehended by militia members who spoke Amharic. She asked them to speak Tigrinya and they attacked her.
“Claim to be Amhara and we will give you your house back and find you a man,” the men said. “But if you claim to be Tigrayan, we will come and rape you again.”
She is now pregnant. The AP does not name people who have been sexually abused.
The UN has said more than 500 rapes in Tigray have been reported to health professionals. But armed groups have destroyed most of Tigray’s health centers, leaving little help.
And there is more pain to come.
Almost every refugee described a worrying shortage of food. Most saw crops that were looted or burned. Kidu Gebregirgis, a farmer, said Amhara harvested about 5,000 kg of sorghum from its fields and pulled it away, a task that took two weeks.
The conflict began shortly before the harvest in the largely agricultural region. Now the planting season is approaching.
“But there is no seed,” said Kidu. “There is nothing to start again.”
Tigrayans passing through the countryside described hungry people, often elderly people, begging outside churches. Sometimes they did, too.
Again, ethnicity was crucial. Belaynesh Beyene from Dansha said she made sure to speak Amharic as she approached home in western Tigray to get food.
Ethiopia has said under international pressure that food aid has been distributed to more than 4 million people in Tigray. Refugees disagreed.
Maza Girmay, 65, said she heard food was being distributed so she went to the government office in Bahkar to inquire.
“They said to me, ‘Go home, you are Tigrayan,'” she said.The rejection brought her to tears.
A colonel with the Tigray warriors, Bahre Tebeje, worried that hunger was killing more people than the war itself.
Tigrays still arrive daily at the border post, where Sudanese soldiers look at a no-man’s land. One recent night, the AP saw three APs approaching.
In Sudan, the Tigrayans are registered and asked about their ethnicity. For once, they can answer.