The atrocities have been seared into the skin and the minds of Tigrayans, who take shelter by the thousands within sight of the homeland they fled in northern Ethiopia.
They arrive in heat that soars above 38 C (100 F), carrying the pain of gunshot wounds, torn vaginas, welts on beaten backs. Less visible are the horrors that jolt them awake at night: Memories of dozens of bodies strewn on riverbanks. Fighters raping a woman one by one for speaking her own language. A child, weakened by hunger, left behind.
Now, for the first time, they also bring proof of an official attempt at what is being 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. Written in a language not their own, issued by authorities from another ethnic group, the ID cards are the latest evidence of a systematic drive by the Ethiopian government and its allies to destroy the Tigrayan people.
The Amhara authorities now in charge of the nearby city of Humera took Seid Mussa Omar’s original ID card displaying his Tigrayan identity and burned it, the soft-spoken nurse said. On his new card examined by the AP, issued in January with the Amharic language, an Amhara stamp and a border of tiny hearts, even the word Tigray had vanished.
“I kept it to show the world,” Seid said. He added that only 10 Tigrayans remained of the roughly 400 who worked at the hospital where he had been employed, the rest killed or fleeing. “This is genocide Their aim is to erase Tigray.”
What started as a political dispute in one of Africa’s most powerful and populous countries has turned into a campaign of ethnic cleansing against minority Tigrayans, according to AP interviews with 30 refugees in Sudan and dozens more by phone, along with international experts. The Ethiopian government of Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed is accused of teaming up with his ethnic group — his mother was Amhara — and soldiers from neighboring Eritrea to punish around 6 million people. Witnesses say they have split much of Tigray between them, with the Amhara in the west and Eritrean forces in the east.
Ethiopia claims that life in Tigray is returning to normal, and Abiy has called the conflict “tiresome.” But the refugees the AP spoke with, including some who arrived just hours before, said abuses were still occurring. Almost all described killings, often of multiple people, rapes and the looting and burning of crops that without massive food aid could tip the region into starvation.
For months, the people of Tigray have been largely sealed off from the world, with electricity and telecommunication access severed and mobile phones often seized, leaving little to back up their claims of thousands, even tens of thousands, killed. That has begun to change.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted last month that “ethnic cleansing” has taken place in western Tigray, marking 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 expulsions and other violence, often including killings and rapes.
Refugees told the AP that Amhara authorities and allied forces in western Tigray have taken over whole communities, ordering Tigrayans out or rounding them up. A refugee from Humera, Goitom Hagos, said he saw thousands of Tigrayans loaded into trucks and doesn’t know what happened to them.
The Amhara now control some government offices in western Tigray and decide who belongs — and even whether Tigrayans exist at all. Some were ordered to accept the Amhara identity or leave, and others were told to leave anyway, the refugees said.
Lemlem Gebrehiwet was forced to flee while heavily pregnant and gave birth three days after reaching Sudan. She recalled the new authorities telling her, “This is Amhara.”
Elsa Tesfa Berhe, 26, center, a reproductive health official from Adwa, collects water a day after arriving from Humera to Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 16, 2021. (AP)
Shy, her baby girl waiting, she struggled to comprehend. “Maybe we did something wrong.”
Seid, the nurse, fled Humera early in the conflict after his hospital came under heavy shelling, with the wounded carried in screaming and colleagues killed. He returned in January in the hope that conditions had improved, as Abiy’s government promised.
They hadn’t. His home had been looted, and the remaining Tigrayans had shrunk to a quiet population of the elderly, women and children who were discouraged from speaking their own language, Tigrinya.
At the hospital, Tigrayans had to pay for care, unlike the Amhara. Anyone who came was allowed to speak Amharic only. Tigrayan staffers weren’t paid, and every night there was gunfire.
Ten days after returning to the hospital, Seid left for Sudan. Now, at this dusty post, refugees pass blazing days sprawled on plastic mats under shelters of woven straw. They stay perilously close to the border in the hope that missing loved ones will emerge from Tigray.