‘We’ll be left without families’: Fear in Ethiopia’s Tigray

NAIROBI, KENYA (AP) — As soldiers from Eritrea looted the border town of Rama in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, one home became a dispensary for frightened residents seeking medicine in the midst of war. In return, they shared details of killings in nearby communities.

An American nurse visiting her family listened in shock.Now, after escaping to her home in Colorado, she struggled to estimate the number of dead. “I don’t know, 1,000?” she told The Associated Press. “It was a lot, just in the rural areas.” She has been unable to reach her parents since leaving. If the fighting doesn’t end soon, she said, “we’ll be left without families.”

Rare witness accounts are illuminating the toll of the shadowy conflict in Tigray, which is largely cut off from the world as fighting enters a fourth month in a region of six million people.

Ethiopian forces and allied fighters pursue the fugitive former leaders of Tigray who long dominated Ethiopia’s government. Each side sees the other as illegitimate after last year’s national elections were delayed and Tigray defiantly held its own.

Soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea, a secretive nation and enemy of the former Tigray leaders, are deeply involved, though Ethiopia and Eritrea deny their presence.

The European Union this week joined the United States in urging Eritrea to withdraw its forces, asserting they are “reportedly committing atrocities and exacerbating ethnic violence”.

With journalists barred, communications patchy and the international community unable to investigate atrocities firsthand, it is challenging to verify witness accounts. But their details are consistent with others who describe a region where the health system is largely destroyed, vast rural areas remain out of reach and Red Cross officials warn that thousands of people could starve to death.

Once Tigray reopens to scrutiny, people will be shocked, said Hailu Kebede, foreign affairs head for the Salsay Woyane Tigray opposition party that, along with two others, estimates more than 52,000 civilians have died.

“This is the least-documented war,” Hailu said. “The world will apologise to the people of Tigray, but it will be too late.” Even as the delivery of aid slowly begins to improve, it is questioned.

One woman from Tigray, a student in Europe, asserted that Ethiopian authorities have begun arriving in her family’s border-area village with badly needed food but are withholding it from families suspected of links to Tigray fighters.

She is not the first to make that claim.”If you don’t bring your father, your brothers, you don’t get the aid, you’ll starve,” she recounted after speaking with her sister about events in the Irob administrative area.

Like others, she spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for her family. The student also learned that her uncle and two nephews were killed by Eritrean soldiers during a recent holiday gathering. The Irob Advocacy Association, relying on witnesses who have reached cities with phone service, has listed 59 victims overall.

Medecins Sans Frontieres staff transport a patient at a mobile clinic in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. PHOTO: AP