Ethiopians who fled the Tigray region into Sudan are torn between a grim future in refugee camps and returning to an almost month-old conflict in their homeland.
More than 45,000 people have escaped from northern Ethiopia since November 4, after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered military operations against leaders of Tigray’s ruling party in response to its alleged attacks on federal army camps.
In neighbouring Sudan, families have been separated and farmers forced to abandon their crops to take refuge in vast camps across the border, with limited access to water, food and sanitary facilities.
Many are holding onto hopes that normality will soon be restored to Tigray and they will be able to return to their lives.
“I love Ethiopia. I left my elderly mother and my farm behind. If there is peace and the war stops, I will immediately go back,” Bergha Mongosto said last week at Sudan’s Village Eight transit centre near the Ethiopian border.
Abiy announced Saturday that military operations in Tigray had been “completed” after the army claimed control of the regional capital Mekele, but it was not clear whether fighting in Tigray would end right away.
Some refugees are determined to return, regardless of whether the conflict continues.
“I have a farming project in Mai-Kadra and I don’t want to live in a refugee camp,” Drajo Germaya told AFP, referring to a town in Tigray.
“When I return to Ethiopia, I will not come back here. It’s either we live or die there,” he said from the Sudanese border town of Hamdayit.
Others complained of marginalisation of the Tigray region and said the conflict had left them no choice but to start their lives elsewhere.
“It is very tough here, but I will never go back to Tigray. We have no option to return,” Tigrayan refugee Dagaf Abraha said from the Um Raquba refugee camp, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the border.
“Abiy Ahmed doesn’t want the Tigray tribe in Ethiopia,” Abraha said.
Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, has pledged to protect civilians and repeatedly called for refugees to return.
Tigray has been under a communications blackout during the conflict, making it hard for refugees on the other side of the border to check on their loved ones.
It has also made it impossible to know the full toll of fierce fighting that has included air strikes and at least one alleged massacre that reportedly killed hundreds of civilians.
Officials say refugees have largely preferred to stay near the border in the hope of returning.
“Eighty percent of them (refugees) are farmers who did not finish harvesting their crops. They want to go back to do that,” Po Mayro from the UN refugee agency said from Sudan’s Hamdayit transit centre.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said on Saturday that the majority of the refugees he had spoken to wanted to go back.
“They left their crops without harvest. They left part of their families and their belongings,” he told reporters during a visit to the Um Raquba camp.
Sudan — one of the world’s poorest nations — was already struggling with its own deep economic crisis before the mass refugee influx.
Earlier this month, Soliman Ali, governor of Sudan’s eastern border state of Gedaref, said the refugee numbers were “way above the state’s capabilities”.
Grandi called on donors to take action, saying that Sudan needed $150 million in aid to cope with the flood of refugees.
Conditions in the camps are tough and the health situation precarious.
Medics with aid group Mercy Corps at the Um Raquba camp told AFP earlier this month that they had seen multiple cases of dysentery and tuberculosis, malaria and HIV among the refugees.
They expressed fear that overcrowding could worsen the health situation.
No coronavirus cases have so far been reported among the refugees, but there are fears any outbreak could spread rapidly through camps and neighbouring villages.
Abiy called Saturday for a “return to normal” for Tigray residents.
“We now face the critical task of rebuilding that which was destroyed, repairing that which was damaged and bringing back those who have fled,” he said.
But some refugees say they prefer life in the camps to that under Abiy’s government.
“I will not go back even if the situation stabilises there. I want to start work here,” Tekhlay Manout said last week at the Village Eight transit centre.
In Um Raquba, Gabrahi Wadgeday dismissed the idea of returning.
“Why would I go back?” he said.
Another refugee, Burhan Yussef, said he would only go back under a different regime.
“Abiy Ahmed’s government has to change,” the 77-year-old said.
“If it does, I will go back. If it doesn’t change, I will stay where I am.”