By Katharine Houreld
NAIROBI (Reuters) – Eritrean soldiers and Tigrayan militias raped, detained and killed Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray, an international rights watchdog said on Thursday.
Human Rights Watch released a report detailing attacks on Tigray’s two refugee camps. The conflict, which has been raging in the Horn of Africa since November saw local forces fighting the Ethiopian government along with their Eritrean allies.
Tigray has tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees. It is home to about five million people and is mountainous.
Tigrayans distrusted them as they had the same citizenship as the Eritrean soldiers occupying Eritrean, and Eritreans due to the fact that refugees were not loyal after fleeing their homeland.
Laetitia bader (Horn of Africa Director at Human Rights Watch) said that the Tigray killings, rapes, looting and looting of Eritrean refugees in Tigray were clear war crimes. Her work, first reported by Reuters, was based upon interviews with 28 refugees, as well as other sources such satellite imagery.
Although Eritrea’s minister for information didn’t immediately respond to calls, Eritrea previously denied any atrocities and stated that their forces had not attacked civilians.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front spokesmen said that uniformed Tigrayan soldiers had recently arrived in the area, and it is possible local militias may have committed violations.
“It has only been the past month that our forces have moved into these areas. “There was a large Eritrean presence there,” Getachew Reda said to Reuters. “If vigilante groups were acting in the heat, I can’t rule it out.
He said that international investigators are welcome to inspect the region.
Ethiopia was home to around 150,000 Eritrean refugee families fleeing poverty or authoritarian regimes before the Tigray Conflict.
The report mainly focused on the destruction of two camps, Hitsats and Shimelba during fighting. HRW quoted UNHCR numbers that show 7,643 of the 20,000 refugee families living in Hitsats or Shimelba camps were still missing.
UNHCR (the United Nations Refugee Agency) said that it is “appalled” by reports about “immense suffering” in refugee camps which it could not access between November and March.
‘IN EVERY HOUSE, PEOPLE KILLED’
Eritrean forces arrived in the northern town of Hitsats on Nov. 19, killed residents, and pillaged and occupied the refugee camp, HRW said. One resident said that some refugees had helped to direct looters.
According to one resident, “In all houses people were killed.”
Four days later, Tigrayan fighters attacked an area near Hitsats camp’s Ethiopian Orthodox church, killing nine refugees and injuring 17, HRW reported.
Our 4-year-old son was on my husband’s back, and our 6-yearold daughter in our arms. One refugee said that he was shot by the police when he tried to enter the church with me.
HRW reports that two dozen Hitsats residents were killed during clashes on the same day.
HRW stated that they were unable to ascertain whether Tigray’s formal forces commanded local Tigray militias that operated around Hitsats.
HRW stated that two dozen refugee children were taken into custody by Eritrean soldiers shortly after. They have never been seen since. The 17 refugees who were injured were also taken back by the soldiers to Eritrea.
In December, the Eritrean troops withdrew their forces from Hitsats camp. On Dec. 5, Tigrayan troops returned, causing refugees to flee under attack.
People fleeing the area of Ziban Gedena and Zelasle, north of Hitsats were reported to have been shot and attacked by grenades. Tigrayan militias marched refugees from Hitsats back, killing some, according to refugee reports to HRW. Some of the women claimed that they were also raped while fleeing Tigrayan fighters. According to one woman aged 27, Tigrayan fighters also raped her with her 17 year-old sister.
HRW reported that the Tigrayan troops withdrew their forces from Hitsats in January 4. After ordering the refugees to flee, Eritrean troops returned and destroyed the camp.
HRW reported that in Shimelba the Eritrean troops killed at most one refugee and raped four more. They also killed several local residents.
Many refugees returned to Eritrea due to the severe food shortages and violence. Many others fled south to Adi Harush, and Mai Aini. In June, Tigrayan troops took control of the camps. Refugees have complained about looting and killings.
UNHCR stated Wednesday that they were extremely concerned about the situation of more than 20,000 Eritrean refugees in Mai Aini camp and Adi Harush Camp in southern Tigray. They said there was severe water and food shortages, and no healthcare.