HAMDAYAT, Sudan – Ethiopians fleeing war in the northern Tigray region crossed a border river into neighbouring Sudan on Saturday, some in boats, some swimming or wading through the water.
Speaking to Reuters in the Sudanese border town of Hamdayat, they gave accounts of the escalating conflict in Tigray state, where government forces are battling fighters loyal to rebellious local leaders.
The small town is home to a camp hosting 8,000 refugees. Several hundred arrived on Saturday morning with hundreds more crowded onto the rocky bank of the Tekeze river.
Refugees told stories of artillery attacks and shooting in the streets, with fighting spilling over into neighbouring Amhara state.
With access blocked to Tigray and communications largely down, it was impossible to verify the state of the conflict or to corroborate the refugees’ accounts.
“We are hungry and we’re afraid that they will kill us,” said an old woman, referring to government troops battling the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
She spoke moments after paying the owner of a small boat 30 Ethiopian Biir (about 80 U.S. cents) to bring her across the river, while women and children were seen swimming. Refugees said one person drowned while trying to cross the night before.
Niqisti, 42, said her brother was shot dead by government-allied militiamen in front of their home in Humera in Tigray state and her small restaurant was looted. It was not possible to verify her account.
Sudanese officials were registering refugees.
“People are hungry and the flow of refugees is continuing but we have little to offer,” said Salah Ramadan, head of the border town’s administration.
Mubarak Abdallah, a 28-year old Sudanese farmer, said supplies in the local food market were dwindling.
Hundreds of people have been killed since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent the national defence force on an offensive against local troops in Tigray last week, accusing them of attacking federal troops.
Abiy has said government jets were bombing military targets in Tigray, including arms depots and equipment controlled by the Tigrayan forces.
But several refugees said their areas had been shelled by artillery from neighbouring Eritrea to support the Ethiopian army. Reuters could not independently verify this.
Tigray’s leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, said on Tuesday that Eritrea had sent troops across the border in support of Ethiopian government forces but provided no evidence.
Eritrea’s Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed denied this on Friday.
“We were shelled by artillery volleys from across the Eritrean border,” said Naksiam Guru, a 22-year refugee who lives near the border. “I saw people dying in the streets.”
Burhani Abraham, 31, who arrived four days ago with his wife and three-year-old child also reported shelling from Eritrea.
“I’m very hungry,” he said, sitting in the crowded makeshift camp.
A 26-year old farmer from the Tigray region said the TPLF had tried to recruit him but he ran away. He did not want to give his name.”I’m a simple farmer growing corn … I’m afraid of war and death,” he said.