Ethiopians fleeing fighting return to famine-era Sudan camps

Abdelmoneim Abu Idris Ali
·3 min read

Two decades since Burhan Yussef left the Um Raquba camp where he had sought refuge from devastating famine in his homeland of Ethiopia, the 77-year-old is returning.

Yussef this week arrived in eastern Sudan, after fleeing Ethiopia's northern Tigray region for a second time to save his life, joining long columns of thousands of others to escape intense fighting, air-strikes, rocket attacks and artillery barrages.

"Returning is not a good feeling," Yussef said.

He trekked out of Ethiopia in plastic sandals and leaning on a stick for support, crossing the river that marks the frontier by squeezing precariously into a small boat, crammed with other exhausted and terrified Ethiopians seeking safety.

Yussef is supported by his daughter, who grew up as a refugee in Sudan in the wake of the Ethiopia's 1984-5 famine.

Many recount similar stories of suffering.

"The war made me come back," said Gabriel, a 40-year-old farmer who has also become a refugee again, asking to be identified by his first name because he feared for his safety.

He too grew up as a child as a refugee in Sudan, before building a new life at home in Ethiopia. Now he has been forced to flee once again.

"I am filled with immeasurable sadness, because when I left, 20 years ago, I never thought that I would come back as a miserable refugee," Gabriel said, standing dejectedly as he waited for a handout portion of kisra, a Sudanese pancake made from sorghum grain.

"I don't know how long I will have to relive the terrible situation that has been mine since I was born."

- Refugee numbers grow -

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, announced last week he had ordered military operations in Tigray, saying the move came in response to attacks on federal military camps by the regional ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

On Saturday, Tigrayan leaders said they had ordered rocket attacks on two airports and threatened to strike neighbouring Eritrea, raising fears that the escalating conflict could spread.

The escalation of violence has sparked deep concerns that a conflict Abiy Ahmed vowed would be quick and contained could destabilise the broader Horn of Africa region.

The United Nations rights chief Michelle Bachelet has warned of possible war crimes in Tigray, while aid workers fear a the region faces a major humanitarian crisis.

Over 20,000 Ethiopians have fled as refugees into Sudan, with numbers continuing to grow, Sudanese officials say.

For Yussef, it raises the memories of harsh times he thought were long past.

Over a million people died in the 1984-85 famine in Ethiopia's tough and mountainous north according to UN figures, caused by a drought exacerbated by a conflict between the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam against Eritrean and Tigrayan rebels.

Yussef, wearing a white shirt and thin trousers, is back queueing for food handouts in the Hamdayit area of Sudan, awaiting transport to the newly reopened camp of Um Raquba, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the border with Ethiopia.

The camp, built in the 1980s and closed in the 2000, was reopened on Friday with space for 20,000 people.

Sudanese officials say they are doing what they can to support the sudden influx of refugees.

"We have transferred 1,115 refugees there (to Um Raquba), and we will continue to send more daily," Sudanese refugee agency official Yaaqub Mahmud told AFP.

Yussef already knows what to expect.

"I was in my forties when I arrived in the camp. I raised my four children there," he said. "None of my three boys wanted to come back -- only my daughter accompanied me."

His daughter, now aged 27, refuses to speak, and turns her back.

"I remember the camp perfectly," Yussef said sadly.

"The only thing that consoles me is to think that I will find Sudanese friends who I haven't been in touch with for many years."

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