Attack on Eritrean Refugees in Tigray is a ‘War Crime’

Eritrean refugees caught in the months-long war in Ethiopia have endured a range of abuses including executions and rapes that “are clearly war crimes,” human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Thursday.

A new report from the US-based human rights organization details the role of Eritrean soldiers and rebels from Tigray, a region in northern Ethiopia, in an extensive massacre marked by forced repatriations and the massive destruction of two refugee camps.

“The horrific killing, rape and looting of Eritrean refugees in Tigray constitutes a war crime,” said Laetitia Bader, HRW’s director for the Horn of Africa region. “For years, Tigray was a haven for Eritrean refugees who fled persecution, but many now feel no longer safe,” he continued.

The conflict in northern Ethiopia flared last November when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops to Tigray to overthrow the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a move he said was a response to attacks on federal army camps. Before the fighting broke out, Tigray was home to 92,000 Eritrean refugees, including 19,200 in Hitsats and Shimelba camps, the Ethiopian Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA) said.

Although Ethiopia and Eritrea were involved in a brutal border war in 1998-2000 that killed tens of thousands of people, Abiy initiated a rapprochement with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, and Asmara provided him with military support in Tigray.

Eritrean refugees protest in front of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, July 29, 2021. (REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri/File Photo)

Eritrean refugees protest outside the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, July 29, 2021. (REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri/File Photo)

Eritrean and Tigray forces first clashed near Hitsats about two weeks after the conflict began.

HRW said Thursday it had received “credible reports” that Eritrean forces killed 31 people in the city of Hitsats, and the real number “is likely much higher.”

AFP previously documented how, once fighting reached the Hitsats camp, pro-TPLF militia targeting refugees in retaliatory killings shot dead nine Eritrean youths outside a church.

When Eritrea captured the camp, they are believed to have transported 17 injured refugees to Eritrea for treatment,” the HRW report said.

Villagers return to Yechila town in south central Tigray, walking past a number of burning vehicles, in Tigray, Ethiopia, July 10, 2021.

Villagers return to Yechila town in south central Tigray, walking past a number of burning vehicles, in Tigray, Ethiopia, July 10, 2021.

However, most of those evacuated remain unaccounted for, along with 20-30 others detained, “including members of the refugee committee and presumed members of the opposition, two of whom are women,” the report said.

Tigray’s forces recaptured the area in early December and began looting, detaining, raping and attacking refugees with weapons including grenades, potentially killing dozens, HRW said.

Eritrean troops returned the following month and forced those still in the camps to evacuate. Satellite images indicate most of Hitsats was destroyed shortly thereafter, the human rights organization said. [uh/ab]

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