Almost every night, young men slip across the heavily guarded border, swim across a swollen brown river, and into Sudan to escape what they say is a sudden surge of ethnic violence in the westernmost corner of Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
This fertile region, still in the hands of soldiers and militias loyal to the Ethiopian federal government, is now seen as the next target for the rebels in Tigray, who are trying to tighten their grip on the region and secure a potentially important supply route to neighboring Sudan.
The conflict in Tigray is now showing signs of danger and threatens to develop into a larger ethnic conflict that could spread to other parts of Ethiopia.
An 18-year-old Tigrayan said, “They gave us two days to leave or they would have killed us”. He had just crossed the river with three companions and asked that his identity be concealed to protect relatives still living in Ethiopia.
He accused soldiers from the neighboring Amhara region – who now control the important border town of Humera – of attacking the fighting Tiger men.
There are numerous reports that Amhara recruits and volunteers are arriving to reinforce the area, along with other militia forces from different parts of the country, including Oromiya and Sidama.
“The Amhara militia is going door to door. If they know you are Tigrayan, they will kill or arrest you. We feel bad because this is our land. Anyone who can escape is on the run. Another teenager said one morning in the Sudanese border town of Hamdayet, which is cut off from the border with Humera.
Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government has said it may end its unilateral ceasefire in Tigray, accusing the rebels of “provocation” and appearing to mobilize more troops from different areas.
Warning of imminent fighting
Hamdayet, surrounded by muddy fields and now battered by spectacular summer storms every night, has become a transit point for thousands of Tigrayan refugees – and almost certainly rebel fighters – moving in and out of the town, sometimes crossing into nearby Eritrea.
The flow of refugees has slowed in recent months. It began in November last year when the first clashes broke out in Tigray between forces loyal to the government in the region and the state of Ethiopia.
Some 50,000 refugees are currently sheltering in Sudanese refugee camps near the border, often in harsh conditions as the rainy season approaches and their makeshift tents are repeatedly blown away by storms. The UN Refugee Agency is facing increasing criticism of the humanitarian situation in the camps.
Several security and intelligence sources in the region have told that the rise in ethnic violence in Tigray – particularly in and around Humera – is a sign that a major war could be imminent. After recent spectacular successes in the south and east, the rebel Tigray Defense Forces are expected to attempt to conquer all of western Tigray before the rainy season sets in.
However, the town lies in disputed territory and has long been claimed by the Amhara, who took control of the area shortly after the Tigray conflict began. It is feared that an escalation of the conflict there will further fuel ethnic tensions in Ethiopia and could also exacerbate instability in Sudan and Eritrea.
Like many Tigrayan refugees, Dr Tewodros now seems committed to the idea of complete separation from Ethiopia – complete independence for Tigray.
“The idea of wanting to be Ethiopian no longer exists. I do not want to be one of the people who raped my sisters and killed my brothers. So the idea of having the same passport is gone.” He said.