HRW details war crimes committed against Eritrean refugees in Tigray

Eritrean refugees

Eritrean refugees carry items during a distribution of items organised the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at Mai Aini Refugee camp, in Ethiopia, on January 30, 2021. 

Photo credit: Eduardo Soteras | AFP

Eritrean refugees sheltered at camps in Ethiopia's Tigray region have been raped, arrested and killed by warring forces in northern Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday.

In a fresh report released yesterday, the rights group alleges that the different forms of abuses were committed by Eritrean government forces and Tigrayan militias.

It said the abuses amount to war crimes.

“Eritrean refugees have been attacked both by the very forces they fled back home and by Tigrayan fighters," said Laetitia Bader, HRW Horn of Africa director.

"The horrific killings, rapes and looting against Eritrean refugees in Tigray are evident war crimes...Between November 2020 and January 2021, belligerent Eritrean and Tigrayan forces alternatively occupied the Hitsats and Shimelba refugee camps that housed thousands of Eritrean refugees, and committed numerous abuses," the report said.

Since January, the international lobby says it has interviewed 28 Eritrean refugees: 23 former residents of Hitsats camp and five former residents of Shimelba camp, as well as two residents of the town of Hitsats who had witnessed the abuses by Eritrean forces and local Tigrayan militia.
To support its findings, the group also interviewed aid workers and analysed satellite imagery.

Eritrean forces, the report says, also targeted Tigrayans living in communities surrounding camps in the region north of Ethiopia.  

"On November 19, Eritrean forces arrived in the town of Hitsats and indiscriminately killed several residents. They occupied and pillaged the town and took over the refugee camp. Some refugees took part in the looting, contributing to community tensions."

Attacked refugees

According to the report, Tigrayan militia units entered Hitsats camp on November 23 and attacked refugees near the camp’s Orthodox church.  

Clashes between the militia fighters and Eritrean soldiers ensued in and around the camp, lasting several hours. As a result, nine refugees were killed and 17 badly injured.

One Eritrean refugee told HRW that Tigrayan militia fighters killed her husband as their family tried to seek shelter inside the church.

“My husband had our 4-year-old on his back and our 6-year-old in his arms. As he came back to help me enter the church, they shot him."

On that same day, over 20 residents in Hitsats were also reportedly killed during and after the clashes between the two sides.

Following the fighting, Tigrayan militia retreated from Hitsats. However, Eritrean forces later detained approximately two dozen refugees in the camp and took them away in military vehicles.  

"Their whereabouts have not been revealed," the rights group said, adding that Eritrean forces also removed the 17 injured refugees from the camp, taking at least one - and likely others - back to Eritrea, ostensibly for treatment.

The Eritrean forces withdrew from the camp in early December 2020. But Tigrayan forces returned on the evening of December 5, shooting into the camp and sending hundreds of refugees fleeing.  

In the ensuing days, the report says, Tigrayan militia attacked, arbitrarily detained and sexually assaulted some of the refugees who had fled, notably around Zelazle and Ziban Gedena, north of Hitsats. They then marched the refugees back to Hitsats.

"I am a double victim," said a 27-year-old woman whom Tigrayan militia fighters raped along with her 17-year-old sister while they fled Hitsats. "Both in Eritrea and now here (in Ethiopia). I am not protected."

In Hitsats, Tigrayan militias and special forces, as well as members of an unidentified armed Eritrean group, arbitrarily detained hundreds of refugees, apparently to identify those who collaborated with the Eritrean forces or who were responsible for looting in the town.

On January 4, following heavy clashes near the camp, Tigrayan forces withdrew from Hitsats.
Eritrean forces later returned, HRW says, and ordered all remaining refugees to leave along the main road toward Eritrea.  

Between January 5 and 8, Eritrean forces destroyed and burned shelters and humanitarian infrastructure in the camp, leaving significant parts of the camp in ruins.

HRW urged all warring parties to cease attacks against refugees, stay out of refugee camps, and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid.

"For years, Tigray was a haven for Eritrean refugees fleeing abuse, but many now feel they are no longer safe," Ms Bader said.  

Eritrea has not commented on the latest allegations, but Asemera has previously denied that its troops had committed atrocities against civilians in Tigray.

TPLF responds

TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda, for his part, told Reuters that formal, uniformed Tigrayan forces had only recently moved into the area and that it was possible abuses were committed by local militias.

"It is mostly the last month or so that our forces moved into those areas. There was a huge Eritrean army presence there," Getachew said.

"If there were vigilante groups acting in the heat of the moment, I can't rule that out."

International investigators were welcome to visit the area, the former communication minister said.

Since the Tigray conflict broke out in November last year, thousands have been killed, millions displaced and hundreds of thousands facing the risk of starving to death