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On the Ethiopian border, refugees fleeing fighting, famine make for Sudan

Nobel Peace Prize-winner Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia launched a government offensive last November against rebels in the northern region of Tigray. At the time, he promised the war would be over in a matter of weeks. But the ongoing conflict has led to thousands of deaths, displaced almost 2 million people, and led to charges of ethnic cleansing and widespread sexual violence, mostly by government forces. Benedict Moran and Jorgen Samso report.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In November of last year, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, launched a government offensive against rebel forces in the northern region of Tigray.

    At the time, he promised that the war would be over in a matter of weeks. But the conflict continues with thousands dead and 1.7 million people displaced. Last month, the United Nations declared that parts of Tigray are now in the midst of famine. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on all parties to commit to an immediate, indefinite and negotiated ceasefire.

    Since the beginning of fighting, tens of thousands of Ethiopians have sought safety in neighboring Sudan. But the conditions in Sudan's refugee camps are presenting new challenges. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Benedict Moran and videographer Jorgen Samso report.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Back home in Northern Ethiopia, Tewodros Tefara is a doctor in one of his country's largest hospitals.

    Here in Humdayat, on the tense border between Sudan and Ethiopia, he's still a doctor but also a refugee, caring for other refugees.

    His entire clinic fits into a small room without electricity or running water. He has a laboratory, pharmacy–

  • Dr. Tewodros Tefara:

    And here is where I do some procedures, some wound dressing and wound care.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Tefara is one of the estimated 50,000 people who fled violence in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region, dodging Ethiopian government soldiers and swimming across fast-flowing waters to seek safety in this remote part of Eastern Sudan.

    Refugees arrive with everything from common infections to gunshot wounds.

  • Dr. Tewodros Tefara:

    Last week we saw 920 patients in seven days.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Not everyone can make it to safety in Sudan. Compared to the flood of refugees that arrived last November, today, only a trickle of arrivals cross into the country every week.

    Just behind me here is Ethiopia, and it's an active conflict zone. Many of the refugees who recently arrived here say they were hunted by militias who are trying to prevent them from seeking safety in neighboring Sudan.

    Doctor Tefara sees it regularly, he says: young men killed on their way to safety.

  • Dr. Tewodros Tefara:

    It was only last week that young men drowned when they tried to cross in. They were running from the soldiers who were following them to shoot. And then these young men were running and then they drowned in the river and they died.

  • Benedict Moran:

    42-year-old Shiwaye Hemayo arrived just days before we met him. The Ethiopian army attacked his village in Western Ethiopia last November, he said. He fled, but was eventually caught. Suspected of being a rebel fighter, he told us soldiers arrested him.

  • Shiwaye Hemayo, Refugee:

    Without any reason, we had to stay for three months in Uemura prison because we are another tribe we didn't have rights in the prison. My friend had a chronic illness; he didn't get medication so he died in the prison.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Hemayo eventually made it to Sudan. Another friend, who he was traveling with, did not.

  • Shiwaye Hemayo:

    We traveled during the night with smugglers and they almost found us. When we were crossing, one of our friends was shot and two others fled back.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Hemayo no longer has to run for his life. But his well-being is not yet guaranteed. Sudan's refugee camps do not yet provide safe haven. One hundred miles further inland, on a remote plain, more than 20,000 refugees were relocated here, to Tunaydbah Refugee Camp.

    When refugees arrive, they are given essential household items like blankets, sheets, and containers for cooking. There is regular distribution of food including cooking oil and grains like sorghum. But the camp's living conditions are dire.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Thirty-two-year-old Solomon Gebrehenes arrived here six months ago. Ten days before we visited him, a storm blew over his tent. Videos taken by aid workers show wind and rain pounding the camp, causing many shelters to collapse. Aid workers say nearly 70 percent of the camp was destroyed.

    Nearly two weeks later, much of the camp is still in disrepair. Since the storm, Gebrehenes, his wife and four children have slept in the muddy remains of his shelter, or out in the open.

  • Solomon Gebrehenes:

    When the wind comes, it's really strong. We fix it in the morning, but by night. It is totally collapsed. There is nothing here. There's no jobs, there is nothing, from the morning to the night.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Aid workers we've spoken to say the conditions in these camps are so bad that thousands of refugees have left. Choosing to return home to the conflict zone in Ethiopia, others north to Libya, hoping to reach the shores of Europe.

  • Benedict Moran:

    The rainy season will soon bring even more extreme weather. Aid workers like Sergio Scor are bracing for the worst.

    What do you think is going to happen in the rainy season? You've seen the early rains in May but the rains are going to get really bad probably in the near future. What are you expecting?

  • Sergio Scor:

    I expect an exodus, to be honest, of people. So more people, I think, are going to leave the camp.

  • Solomon Gebrehenes:

    Many of Sudan's major donors are also worried.

    In a letter to the UNHCR, the United Nations agency that set up the camps, ambassadors from the U.S., EU, and six countries expressed, "serious concern about the UNHCR's leadership," and requested urgent action to improve the camps, writing: "The safety, security, and dignity of refugees is at severe risk, and lives may be lost."

    The Deputy Representative of UNHCR Sudan, Fatima Mohammed Cole, told PBS Newshour that the agency is working to improve the camps. But she did not provide specifics.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Were mistakes made by the UNHCR?

  • Fatima Mohammed Cole:

    All I can say for now is that we're working against nature. We're working against time. What they've highlighted in the letter is worrying for us, particularly as a protection and a humanitarian agency. And these are issues that we take seriously.

  • Benedict Moran:

    With ongoing fighting in Ethiopia, and even a potential famine there, aid agencies in Sudan don't expect an ebb in new arrivals.

    Back at the Humdayat border crossing, Tewodros Tefara continues to work from dawn to dusk. His wife and children remain in Ethiopia. Unsure when he'll see them again, he finds meaning in his daily work as a doctor.

  • Benedict Moran:

    How do you feel of being a refugee and also helping other refugees?

  • Dr. Tewodros Tefara:

    It's very difficult to describe really because we are in a very new environment. We practically escaped for our lives, and we run out of our places with nothing in our hand. So we have to deal. We have to sleep on the ground. We have to eat whatever we were supplied with and we have to drink whatever we get. I'm trying to handle it in a way that I tell myself every time that it's OK. I'm trying to help.

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