Of the thousands of refugees who have fled the conflict in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray, nearly a third are children. Hundreds of them walked unaccompanied to Sudan.
UM RAKUBA, Sudan — The Um Rakuba refugee camp is filling again, stifling in the afternoon sun in eastern Sudan, and there are children everywhere.
Two boys peeped from behind a white tent marked with the blue insignia of the United Nations refugee agency. A girl wailed for her mother’s attention, a young teenager hawked plastic-wrapped cakes, while a group of boys and girls chased one another after leaving a makeshift classroom.
“Living here is the best because in our small village, there’s war,” Ashenafi Mulugeta, 8, said through an interpreter on a recent afternoon. “I am happy to be here.”
More than 51,000 Ethiopians have fled their country because of the military’s offensive in the restive region of Tigray, and more than 19,000 of them are here at Um Rakuba. This month, I went to the camp to hear their accounts of the war.
Almost a third of the Ethiopian refugees are children, with at least 361 of them arriving unaccompanied, according to the United Nations refugee agency — a stark sign of the sudden nature of the violence that sent them running.
Many Tigrayans accuse the government of waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing against them, even as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promises to unite the country under the banner of liberal democratic rule. With the violence still continuing, some 2.3 million children in the Tigray region do not have access to humanitarian assistance, according to UNICEF, the U.N. agency for children.
Many of the unaccompanied children said they were separated from their families as they bolted from their homes in the middle of the night, trekking hours and days with nothing but the clothes on their backs to reach safety.
With limited access to food, shelter or care now, humanitarian organizations say many of the children are at risk of abuse and exploitation. I spoke with the children in the presence of aid workers, teachers or other adults.
“It is quite heartbreaking,” Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said in an interview in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. “For an emergency that is relatively small in numbers, I have hardly seen such a high level of people separated from their families, many children separated.”
At Um Rakuba camp, an arid bowl of land sandwiched between a few hills, a sense of permanence is already taking place. Even as they dream of one day going back home, many refugees say they are determined to establish a future — if delicate and uncertain — here.
During a recent visit, a man in a loosefitting garment sat digging holes to erect wooden beams that would hold the thatched roofing over his family’s new shelter. A woman, her hands feeble, fanned a fire to cook the spongy injera flatbread that’s central to Ethiopian food. And as the smell of coffee wafted from a nearby shed, a group of men started clearing a thicket to build temporary homes.
This fragile sense of continuity comes more than a month after Mr. Abiy began an offensive against the northern Tigray region, after accusing its leaders of orchestrating an attack on a government defense post and seizing military equipment. Since then, the conflict has killed countless civilians and precipitated a humanitarian and geopolitical crisis that threatens to destabilize not just Ethiopia but the entire Horn of Africa region.
The waves of refugees who have poured into Sudan described hastily leaving their homes and harvests, and encountering violent militias and dead bodies along the way.
Though Ethiopian officials say that electricity and communications have been restored, and Mr. Abiy has declared the offensive over in Tigray, there are still widespread reports of fighting. Many of the Tigrayans here say that uncertainty, and the trauma of what they saw and experienced, will keep them from going home any time soon.
The children who fled to Sudan are deeply unsettled.
“I miss home,” said Daniel Yemane, who crossed alone into Sudan in the Hamdayet area after getting separated from his parents. Daniel, 12, said he longed to see his two younger sisters, play and watch soccer with his friends, and return to school, where his studies had been interrupted even before the conflict because of the coronavirus pandemic.
On his way to the border, he said he saw bodies of dead people. “With my own eyes,” he said, pointing at them. “If things go the way they are, I will never go back.”
For many young refugees at Um Rakuba, their changed circumstances have also meant growing up too fast.
Ataklti Aregawi, 17, who is registered as an unaccompanied minor, goes around the camp each day, selling plastic-wrapped cakes from a box hanging from his neck. With the small profit he makes, he is able to purchase coffee and tea or even the deep-fried doughnuts sprinkled with sugar that many love to eat as sunset nears.
Ataklti lived in Mai Kadra town in Tigray, where hundreds of people were reportedly killed in a massacre in early November. But after the war broke out, he left for Adebay and then for the agricultural town of Humera, from where he headed for the Sudanese border.
“In our life, we have never seen bad actions like this,” he said of the war. “Abiy doesn’t like us. He doesn’t like us staying in Tigray.”
Ataklti puts on the demeanor of an adult when talking about his ordeal, broadening his shoulders, making his voice hoarse and smirking.
“I was not afraid,” he said when asked about making the arduous trip to Sudan. He arranged the wrapped cakes in his box. “I was not,” he insisted, smiling, saying he was ready to defend himself from any harm. “One hundred percent.”
But when he bumped into friends from home at the camp, he said, “I was sobbing.”
The sudden displacement has been devastating for parents, as well, like Berhanu Kiros and Enkubahri Berhanu.
Mr. Berhanu, a 30-year-old teacher, lives in Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region. But he was in Humera with Ms. Enkubahri, 24, whose family lives in the town and where she had just delivered their first children: twins. She was in the hospital when the shelling of the town began.
As they fled Humera, Mr. Berhanu feared for his wife’s health, as she kept bleeding. After two days, the couple was separated as they fled again, and for days, each didn’t know if the other had survived.
“This was my first experience of war,” he said, talking about how the conflict coincided with the momentous time of becoming a father.
“We came from a nation of dignity and pride, and now we are here, begging with our children,” he said in a recent evening, his voice growing loud and tugging at the attention of those nearby. “The country has collapsed. It’s heartbreaking.”
Despite the challenges at Um Rakuba, the makeshift classrooms set up by the Norwegian Refugee Council bring a sense of hope to many children. Here, refugee teachers instruct hundreds of students in morning and afternoon shifts, tutoring them in math, sciences and languages.
“I want to know ABC so that I can speak English,” Azeb Gebrekristos, 7, said through an interpreter one recent morning. When she grows up, she wants to be a pilot, she said.
On a recent evening, as the sun’s heat abated, Mr. Ataklti continued selling his cakes in the camp. The dust had settled and many refugees laid mats or sat on the ground talking.
Mr. Ataklti said he had a successful day, and was about to sell the last of the pieces he had with him. But more than anything, he longed for the familiar streets where he grew up in Ethiopia.
“I wish I could go back,” he said, eyes downcast. “I miss home.”