MSF's Steve Cornish listening via an interpreter to a refugee woman and her children from Ethiopia in Um Rakoba refugee camp in Sudan. (Photo: MSF)

Fleeing violence in Tigray, Ethiopia, more than 61,000 people have registered as refugees after crossing the border into Sudan since November 2020. Recently, I visited two refugee camps – Al Hashabat and Um Rakuba in the eastern part of the country near the Ethiopian border, where the patience of refugees is running low, and people have started to demonstrate. They are tired of having to beg in order to receive proper food.

Although multiple ethnic groups have fled the fighting for Sudan, the people I met were Tigrayans. While they expressed justified despair at the abject levels of protection, water, sanitation, and food available, conditions in Sudan, it seems, were not the primary story. The conversations turned quickly to their fears for the security of family members who were left behind and to retelling the traumatic events of their flights to safety.

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They wanted me – and you – to know of the indiscriminate violence, killings, detention and climate of fear reigning in their homeland. They wanted to know if the world was aware and cared enough to help put an end to the fighting that has shattered their lives forcing them into exile here to Sudan. 

Ethiopian refugee camp at Um Rakoba camp in Sudan. (Photo: MSF, February 2021)

Deplorable conditions inside Ethiopia

One young man specifically sought me out to tell me how he had been detained along with his sister, her husband and their three children. They were taken to an unofficial Ethiopian detention centre where hundreds of people, young and old, were being held. When the guards got drunk they would kick people, beat them with their rifles and, at gunpoint, rape teenagers and young women. After 20 days in detention, he managed to escape through a window. He made it on foot to Sudan, but his sister and her family remain behind. He has had no news since he left and he is heartbroken at their fate. (Editorial note: despite repeated requests, international aid organizations and observers have still not been allowed to visit such detention centres by the Addis Ababa government)

Another man told me that he was trying to help his pregnant neighbour escape her house when she was shot and injured; he had to leave her behind and run for his life. Three of the people he escaped with were shot and killed as they crossed the river between Ethiopia and Sudan, just minutes from safety. I was told militias and armed groups threatened Tigrayans to leave and never come back, claiming this is Amharan territory, not Tigrayan.

The fighting in Tigray is still going on. One man told me he believes the worst is yet to come. “We can’t return just yet,” he said.

Sunset at the refugee reception area in Hamadyet where more than 10,000 await transfer to a more permanent location. (Photo: MSF)

A war of competing narratives

Today, the humanitarian crisis is critical, according to reports from our medical teams (Editorial note: Such reports are also confirmed by other aid organizations). People are trapped between local outbreaks of violence, and more than half of the health facilities our medical team visited on the other side of the border were not functional. Fighting started at harvest time in a region where crops were already damaged by desert locusts, so food is alarmingly scarce today.

Already working in Tigray region, we continue to negotiate with authorities in control to allow us access into additional areas affected by the fighting.

At the same time, refugees who have managed to flee into Sudan told me, and want people to know, that authorities in control are detaining and massacring civilians, looting and destroying medical infrastructure, and committing sexual violence in Tigray while aid agencies have faced repeated limitations on providing assistance there. People are also suffering from hunger. The telecommunications network is severely restricted to hamper the flow of information out of the region. This isn’t just a war on people and infrastructure – it’s also a war of competing narratives.

Given the stories I have heard, it becomes a moral imperative to give voice to the refugees from the other side of the border – to bear witness to the widespread violence and fear and to those issues that require political solutions which MSF doctors and clinics cannot provide.

There’s little doubt that the conditions I saw on my visit to the camps in Sudan are below-par. We will continue to raise these issues with key organizations inside and outside Sudan. But it is not enough to welcome and care for refugees in Sudan. Or to deliver healthcare in a few cities and locations in Tigray. Hundreds of thousands more people remain out of reach, subject to violence and detention, while at the same time cut off from food aid, healthcare and protection. 

Attacks on civilian facilities are unacceptable, and they must end. Civilians must never be a target and humanitarian organizations must be able to freely access those most in need. The collective fear and horror I heard and saw among the refugees I met in Sudan should not, and cannot, simply replace the screeching silence in Ethiopia today. Instead, the stories from Sudan are a clear red flag that something a lot more sinister requires our attention on the other side of the border. We can therefore only welcome the news on 17 March that the U.N.’s Human Rights chief has agreed to a joint Tigray inquiry on atrocities, but in view of the reports of ongoing abuses, this must take place soon as an urgent necessity rather than at a conventional bureaucratic pace.

Stephen Cornish is General Director of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Switzerland. Prior to coming to Geneva, he was Executive Director of the David Suzuki Foundation Executive Director and General Director of MSF Canada. With over more than ten years in the field, Cornish managed several major MSF humanitarian interventions in situations such as Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Georgia and Peru.