Members of Ethiopia’s Qemantethnic minority say they had no choice but to migrate to Sudan after being dragged into a conflict that was not their fault, marking another gloomy turn in a spreading conflict.
“Houses were set on fire, and people were butchered with machetes,” said Emebet Demoz, a refugee who fled her town with thousands of others last month. “We couldn’t even bury the bodies,” says the narrator.
Thousands had died since combat erupted in Ethiopia’s northernmost Tigray region in November, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed dispatched soldiers to depose the regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, claiming the move was in response to TPLF attacks on army bases.
Other ethnic groups have been drawn into the violence, which has moved from Tigray to Ethiopia’s neighboring Amhara region, home to both the Amhara people and the ethnic minority Qemant.
Amhara fighters backed Abiy’s forces in a bid to resolve a decades-old territorial issue they believe the TPLF acquired during its almost three-decade dominance until Abiy gained office in 2018.
The Qemant have long resented the majority Amhara people’s cultural and economic hegemony, and in recent years have agitated for self-rule.
The upshot of a 2017 referendum on creating a Qemant autonomous zone was acrimony, with the resultant territorial conflict prompting more regular violence between the two factions.
“The government-backed Amhara fighters wanted us off our land,” Emebet, 20, explained. “They are murdering us because we are a minority ethnic group.”
Refused to pick a side:
Gizachew Muluneh, the Amhara regional spokesperson, categorically denied that the Qemant ethnic group members were being targeted.
Amhara leaders claim that Tigrayan rebels, who they accuse of fighting a proxy war by supporting the Qemant, mainly fueled the Qemant’s quest for self-rule.
Those classified as refugees, according to Gizachew, are “pro-terrorist TPLF and are fabricated by TPLF for the goal of diverting Ethiopia and Amhara.”
According to the United Nations, over 200,000 people have been displaced from their homes in Amhara, where ethnic tensions are growing. “The Amharas wanted us to choose their side in the Tigrayan conflict,” claimed Balata Goshi, a refugee. “They fought us because we refused to take sides.”
According to the UN’s humanitarian agency, clashes between the Amhara and the Qemant led thousands of people to escape in April of this year.
Campaigners for the Qemant argue their traditional territory includes communities on the Sudanese border.
However, the Qemant has been accused of receiving help from Sudan, which has territorial disputes with Ethiopia, primarily in the Amhara region.
Relations between Khartoum and Addis Ababa have also deteriorated due to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, which downstream Egypt and Sudan worry would jeopardize their access to water.
The violence forced individuals like Emebet, who was caught in the midst, to flee.
Sudanese officials say she is one of about 3,000 Qemant refugees who have fled into Sudan recently.
“We expect more Qemantis, as well as other ethnicities,” Sudan’s refugee commission’s Mohamed Abdelkareem said. According to the UN, Sudan already accommodates over 60,000 Ethiopian refugees, putting a strain on a country dealing with severe economic problems.
Emebet took refuge in the Sudanese border town of Basinga, where she was crammed into a classroom that had been turned into a makeshift camp and is now home to a thousand refugees.
There is basic food, but she sleeps under plastic sheeting, which provides little protection from the scorching heat or the torrential rain.
“At the very least, we’re safe here,” she remarked.
Can’t go back:
Refugees have stated that they have been victims of long-running ethnic violence.
“Tensions have been mounting for years,” said Aman Farada, a 26-year-old Ethiopian refugee from Gondar in the north. “Initially, there was inter-ethnic strife, but now the government is pitting us against one other.”
According to the UN, the violence has forced 400,000 people to face famine-like conditions. Fighting is still going on.
Refugees from Qemant say they don’t see themselves returning to Ethiopia anytime soon.
“We can’t go back,” Emebet remarked. “How will we be able to return if this government remains in power?”