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Friday, 7 July, 2000, 22:06 GMT 23:06 UK
Ethiopian refugees' atrocity tales
Ethiopian refugees
Thousands of Ethiopians were released from Eritrean camps
By Nita Bhalla in Adwa, northern Ethiopia

Thousands of Ethiopians, released from detention camps in Eritrea, have been crossing into Ethiopia, where they have been speaking of atrocities they say they have suffered.

Most are women, children and the elderly. They said that up to 10,000 Ethiopian men still remained in a camp called Damba, and appealed for help to secure their release.


You would hearing shots being fired and you wondered who was being shot

Girma Wakajaka

Most of the Ethiopians used to live in Eritrea but were rounded up and detained when Ethiopia launched a full-scale offensive against Eritrea in May.

More than 4,000 have been repatriated in the past two weeks with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross, following the ceasefire accord between the two countries.

Rape and torture

Thousands more are still streaming across the border into Ethiopia, after being released from camps in Eritrea, where they have been detained over the last 2 months.

Photoes of missing male relatives
Photoes of missing male relatives

For the moment, they have been given shelter in a school in the northern Ethiopian town of Adwa.

When I visited the school, the refugees crowded round me, keen to tell me their experiences in the camp of Danba, where they said they had endured rape and torture and had been given little water or food.

Twenty-four-year-old Girma Wakajaka was a waitress living in the Eritrean town of Dekemahari, before she was taken to Damba.

She said the inmates were beaten frequently and abused: "There were these thorn plants and we were made to roll on these thorns. They would also pour water on the dirt and make us roll in the mud. There was no time when you didn't hear screams of pain".


What will my child do without her mother's milk?

Mother of missing child

Some refugees were shot, she said: "They would come and take people in the middle of the night when they thought you were sleeping. You would hearing shots being fired and you wondered who was being shot. My sister has disappeared and my brother is still there."

Girma said that conditions got worse every time Ethiopian troops captured a strategic area in Eritrea.

"When Guluj was taken by the Ethiopian troops, 30 Eritrean soldiers came to the camps and beat us hard with heavy wooden sticks and made us roll in faeces. It was so degrading," she said.

Mother's anguish

Another refugee, 18-year-old Tsega Desta, was a maid living in Dekemahari. Her one-year-old baby was taken away by the Eritrean soliders.

MP Netsanet
MP Netsanet wants international actions

"They asked me who the father was. When I told them he was Eritrean, they said that the baby would remain in Eritrea. They just took her. I screamed and shouted, but it made no difference.

"I was still breast-feeding her and now I'm frightened for her. What will she do without her mother's milk?"

Others showed me the scars where they said they had been beaten, and a few men, pointing to casts, said that their legs had been broken by Eritrean soldiers.

Missing menfolk

But the most disturbing tale was that of the missing men. The refugees said that up to 10,000 Ethiopian men between the ages of 18 and 40 still remained in Damba camp.

They showed me dozens of pictures of missing sons, brothers and fathers.

People wept openly as Desta Aberha, a 57-year-old farmer from the Eritrean town of Alla, spoke: "They separated the young men from the rest of us. Some have now been moved to another camp, but there are at least 10,000 who still remain there.

"We don't know what will happen to them. Perhaps they will be forced into the Eritrean army, perhaps they will be used for forced labour or even killed," he said.

Four-day-old Tsenai with mother
Four-day-old Tsenai: A symbol of hope

"You have to tell the UN before it's too late!" cried one elderly mother as tears streamed down her wrinkled face.

"Our sons were taken from us and they are suffering in the camp. You have to tell the world before it's too late."

Netsanet Asfaw, Ethiopian MP for the Enda Mariam constituency has been collecting photographs and listing the men described as missing. She said she hoped that the international community would press for their release.

"We've written letters to all the relevant human rights organisations to come and see what is happening. No one has responded. You are the first foreign journalist who has come here. We are very surprised.

"This is an outrage because they should have come a long time ago and pressure needs to be put on the Eritrean authorities to release our people," she said.

Amid such distress in the shelter, I found some happiness. A mother showed me her baby girl, called Tsenai, who had been born four days before in Damba.

"God saved us. The day after she was born, we were released and brought across the border to Ethiopia," the mother said.

The refugees consider Tsenai a symbol of hope.

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See also:

30 Jun 00 | Africa
Eritrea, Ethiopia to resume talks
12 Jun 00 | Africa
Ethiopia-Eritrea peace plan
12 May 00 | Battle in the Horn
Border a geographer's nightmare
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