Residents in Ethiopia’s besieged Tigray region are opting for perilous smuggling routes out of the area to evade forced military service on one side and the starvation and repression imposed by the other.
During its conflict, Tigray has been largely shut off from the outside world during the conflict, with the Ethiopian authorities preventing access and closing down internet communications. Meanwhile, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is pushing people to join its ranks as fighters.
Danay* (not his real name), 30, and his five friends knew the route via the neighbouring Amhara region was dangerous when they started fleeing Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, in May. But as the humanitarian crisis worsened and the threat of having to join the fighting increased in their hometown, they paid smugglers to take them out.
“If caught by the Amhara Fano fighters you will be killed. You also risk being murdered by machete-wielding mobs of residents. They all hate Tigrayans and are often merciless. Even paying large amounts of money to smugglers cannot be a guarantee. It depends on how lucky you are,” says Danay.
He is in a detention camp outside Jari, in Amhara, until he pays more money to his smugglers.
“I fled because the TPLF authorities have been intimidating the already starved residents to contribute money and food to the military. At times, they even nag us to feed the Ethiopian prisoners of war. They forcefully recruit, arbitrarily detain and decide whatever they want. On top of that, you see people dying from starvation and curable diseases due to the siege imposed by the Ethiopian government. It is death either way,” he says.
Danay is being held with up to 1,000 Tigrayans in overcrowded conditions after fleeing alleged “tyrannical rule”.
Ibrahim*, another man at the detention camp, says: “I did not have much problem with starvation – I was better compared to others. But I don’t want to go to war. It is not only because I am a Muslim, I just don’t want to kill people.”
Since war broke out in November 2020 between Ethiopia’s federal government and the TPFL, thousands have died since the ruling forces in Tigray, and millions need food assistance. The UN and US had accused Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, of imposing a de facto blockade on Tigray and preventing aid from getting through.
In March, the Ethiopian government declared a “humanitarian truce” after months of international pressure.
All communications are still blocked to Tigray, but some news outlets interviewed residents who managed to get out, as well as escapers in the Jari camp, who accused the TPLF of aid embezzlement and unfair treatment.
When the first 20 aid trucks arrived in Mekelle in April, after the truce, Tekele* and his family were hopeful that they would finally get some respite.
“I had seen the [World Food Programme] aid trucks. But the aid was not distributed. The reason the authorities provide to the media is shortage of fuel. But even private trucks have access to fuel and are operating, let alone the government,” says Tekele.
“The aid that gets in is hardly reaching the starved. Meanwhile, TPLF authorities bother us every day to contribute from what we have. They have absolute power. They embezzle, and at times distribute the little aid that gets in based on political affiliation.”
Mehari*, who has two children, said that in April he was ordered to contribute 10,000 birr (£157) to the military.
“The papers are stamped by public offices. If you refuse to contribute, they arrest and threaten you to contribute. They arbitrarily decide who should pay, and how much,” he says.
In May, the Tigray government claimed forced recruitment had stopped and it was not systematic. But Tigrayans who spoke to news outlets on condition of anonymity insist it is getting worse.
“They passed an order recently that people from 40 to 55 should also join the army. Even families who previously sent five sons and daughters to the army are being forced to send more. The orders have the Tigray government office stamp. If you refuse or go into hiding the authorities arrest your parents.”
Thousands of people are paying smugglers up to 40,000 birr (£625) a person to escape the region. The network of smugglers includes Ethiopian army officers who take them to Jari where they are held until they pay a ransom. Then they cross the Amhara region to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.
Men in the camps say people face beatings, hunger, sexual propositions in exchange for leaving the camp and threats of forced recruitment by militias battling Tigray forces.
“They beat us. The camp is harsh. They harass the women, ask them for sex in exchange for leaving the camp. Escaping on your own is not an option because the Fano militia and residents threaten to murder us,” says Danay.
Kaleab* has made it outside Ethiopia. He says 80 people who were with him in the camp have disappeared after reaching Addis Ababa.
“One month ago, they transported me and 80 others from the Jari camp to Addis. But when we got to Addis, they took and held us in the Torhayloch camp. They told us we will be recruited to an army wing that battles the Tigray force. Everyone refused. We said we all fled Tigray, hating to go to war and we don’t want to fight with our own brothers. I managed to escape. The rest disappeared. The unverified information I have is that they are forcefully transported to Humera [in Tigray].”
A Tigrayan government spokesperson however told journalists that the allegations were baseless.
“The aid after the truce is far from meeting the needs in Tigray,” said Kindya Gebrehiwot.
“It is no surprise people are looking for alternative means to survive, including a dangerous journey to Addis, as the Ethiopian government has suspended all services.”