HAMDAYET, Sudan – The atrocities have been burned into the skin and heads of Tigrayans, who find shelter by the thousands in sight of the homeland they fled in northern Ethiopia.
They arrive in heat rising above 100 F, with the pain of gunshot wounds, ruptured vaginas, welts on beaten backs. Less visible are the memories: dozens of bodies scattered on river banks. Fighters raping a woman one by one for speaking her own language. A child, weakened by hunger, left behind.
Now, for the first time, they also bring evidence of an official attempt at what has been called ethnic cleansing in the form of a new identity card that removes all traces of Tigray, as confirmed to The Associated Press by nine refugees from different communities. Written in a language that is not theirs, issued by authorities of another ethnic group, the maps are seen as the latest evidence of an attempt by Ethiopia and its allies to destroy the Tigrayan people.
Amhara authorities now in charge of the nearby town of Humera took Seid Mussa Omar’s original ID card bearing his Tigrayan identity and burned it, the nurse said in a low voice. His new map, examined by the AP, released in January, shows the Amharic language, an Amhara stamp and a border of tiny hearts.
“I saved it to show the world,” said Seid. “This is genocide … Their goal is to wipe out Tigray.”
What started as a political dispute in one of the most powerful countries in Africa has turned into a campaign against Tigrayans, according to AP interviews with 30 refugees in Sudan. Nobel laureate Abiy Ahmed’s Ethiopian government is accused of collaborating with Abiy’s ethnic group – his mother was Amhara – and soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, long an enemy of Tigray’s now fugitive leaders, to punish about 6 million people.
Ethiopia claims that life in Tigray is returning to normal. But the refugees said abuse is still taking place. Nearly all of the killings, rapes and destruction of crops that could starve the region without massive food aid.
The Tigray has been largely cut off from the world for months, with access to electricity and telecommunications cut off, leaving little to back up claims that perhaps tens of thousands of people have died.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken claimed last month that “ethnic cleansing” has taken place in west Tigray, the first time that a top official in the international community has openly described the situation as such. The term refers to forcing a population out of a region through expulsion and other violence, often including murder and rape.
Refugees said Amhara authorities have taken over communities and commanded Tigrayans. Humera’s Goitom Hagos told the AP that he had seen thousands of Tigrayans loaded into trucks and is not sure what happened to them.
Some Tigrayans were ordered to accept or leave the Amhara identity, refugees said.
The Tigray conflict started in November as a political clash of past and present. Tigray leaders had dominated the country’s government for nearly three decades, creating a system of ethnically based regional states. But Abiy took office in 2018 and moved to centralize power. He sidelined the Tigray leaders and made peace with Eritrea, earning him a Nobel Peace Prize.
Tigray’s rebellious leaders considered the central government illegal after last year’s elections were postponed, and kept their own vote. The government opened a military offensive and said Tigray’s forces had attacked a military base. Witnesses say that Amhara and Eritrean forces essentially divided much of Tigray among themselves.
Ethiopia says it rejects “all ideas and practices of ethnic cleansing.” A regional spokesman for Amhara declined to comment.
The murders continue. In early March, 30-year-old Alem Mebrahtu attempted to cross the Tekeze River between the parts of Tigray under Eritrean and Amhara rule. She had been separated from her children during the conflict and had learned that they were in Sudan.
About 50 bodies had been strewn near the riverbank, she said. Some lay face down. Some looked to the sky. Exhaustion pressed deep under her eyes, she began to cry.
Reluctantly, in order to protect herself, she tries to learn Amharic.
“Their goal is not to leave a Tigrayan,” she said.
The refugees said rapes are also widespread. One woman said that when she returned to her looted home in Humera, she was seized by militiamen speaking Amharic. She asked them to speak to Tigrinya, and they attacked her.
“Claim to be Amhara and we will give you back your house and find you a husband,” the men said. “But if you claim to be Tigrayan, we’ll come and rape you again.”
She is now pregnant. The AP does not name people who have been sexually assaulted.
The United Nations has said more than 500 rapes have been reported to health workers in Tigray. But armed groups have destroyed most of Tigray’s health centers, leaving little help.
And there is more pain to come.
Almost every refugee described a worrying food shortage. Most saw crops looted or burned. Kidu Gebregirgis, a farmer, said the Amhara harvested and hauled about 5,000 kilograms of sorghum from its fields, a task that took two weeks.
The conflict started shortly before the harvest in the largely agricultural area. Now the planting season is approaching.
“But there is no seed,” said Kidu. “There is nothing to start over.”
Tigrayans traveling through rural communities described starving people, often elderly, who begged outside churches. Sometimes they did.
Again, ethnicity was crucial. Belaynesh Beyene, from Dansha, said she made sure to speak Amharic when approaching houses in western Tigray to eat.
Ethiopia has said under international pressure that food aid has been provided to more than 4 million people in Tigray. Refugees disagreed.
Maza Girmay, 65, said she heard that food was being distributed, so she went to the government office in Bahkar to inquire.
‘They said to me,’ Go home, you are Tigrayan, ‘she said. The rejection brought her to tears.
A colonel of the Tigray hunters, Bahre Tebeje, feared starvation will kill more people than the war itself.
Every day Tigrayans arrive at the border post where Sudanese soldiers keep an eye on a no man’s land. On a recent evening, the AP saw three approaching.
In Sudan, the Tigrayans are registered and asked about their ethnicity. For once they are free to reply.