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Feature: Aspirations to return home for Tigrayan IDPs left hanging in the air despite promises

The two-year conflict has forced the displacement of most residents in Humera, a town situated in the Western Zone of the Tigray region (Photo: Social Media)

By Mihret G/kristos @MercyG_kirstos

Addis Abeba – More than a year after the signing of the Pretoria Peace Agreement in November 2022, and restoration of peace to most parts of Tigray, the task of returning IDPs to their homes remain elusive and complex, further exacerbating the suffering of those displaced by the war.

Limited delivery of humanitarian aid left many IDPs without the assistance they desperately need. Additionally, there have been reports of sexual violence and exploitation against women and girls in IDP camps sheltering them.

According to the UN, more than one million people are estimated to remain internally displaced from the Tigray war. The majority of these IDPs were displaced from western Tigray, including areas such as Kafta-Humera, Setit-Humera, Welkayit, Tsegede, Dansha, Mai-Gaba, Qorarit, and Mai-Kadra, among others.

In a recent statement released on the anniversary of the Pretoria peace agreement, the Tigray Interim Administration asserted that the accord had not been fully implemented and that a significant number of people still remain displaced.

Gebrehiwot Gebregzabher, the Commissioner of the Disaster Risk Management Commission of Tigray, mentioned during an interview with Addis Standard that IDPs could not return to their homes unless the federal government enforces the withdrawal of Amhara and Eritrean forces from Tigray as provided in the peace accord.

IDPs conveyed to Addis Standard that they hoped to return home but did not feel safe as long as abusive officials and security forces remained in their hometown.

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Kiros Assefa (name changed), an IDP approaching the milestone of 50, who currently lives in Abyi Adi IDPs camp alongside her family, recalls how she once reveled in the joys of family and the laughter of grandchildren in her home town, Humera, located in the Western Zone of the Tigray region.

Our possessions were confiscated, while our neighbors were subjected to torture, and some of our family members sought safety by crossing into Sudan.”

A former resident of Humera, now residing in the Abyi Adi IDP camp

Little did she know that the tranquility of her lifelong abode would be shattered in the throes of a war that erupted in the Tigray region in November 2020. Forced to flee under the cloak of darkness, Kiros’s idyllic existence was abruptly transformed into a gripping tale of survival, where the ominous echoes of heavy weaponry marked the prelude to a journey into the unknown.

“After the use of heavy weapons in our area, we left and sought refuge in the jungle,” Kiros conveyed her distress to Addis Standard. “Despite our efforts to await a calming of the situation, attacks on civilians persisted, prompting us to make the difficult decision to leave the town in November 2020.”

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“Our possessions were confiscated, while our neighbors were subjected to torture, and some of our family members sought safety by crossing into Sudan.”

She narrated the journey with her family and grandchildren, relocating first to Dedebit, a small village town in the Northwestern Zone of Tigray, then Shire Inda Selassie, a city situated in the North Western Zone of Tigray, and ultimately settling in the Abyi Adi IDP camp, which is located in Central Tigray.

This strenuous journey on foot spanned nearly two weeks. She detailed how they lived in constant fear for their lives as armed groups, which she identified as “forces from the Amhara region,” targeted and killed civilians during their escape. “Delaying our departure meant risking our lives; we heard about the deaths of our neighbors who left after us.”

Even after she arrived at Abyi Adi IDP camp, Kiros continued to face health struggles, which forced her to undergo a neck operation after she was diagnosed with cancer. However, the lack of proper medical treatment, medication, and essential medical equipment posed significant difficulties.

Just like Kiros and her family, over 54, 000 civilians who were internally displaced during the two-year war are currently sheltered at Abiy Adi IDP camp, awaiting favorable conditions for their anticipated return.

While conveying a congratulatory message during the annual Ashenda festival in August 2023, Abraham Belay, Ethiopian minister of defense, stated, “The people of Tigray haven’t fully recovered from the aftermath of the war, and those displaced and subjected to persecution have not yet returned to their homes.”

The minister assured that the prevailing situation in these areas would be rectified in accordance with the Pretoria peace agreement. Minister Abraham highlighted that the current administration established in Western and Southern Tigray following the occupation by Amhara forces would be dismantled. “A new administration, elected by the people, would be swiftly instituted.”

But, months have passed without any tangible action. The forced displacement of tens of thousand Tigrayans into Sudan, along with the reported migration of millions within local areas, constitutes a distressing reality observed by the global community, noted Tsegaze’ab Kassa, a political analyst.

Tsegaze’ab underscored the significance of the Pretoria peace agreement, emphasizing the imperative for IDPs to expeditiously return to their homelands. However, in the face of ongoing ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans and fresh resettlements in western Tigray, he rules out the prospect of returning of IDPs anytime soon.

He raised concerns over the disconcerting silence from all signatories and mediators of the Pretoria agreement, including the United States. “IDPs persist in enduring suffering in various camps while these atrocities continue unabated,” Tsegaze’ab disclosed.

Internally displaced civilians sheltered in Abiy Addi IDP camp. (Photo: Provided to Addis Standard from sources on the ground)

In April 2022, a joint report released by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International meticulously documented severe actions carried out by Amhara security forces and interim authorities in western Tigray. The report elucidated an orchestrated campaign constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity, specifically directed towards the Tigrayan population in the area.

The findings of the report disclosed that hundreds, and potentially thousands, of Tigrayans are unlawfully detained and subjected to inhumane treatment, amounting to a crime against humanity.

Resilience amidst adversity

In the face of considerable demographic transformations within parts of the Tigray region currently under Amhara and Eritrean forces, a select number of local inhabitants have made the decision to remain.

Included in this group is Abrehet Tesfu (name changed), who demonstrates unwavering fortitude against the overwhelming current of desolation in the once-thriving town of Humera, where the vestiges of warfare continue to resonate.

Abrehet, a mother of five, is thrust into the heart of Tigray’s turmoil, grappling with the haunting aftermath of family tragedy. Unfazed by the peace agreement inked between the federal government and the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), Abrehat finds herself ensnared in a gripping narrative of struggle.

Amidst the dwindling community of Tigrayans in Humera, she remains a steadfast figure confronting imminent danger. In a candid account shared exclusively with Addis Standard, Abrehet unveils a tale of resilience, shedding light on her desire to escape to safer havens. Yet, the shadows of trauma loom large, as leaving her property behind becomes a formidable obstacle.

Her poignant narrative reveals multiple unlawful detentions by armed groups in a desperate bid to seize her belongings, leaving her with mere fragments of her former life. The armed group’s command exacerbates their plight, forbidding the sale of properties and deepening the struggle faced by the Tigrayan community in Humera.

Abrehet laments the forceful eviction of her kin, recounting harrowing experiences during midnight detentions and the relentless pressure to relinquish their homes. Unable to sell their goods, she underscores the armed group’s relentless pursuit of possessions, amplifying the collective hardship.

Expressing a fervent wish to relocate to the safety of Addis Abeba or any secure haven, Abrehet unveils the unjust incarceration of her husband, a victim of egregious human rights violations without any criminal wrongdoing.

Moreover, she raises a compelling concern about the ongoing resettlement, accusing Eritreans of unlawfully seizing Tigrayan property in Humera and relocating it to Asmara. “Eritrean and Amhara ethnicities are settled in our home,’ marking a poignant chapter in the enduring struggle of the Tigrayan community against formidable odds.”

According to Tsegaze’ab, the political analyst, the ongoing resettlements, combined with the forceful displacement of ethnic Tigrayans from western Tigray by armed groups, underscores a tacit approval for ongoing ethnic cleansing.

The forceful displacement of Tigrayans from western Tigray, followed by the resettlement of other groups, culminates in potential referendums.”

Tsegaze’ab Kassa, political analyst

“The failure to withdraw non-ENDF forces from the area, as mandated by the Pretoria agreement, exacerbates this situation,” he argued. “Additionally, the interim administration’s passive stance only serves to underscore an agenda of indifference toward the unfolding atrocities.”

He also argues that the forceful displacement of Tigrayans, followed by the resettlement of other groups, culminates in potential referendums.

Tsegaze’ab articulated, “I didn’t see any optimism in returning IDPs back to their homes because what they are doing is genocidal crimes: forcefully displacing Tigrayans, then resettling their own people, and later agreeing and resolving on the referendum. It is absolutely genocidal.”

The political analyst further emphasized the paramount importance of stakeholders adhering strictly, sincerely, and dutifully to the peace agreement and the constitution. Political dialogues that fail to address the severity of the issue are deemed unacceptable by his side.

Kiros, having evacuated from Humera to secure the well-being of her grandchildren, tenaciously holds onto the prospect of a more luminous future, notwithstanding the exhaustion associated with sustaining existence within the camp.

Abrehet, too, continues to embody resilience in the town of Humera, persistently facing looming threats.

Yet, the enduring aspiration for a peaceful settlement is sharply contrasted by the glaring deficiency of workable resolutions, effectively ensnaring individuals such as Kiros and Abrehat in a torturous state of indeterminacy. AS

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