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Attacks leave Sudanese refugees stranded in Ethiopian forest

The Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in April 2023 that has led to extreme hunger in parts of that country and accusations of ethnic cleansing in Darfur.

Attacks leave Sudanese refugees stranded in Ethiopian forest
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People sit by makeshift shelters near Awlala Camp (Reuters)

CAIRO: Refugees from Sudan's civil war who fled into neighbouring Ethiopia say they have been forced to move on again and take shelter in a forest and on roadsides after repeated attacks by gunmen left their tents pock-marked with bullet holes.

About 8,000 people have left the Kumer and Awlala refugee camps, set up by the United Nations in Ethiopia's northern Amhara region, since repeated assaults last month, mostly by bandits, camp representatives told Reuters this week.

They had originally fled fighting that broke out between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in April 2023 that has led to extreme hunger in parts of that country and accusations of ethnic cleansing in Darfur.

"We left our country because we were scared of the stray bullets from the army and RSF," one young man told Reuters by phone.

"We sought refuge in Ethiopia to save our lives, and now we are facing the same danger."

He said he had originally left Sudan's capital Khartoum, then the camps, and was now sheltering in a forest with fellow refugees in the Amhara region - where militias have been battling Ethiopian federal government troops in a separate conflict.

Images sent via WhatsApp and Telegram showed makeshift dwellings made out of branches and tarp, and scores of people, including many children, sitting outside along a roadside. Reuters confirmed the date and location of the photographs.

Like others there, the young man spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he feared reprisals. Their accounts highlighted the lack of options facing Sudan's refugees as they look for shelter in countries with their own conflicts and shortages.

The Ethiopian government's Refugee and Returnee Service did not respond to requests for comment. In early May it said it was engaged with refugees to address safety and service concerns, despite limited resources.

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR referred Reuters to a statement from last week that acknowledged security incidents and a "deeply challenging" security environment, without going into further details.

In the statement it said Ethiopian police had increased patrols, and that it continued to provide services inside the two camps and to encourage what it said were around 1,000 people outside Awlala to return. There was no-one immediately available to comment on the different estimate of the numbers involved.

Sudan's war has created the world's largest displacement crisis, with more than 8.9 million people fleeing their homes. Of the 2.1 million who left the country, more than 122,000 have gone to Ethiopia, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The aid group Medical Teams International, which has run a clinic near the camps in Ethiopia, said last week one of its staff was killed after armed men fired on a convoy.

'CATASTROPHE AFTER CATASTROPHE'

Refugees who were now sheltering outside the camps told Reuters people faced regular violence.

"People have to go to the valley to bathe and wash clothes. But they are either robbed, beaten up, or kidnapped daily," said one member of a camp leadership committee.

"We are facing catastrophe after catastrophe," they said.

Cholera has spread in Kumer, where there was at most one doctor available to see patients, several refugees and an aid worker, who asked not to be named, said. Monthly food deliveries by the U.N. World Food Programme last less than two weeks, two refugees told Reuters.

Three refugees told Reuters that about 6,000 people from Kumer and Awlala had set off together on May 1 to walk 170 km (105 miles) to the UNHCR's headquarters in Amhara's main city of Gondar to protest about their conditions.

They were stopped by police and sought shelter in a forest near the Awlala camp, the three refugees said.

Many of them began a 10-day hunger strike over conditions as supplies ran low, which they stopped after donations came in from Sudanese abroad, the only assistance received so far, the three said.

About 2,000 who remained at Kumer fled onto a main road after armed men began firing at the camp on May 1, the committee member and another refugee said. Those who later returned found gunshots had pierced the tents, they said, convincing them that the men aimed to drive them out.

Aid workers, who asked not to be named, say insecurity and a lack of funds have severely hampered relief efforts.

The U.N. says just $400,000 in funding for Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia has been delivered, opens new tab, out of an appeal, opens new tab for more than $175 million.

Reuters
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