Dr. Tewodros Tefera treats men, women and children who, like him, escaped the increasingly brutal violence in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia. He records their stories in his little black notebook – and sometimes wishes he were dead.
By Fritz Schaap and Andy Spyra (Photos)
In the arid expanse of eastern Sudan, where the borders of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan meet, in a camp of plastic-tarp shelters and straw mats, a man is standing before an angry crowd. He gazes out at the hungry faces as the haggard group calls for food. In his hand, he clutches a black notebook, as though it could help him.
Tewodros Tefera, a lanky 43-year-old with deep wrinkles running through his face, is a doctor. He belongs to the Tigray ethnic group. He got here after having made his escape from Humera, a city in northern Ethiopia that is just a few kilometers away, across the river that divides Sudan from Ethiopia. More than 60,000 people have crossed this river, just like Tewodros, fleeing the conflict in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia. He tries to calm the crowd in front of him, his eyes tired, his voice exhausted. The militias that hunt him down in his dreams don’t let him sleep.
Tewodros leads a small clinic in the refugee camp in the border town of Hamdayet. But he is also a kind of shadow manager of this dusty camp, which is currently home to thousands of people. “There are no words to describe what I hear every day,” he says. “Stories of massacres, ethnic cleansing, hunger. It is an unbelievable disaster.” When he is done working for the day, he smokes one cigarette after the next. He tried to make himself believe it calms him down. He says there are moments when he wishes he were dead.
On this day in February, Tewodros is wearing brown pants and a shirt like a kind of armor, protecting him from the dust that creeps in everywhere. He treats around 120 people a day in his clinic, patching up the war wounds of new arrivals and helping others suffering from the miserable food in the camp that tends to cause diarrhea. He communicates the suffering of his patients to representatives of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), collects donations and tries to procure food. But most of all, he is the one to whom the stories of suffering are told, the tales carried across the river by starving escapees. They are stories of looting, of rape, of people shot and killed because they violated the curfew. Tewodros Tefera has become a chronicler of horror.
Not Afraid of Using Violence
The situation in Tigray is catastrophic, and has been since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared war in early November on the regional government under the leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Prior to that, Abiy apparently tried to have TPLF leadership arrested. When that failed, TPLF troops attacked an army base. In response, Ethiopian troops marched into the north, with soldiers from Eritrea also crossing the border. That, says Mirjam van Reisen, an expert on Eritrea at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, indicates that Abiy Ahmed’s war had likely been planned long ahead of time together with Eritrea.
Since then, the conflict has continued. On one side, the TPLF in the north, an organization that held power in Ethiopia for almost three decades, developing the country significantly, but ruling with an iron fist. It has well-trained, well-armed military units at its disposal. Last September, the TPLF held regional elections in Tigray in defiance of a decree from the Ethiopian government. The organization is striving for extensive regional autonomy and is fighting to regain its power in the north.
A high-ranking TPLF member told DER SPIEGEL that the group’s mid-term strategy is the waging of guerilla warfare until they are in a position to launch a broader offensive aimed at retaking control of cities in the region.
On the other side is the Ethiopian government under the leadership of Abiy Ahmed and the country’s military, which is receiving support from Eritrea and from regular and irregular forces from the Amhara region bordering Tigray. With the help of these allies, the government was able to drive the TPLF out of the larger cities. Abiy’s goal is that of keeping the country together and of consolidating power in the nation’s capital of Addis Ababa – with brute force if necessary.
Crimes have reportedly been committed by all sides, but the worst war crimes haven’t been ascribed to the TPLF or to the Ethiopian army, but to Abiy’s allies, including the militias from Amhara. They started by plundering villages, burning crops and driving away Tigrayans in the western part of the region. According to a report obtained by the New York Times, the U.S. government now believes the campaign in western Tigray amounts to ethnic cleansing.
Another of Abiy’s allies has been just as brutal: Eritrean troops apparently aren’t just content at committing large-scale looting and rape, but they have also allegedly repeatedly carried out massacres like the one in Aksum last November, where hundreds of civilians were murdered. In a late February report, the human rights organization Amnesty International wrote of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Amid all the fighting, the humanitarian situation in Tigray remains disastrous. Aid organizations continue to complain of limited access, with the regional administration warning back in January of the potential for hundreds of thousands of deaths from famine. More than 4.5 million people, they say, are dependent on aid. The Ethiopian Red Cross said in mid-February that 80 percent of the Tigray region is inaccessible, and they are unable to reach people in need in those areas. The UN has warned of alarming levels of malnourishment. The health-care system has collapsed almost entirely.
“The Ethiopian military and its allies are using starvation as a weapon of war in Tigray,” says Tewodros, the doctor in the refugee camp. “People are surviving by eating roots.”
In the beginning, Tewodros himself was enthusiastic supporter of Abiy Ahmed, who became prime minister in April 2018. “My hands were sore from clapping when I heard his inaugural address,” Tewodros recalls. Abiy promised peace and unity. He released political prisoners and opened up the possibility of return to those in exile. His goal was reconciliation in a country divided by ethnic conflicts. Abiy wanted to develop a centrally organized state that unified all of the ethnicities and religions in Ethiopia. Like many others, Tewodros believed Abiy was a man who could lead the country into a bright future.
But the TPLF and many ethno-nationalists from other regions rejected the new government’s centralist aspirations. They insisted on their constitutionally guaranteed autonomy. A downward spiral of mutual recriminations and provocations ensued, ultimately resulting in war.
Abiy was no longer able to withstand the destructive forces. Early on, he tried to reconcile the hostile groups, but then he lost control – and the Nobel Peace Prize laureate is now increasingly acting like an autocrat. He is confronting the unrest in the north with increasing brutality.
Even back in December 2019, when the prime minister received the Nobel Peace Prize for making peace with neighboring Eritrea, Tewodros had already begun to lose faith. Like many Tigrayans, he felt ostracized and demeaned. “The Nobel prize made everything even worse,” Tewodros says. “Abiy felt validated in the course he had charted.” The result, he says, is now plain for all to see.
Abiy has sought to keep the events in Tigray out of the public eye. For a long time, foreign journalists weren’t allowed into the country, much less into Tigray. Ethiopian reporters, meanwhile, complain of repressions. Recently, selected journalists have been allowed to travel to the north, but translators and fixers say they have been threatened and even arrested. The camps in eastern Sudan are the only possibility to speak freely with eyewitnesses to the violence.
Tewodros views his new life with the desperation of a man who has no choice but to resign himself to the inevitable. His gaze falls on the crumbling walls of the reception center, the hungry people in their filthy T-shirts and torn pants. He then grabs his small, shabby, faux-leather notebook. Whenever Tewodros hears of executions or massacres, he records what he is told: the place, the date, the number of deaths. As if he is trying to keep a record of the catastrophe even as it continues to unfold.
A Respected Member of the Community
No one in the crowd of people in front of him is wearing a mask to protect against the coronavirus. Hundreds of them sleep out in the open in the dust, wrapped in course blankets. Wary of establishing a permanent camp so close to the border, the UN Refugee Agency has not provided any tents for the refugees.
Tewodros himself arrived here as a refugee more than three months ago, dressed only in jogging pants and a T-shirt. “I never thought,” he says, “that I would fall so deep.”
Back home in Humera, he was a respected member of the community, the director and chief surgeon at a hospital which, he says, has since been completely ransacked. He also ran a private clinic.
He hardly ever had any free time. He lived in a small apartment in the hospital. His contact with his daughters was almost exclusively via video call. They live with their mother in a faraway city that he declined to identify out of concern that doing so could put them in danger. His job was his life.
Artillery shells first rained down on Humera on Nov. 9, five days after the start of the war. It was a Monday, the skies were clear, and Tewodros was in the operating room. He recalls that he was amputating the arm of a nine-year-old boy when the detonations started.
Once the bombardment grew too intense, he organized a tractor and a trailer, first evacuating 20 patients to another hospital located 30 kilometers away, and then another 17. Two days later, the situation grew too dangerous there as well and he sent the patients further to the east.
He fled with two nurses into the bush, where they camped in a dry riverbed. They drank from a watering hole just like the animals. On Nov. 14, Tewodros crossed the border into Sudan and arrived in Hamdayet. He slept hungry on the side of the road. Later, the Sudanese Red Crescent offered him a place to sleep behind the small clinic that would soon become his calling.
Tewodros is a man who needs to help others to maintain his sanity. He never stops working. At night, he sometimes joins doctors from Doctors Without Borders, who run a clinic in Hamdayet. There, he breaks down and cries.
Later, wearing a red vest, he is standing in one of the two rooms of the dilapidated building that houses the clinic. The light blue paint is peeling from the walls and deep cracks run through the concrete floor in front of the rooms. Tewodros removes a shredded bandage from a wound. Thick blood oozes out. He redresses the wound. And then he listens.
The wounded man is named Awet, a gaunt 29-year-old wearing an Atlético Madrid jersey. He arrived in Hamdayet the day before following an odyssey of several weeks. He doesn’t want to provide his full name. In late November, two days after they shot his father, he says, Eritrean troops captured him in his hometown of Adigrat. The troops allegedly plundered the city, shooting people at random, including his cousin. Awet, who used to sell mobile phones for a living, was turned into a forced laborer.
For two weeks, he says, he and other Tigrayans were forced to drive from factory to factory and shop to shop in the old Italian trucks belonging to the Eritreans, loading them up with generators, water pumps and other machines. The trucks then brought their loot back to Eritrea. “I was forced to dismantle my native city,” Awet says. When he refused to continue after two weeks, his abductors tortured him and chained him up, he says.
Eritrean units crossed the border into Ethiopia right at the beginning of the war. And the motive of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and his military is as clear as it is brutal: They seem to be intent on completely annihilating the TPLF. Numerous analysts agree that Isaias has been hoping to accomplish this goal ever since the bloody, 1998-2000 border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Around 100,000 people on both sides died in that conflict – and the TPLF held control in Ethiopia at the time.
Norwegian Eritrea expert Kjetil Tronvoll, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjorknes University College, says the primary motivation for Isaias to sign a peace deal with Ethiopia two years ago was to allow him to continue his fight against the TPLF. The actions of the Eritrean troops, the massacres committed, the targeted killings, the destruction of infrastructure: All of that, Tronvoll says, bears the characteristics of genocide. In the long term, he believes, Isaias hopes to destabilize Ethiopia as a way of weakening it.
Bodies on the Riverbank
Awet, the forced laborer, was finally able to escape after several weeks in captivity. But when he tried to flee to the west, he ran into Abiy’s other allies: the units and militias from the Amhara Region. They apprehended him and took him back to central Tigray. He counted 51 dead bodies on the banks of the Tekeze River, where he was deported to.
Again, he tried to escape, walking through abandoned villages in western Tigray. He says he ran into almost no Tigrayans at all during his journey. “The people I heard mostly spoke Amharic,” he says. Later, when he had almost reached the Sudanese border, he came under fire from a militia group, “with no warning,” he says. Two men in his group died in the attack. Only very few refugees from Tigray are now able to make their way across the border into Sudan.
Tewodros says he has repeatedly heard stories of expulsions. Staff members of Western aid organizations active in Ethiopia confirm as much, with one group estimating that between 100,000 and 150,000 Tigrayans have been driven out of western Tigray to the east. European researchers with contacts in Tigray believe such estimates are accurate.
Tewodros recalls a patient who told him about the songs sung by the Amhara: “We’re going to kill you all. This is our land!” And then they opened fire. The man survived because he played dead among the bodies.
Later, a farmer comes into the clinic and asks Tewodros to examine his eye sockets, which are empty. He says he was attacked by militia members and beaten until his lost his eyesight. Another man tells the doctor that he carried his newborn twins through the bush after his wife in Tigray died while giving birth. Others tell stories of improvised prisons and beheadings.
Darkness falls over Hamdayet, with just a few lamps piercing the darkness. As every night, Tewodros hears the braying of a donkey. He unrolls the mattress he bought on the bed frame behind the clinic, next to a black suitcase that contains everything he owns.
The next day, he walks through the camp. A whirlwind kicks up dust and plastic bags as people line up in front of a dented aluminum pot the size of a truck tire to receive a portion of watery lentil soup. But Tewodros is smiling.
For the first time in almost four months, he has been able to reach his mother, he says. She is doing well and is with his siblings in Aksum, he says. His face is then overcome by an odd radiance. “And I have a new sibling!”
“Dissolve and Disappear”
He says his mother could no longer stand the uncertainty of not knowing whether he was still alive or had been killed in the violence. For weeks, he says, she didn’t leave the church. One day, the priest showed up with an orphaned infant. His mother, Tewodros relates, made a pact with God: “I’ll take care of this child and you, God, take care of my son.”
Then Tewodros grows serious. He thinks he knows when the orphan lost its parents: on the last weekend in November. That was when he lost his last remnants of hope that he would ever be able to return to his home. It was the moment when the massacres of Aksum were taking place, of which Tewodros has heard so often.
“If I couldn’t do anything, I would just dissolve and disappear.”
Several hundred civilians were killed by Eritrean soldiers within just two days. Eyewitnesses report that dead bodies were lined up on the streets. The soldiers forbade families from burying their dead – until the hyenas came down from the mountains at night.
Tewodros recalls a patient who told him he had been forced to dig mass graves. He says he can’t return to a country where such a thing has happened, nor does he want to.
Later, he is again sitting on a plastic chair behind the clinic. A rusty kettle is sitting on glowing embers surrounded by three bricks. It is in the evenings when Tewodros breaks down, when the stories he has jotted down in his black notebook during the day come back to haunt him.
“What keeps me going is the fact that I can help here,” he says. “If I couldn’t do anything, I would just dissolve and disappear.”
“I would love to speak with my children. But what should I tell them? Who knows when I will be able to see them again?” He does know one thing though: It won’t be in his homeland.