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Sudanese refugees hiding in Ethiopian forest to escape bandits and militias

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Thousands of Sudanese refugees are dwelling in a forest near Ethiopia’s border with Sudan after surviving attacks by local militias on United Nations-run refugee camps.

The refugees fled in May after gunmen and bandits repeatedly stormed the camps to steal supplies, rape women, kidnap people for ransom and terrify civilians.

Refugees who spoke to Al Jazeera say at least 7,000 people left the camps and some 3,000 are still in the forest where they live alongside “wild animals” like hyenas, scorpions and snakes.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said about 1,000 people left the camps.

“We want to get out of the borderlands of Ethiopia and we want to leave Ethiopia altogether,” said Montasser*, a community leader among the Sudanese refugees in the forest.

“We refuse to be put in any other camp here in Ethiopia.”

Sudanese refugees protest the frequent attacks they have faced from bandits and militias in Ethiopia, and demand to be evacuated [Courtesy of Montasser/Al Jazeera]

No protection, no empathy

Sudan is the world’s largest displacement crisis – more than 10 million people have fled since a power struggle between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) erupted into war in April 2023.

More than 53,000 people came to Ethiopia, and about 8,500 of them were settled in UN-administered camps at Awlala and Kumer in the Amhara region.

Ethiopian government forces are fighting the Fano armed group in Amhara, with the refugee camps in the heart of the conflict and the refugees saying the camps are attacked often by “bandits and militias”.

Ibrahim*, a refugee, told Al Jazeera that bandits raid the camps “three or four times a week” to rob and beat refugees.

He has called for relief groups and the UNHCR to relocate Sudanese refugees from Ethiopia.

Between December and January, at least four women and girls were reportedly raped by armed groups.

Ibrahim, 27, said he was robbed at gunpoint around the same time.

“He was carrying a Kalashnikov and stole my phone. These kinds of scenes are normal here as almost all Ethiopian citizens are carrying weapons around us,” Ibrahim said.

The Ethiopian government’s Refugees and Returnees Service (RRS) said in a statement on May 8 that the government “recognizes the service and safety related challenges the refugees have faced in the camps and remains committed to addressing the gaps in close cooperation with its domestic, regional and international humanitarian partners”.

It cited limited resources resulting in the government “currently facing serious bottlenecks due to resource limitations, which have hindered the required service provision including those in Awlala and Kumer Refugee Sites”.

The government has long disregarded the safety of refugees, said an Ethiopian expert who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.

“With daily fighting occurring along the border region [of Sudan and Ethiopia], it’s clear that refugees are very much vulnerable from one of the many Amhara armed groups operating in the area,” the expert told Al Jazeera.

“I feel these people are being abandoned by everyone in the world, including our government.”

Sudanese refugees stranded in a forest in Ethiopia
Sudanese refugees protest the frequent raids against them by Ethiopian bandits and militias. Many Sudanese refugees have reportedly been kidnapped for ransom [Courtesy of Montasser/Al Jazeera]

No care inside, no access to the outside

The refugee camps suffer from an acute lack of healthcare and from the spread of preventable diseases.  A cholera outbreak reported at the end of last year in the area endangered hundreds of children.

To get medical care outside the camps, Montasser said, refugees were required to apply for government permission to leave. However, the authorities did not always issue permits.

Montasser’s close friend, a 24-year-old woman with a heart problem, took her own life in February after being denied a permit to seek life-saving care.

“She hung herself in her tent,” he told Al Jazeera. “I just remember them denying her permission. There was no way for her to get treatment without leaving the camp, so she killed herself.”

INTERACTIVE_REFUGEE_ETHIOPIA__JULY8_2024 copy 2-1720439352
(Al Jazeera)

In a report released in June, UNHCR Ethiopia said it has insufficient funding for psychosocial services and its suicide response is inadequate despite an “increase in suicide behaviour”.

Al Jazeera asked Ethiopia’s Refugees and Returnees Service (RRS) why refugees are denied permits to access healthcare.

RRS had not responded by the time of publication.

Montasser said those who do receive RRS permits are endangered on the roughly 100km (62-mile) trip to the nearest hospital, where many have been robbed and beaten on the road.

Barely surviving

On May 1, thousands of Sudanese refugees fled Awlala and Kumar after gunmen stormed their camps to assault and rob them – again.

The refugees were frightened and frustrated, as it did not seem like anyone was going to stop this.

Ibrahim recounted an earlier interaction he had with a UNHCR employee who tried to explain away the poor camp conditions, saying: “All camps in Africa are like this.”

The attack in early May was the last straw, reportedly prompting thousands of refugees to head to UNHCR’s office in Gondar, 170km (105 miles) away, to protest conditions in the camps.

Ethiopian security quickly stopped the march, detaining many of the young men, and leaving the refugees uncertain where to go to be safe.

They decided to take shelter in a forested area near Awlala.

“We tried to speak to someone in authority after the attack to tell them there’s no safety here,” said Ibrahim. “We ended up walking to a plot of empty land.”

Sudanese refugees pleading for help to leave Ethiopia.
Sudanese refugees hold a sign that reads ‘save us’ as they protest poor conditions and the lack of protection in Ethiopia [Courtesy of Montasser/Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera contacted UNHCR’s office in Ethiopia to ask why Sudanese refugees were hosted in camps in a conflict zone. UNHCR had not responded by the time of publication.

On May 28, a UNHCR press release stated that while the agency “fully understands the legitimate request for better security and services, we are concerned that their protest along the road, their stay in unsanitary conditions and the hunger strike initiated by some risk further increasing their vulnerability”.

UNHCR also said that its workers tried to assist refugees in the forest, but that they were turned away by those protesting their presence and so they informed the refugees that they could access services in Awlala.

Ibrahim acknowledged that conditions in the forest were harsh and that community leaders such as himself go back and forth between Awlala and the forest camp to bring the more vulnerable refugees basic supplies such as food and water.

Sudanese refugees are also surviving, Ibrahim said, thanks to generous donations from abroad.

Activists in the diaspora have rallied to support the stranded refugees and respond to their calls to be resettled from Ethiopia. But their demands are falling on deaf ears.

“[The UNHCR employee] told us that there is nothing he can do,” said Ibrahim. “He said, [if you stay in Ethiopia], then you have to live this way.”

*Names have been changed to protect refugees from possible reprisal. 

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