Ethiopian refugees who fled fighting in Tigray province lay in a hut at the Um Rakuba camp in Sudan's eastern Gedaref province, on November 18, 2020 (Photo: AFP)
At the Um Rakuba settlement in Sudan, refugees queue for helpings of cornflour porridge and put up makeshift shelters under scrubland trees, their lives upended by fighting in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region.
“People are sleeping out in the open. There are no tents, just blankets. There is some food, like porridge and water, but there are no toilets, showers or health services.
Many families arrived with nothing more than the clothes on their back. They are essentially arriving with nothing, to nothing,” said Country Director for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Sudan, Will Carter.
“There are pregnant women in the camp, diabetics with no insulin, people living with HIV/AIDS with no medical care, and children without parents. It’s a deeply traumatic and depressing time for many,” he added.
Aid agencies are racing to scale up the humanitarian response in remote areas of eastern Sudan, where more than 30,000 people fleeing the fighting have arrived in under two weeks.
The United Nations refugee agency says, it is preparing to take in up to 200,000 in the next six months if necessary.
Axel Bisschop, the agency's representative in Sudan, told reporters that ``nobody at this stage can say exactly how many will come,'' but UN officials said fighting continues between Ethiopian government and Tigray regional government forces.
"I've been wearing the same clothes for 10 days because I don't have anything else," said 28-year-old Yohannes Gor, who arrived by foot after fleeing fighting in the Ethiopian town of Humera, close to the border.
"I live under this tree and sleep on the dirt. We receive limited food, a kind of cornflour porridge, but it doesn't fill you up. I lost all trace of my family and I don't know what happened to them."
Carter said some people are arriving injured and many are highly distressed, having witnessed extreme violence back home.
“Some are injured and are being taken care of at the border crossing. Refugees have told us that they are worried for their relatives in Tigray as they are unable to reach them because of the communication shutdown. Others have told us harrowing stories about witnessing people being killed, forcing many to flee,” he said.
“The needs in this current crisis are immense, yet resources even for the wider aid efforts in Sudan are incredibly stretched. Donors have the opportunity now to stand with the government of Sudan and the people of Ethiopia, and urgently release money and help save thousands of lives.
The Sudanese government can also support aid agencies by swiftly resolving logistical challenges and avoid unnecessary delays in the delivery of aid,” said Carter.
Almost all those fleeing into Sudan have arrived at the border crossing points of Hamdayet and Luqdi, bringing first hand accounts of the fighting. Convoys of buses have been ferrying refugees from there to settlement areas or camps, but poor roads complicate the transfers.
The mostly Tigrayan refugees fled with few possessions and many spent days on the run before crossing into Sudan. Aid agencies have stepped in with relief items such as jerry cans, blankets and dry food rations, but conditions remain tough at Um Rakuba, a rugged area surrounded by hills where officials are considering a camp for up to 10,000 people.
Several hundred kilometres to the south, at least 678 people have also crossed from Ethiopia into Sudan's Blue Nile state since Nov. 17. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, is still verifying what caused them to flee, said Jens Hesemann, the agency's assistant representative in Sudan.
In the east of Sudan, a country deep in economic crisis, people have done what they can to help by donating small food items, but have few means, said Hesemann.
"The message we're also getting is that people are exhausting their resources, their resources are very limited in that area -- they're asking us to do more," he said.