The dusty buses keep coming, dozens a day, mattresses, chairs and baskets piled on top. They stop at schools hurriedly turned into camps, disgorging families who describe fleeing from ethnic Amhara militia in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
Four months after the Ethiopian government declared victory over the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), tens of thousands of Tigrayans are again being driven from their homes.
This time, it is due not to the fighting, but to regional forces and militiamen from neighbouring Amhara seeking to settle a decades-old land dispute, according to witnesses, aid workers and members of Tigray’s new administration.
Amhara officials say the disputed lands, equal to about a quarter of Tigray, were taken during the nearly 30 years that the TPLF dominated central government before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018.
Fighters from Amhara entered western Tigray in support of federal forces after the TPLF, Tigray’s then-governing party, attacked military bases there in November.
Ababu Negash, 70, said she fled Adebay, a town in western Tigray, after Amhara officials summoned Tigrayans to meetings in February.
“They said you guys don’t belong here,” Ababu told the Reuters news agency in Shire, a town 160 kilometres (99 miles) to the east, to where many from west Tigray are fleeing. “They said if we stay, they will kill us.”
This fresh exodus from the west of Tigray risks exacerbating a precarious humanitarian situation in the region, with hundreds of thousands of people already uprooted by fighting.
Tigrayan officials say the area has long been home to both ethnic groups and that the region’s borders are set by the constitution. Now that fighting has subsided and roads have reopened, they say there is a concerted, illegal push to drive out Tigrayans.
“The western Tigray zone is occupied by the Amhara militias and special forces, and they are forcing the people to leave their homes,” Mulu Nega, the head of Tigray’s government-appointed administration, told Reuters in Tigray’s capital Mekelle.
Asked about the accounts of violence and intimidation by Amhara fighters, Yabsira Eshetie, the administrator of the disputed zone, said nobody had been threatened and only criminals had been detained.
“No one was kicking them out, no one was destroying their houses even. Even the houses are still there. They can come back,” he said. “There is federal police here, there is Amhara special police here. It is lawful here.”
The United Nations has warned of possible war crimes in Tigray. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this month there have been acts of ethnic cleansing and called for Amhara forces to withdraw from Tigray.
Ethiopia’s government strenuously denies that it has an ethnic agenda.
“Nothing during or after the end of the main law enforcement operation (against the TPLF) can be identified … as a targeted, intentional ethnic cleansing against anyone in the region,” the foreign ministry said in a statement following Blinken’s remarks.
Local authorities and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said about 1,000 people were reaching Shire every day, with 45,000 coming since late February.
The Norwegian Refugee Council said between 140,000-185,000 came from west Tigray over a two-week period in March.