As It Happens

Ethiopian surgeon who fled for his life now treating others at crowded refugee camp

When the shelling started in the Ethiopian city of Humera in mid-November, Dr. Tefera Tedros got to work caring for the wounded, and he hasn't stopped since. Except, that is, for the two days he spent hiding in the woods before fleeing on foot across the border to a Sudanese refugee camp. 

Thousands have left Tigray region, where ruling party is warring with federal government

Ethiopian women who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region gather in Hamdayet village near the Setit river on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in eastern Kassala state, Sudan. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)


When the shelling started in the Ethiopian city of Humera in mid-November, Dr. Tefera Tedros got to work caring for the wounded, and he hasn't stopped since. 

Except, that is, for the two days he spent hiding in the woods before fleeing on foot across the border to a Sudanese refugee camp. 

"The fighting was extremely bad. Really, it's something very different from a war," Tedros told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann from an overcrowded camp in the Sudanese border town of Hamdayet, where he's the only doctor for thousands of patients. 

Tedros is one of tens of thousands of people who have fled Ethiopia's Tigray region since Nov. 4, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared war against the state's ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front.

Since then, unidentified militias and paramilitaries have entered the fray, leaving Tigray in what Tedros calls  "a confused state of war where we don't know who is attacking who, and we don't know why they are doing it."

Tedros is the doctor in one of the camp's two small clinics, where, around the clock, he's treating patients who are either wounded, starving, or who have picked up infections on their long journeys.

Some, he says, have travelled more than 300 kilometres to get there, carrying their belongings on their backs. 

"Everything is confiscated on the way, everything, by the gangs that occupy the land," he said. "So people are really starving and having difficulties."

An Ethiopian fleeing the fighting in Tigray lifts his clothes as he crosses the Setit river on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in Hamdayet village. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)

Pregnant women, small children and the very ill have been given tents, but most are sleeping on the ground, he said. Water and medical supplies are running low, and Tedros says he's doing his best with what he has. 

But just a month ago, he was working in a fully stocked hospital alongside his colleagues in Humera. When Ethiopian government soldiers hit the town on Nov. 8, he and others did their best to keep the hospital running. 

Tedros says they treated 75 wounded patients the first day, and received 15 bodies. The next day — another influx of patients, and eight bodies, all while the town was under near-constant shelling. 

"Then we thought it was not safe for our patients, injured patients especially, and for us as well," he said.

So, with the help of volunteers, they loaded their patients onto a tractor and took them 30 kilometres away to the town of Adwa.

"We continued our treatment there … including, by the way, the five government soldiers who were severely wounded."

This image made from undated video released by the state-owned Ethiopian News Agency on Nov. 16, shows Ethiopian military in an armored personnel carrier on a road in an area near the border of the Tigray and Amhara regions of Ethiopia. (Ethiopian News Agency/The Associated Press)

They kept working for another two days, he said, but "then the unrest and the shelling continued and followed us." They arranged to have their patients shipped on government trucks to other cities, he said, "then we [fled] on our feet."

Tedros says he camped out for two days in the woods outside town before he decided to make the trek across the border to Sudan, where's been working non-stop ever since.

His family — a wife and two children, ages six and nine — are currently in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa. When he last spoke to his wife on Wednesday, she told him the kids were doing fine and attending school. 

But he's already hearing reports from refugees that Tigrayans are coming under attack in the capital, and possibly even being rounded up into prisons. 

"People are being targeted by their identities right now," he said. "I don't know what will happen to them … I just, I'm extremely worried."

Ethiopian refugee doctor Hagos Werash, left, examines a patient at Village Eight transit centre which hosts Ethiopian refugees who fled the Ethiopia's Tigray conflict near the Ethiopian border in Gedaref, eastern Sudan. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

Ethiopia, which is just two years out from a war with neighbouring Eritrea, is made up of semi-autonomous states, organized along ethnic lines.

Tigray is run by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which for decades was part of the country's ruling coalition. But the TPLF's influence has waned since the prime minister, a member of the Oromo ethnic group, came to power in 2018.

Abiy has accused the TPLF of inciting unrest in the east African country and seeking to reclaim power. Each government regards the other as illegal. 

Tensions have been steadily ramping up, until Abiy declared war on the region last month, accusing the TPLF of attacking federal military camps. The TPLF denies this.

Ethiopia said last week that its military offensive in Tigray is over. There continue to be reports of gruesome violence perpetrated by soldiers and militias on both sides, but accounts have been nearly impossible to verify as Ethiopia has shut down communication services and barred international observers.

On Wednesday, the UN said it had signed a deal with the country to allow humanitarian aid to reach the parts of Tigray now under federal government control. 

Ethiopians carry their belongings from a boat after crossing the Setit river on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in Hamdayet. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)

Tedros says he fears what atrocities may be taking place while nobody is watching.

"People are coming and they're telling us even worse things than that we saw when we were in Humera," he said 

"I'm afraid the worst humanitarian crisis could be going on deep inside, because currently no one is knowing what's going on, and we are hearing that this manslaughtering, this killing of people, this slaughtering of people, is continuing."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Dr. Tefera Tedros produced by Chris Harbord. 

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