When fighting broke out between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group in Khartoum in mid-April, Eritrean brothers Abdel and Dahlak* said goodbye to each other in the Sudanese capital.
Dahlak, the younger of the two, had some savings, so could afford to flee the city on a bus with other Eritreans. He headed east towards refugee camps in the vicinity of Kassala, a town near the Eritrean border that is home to a large Eritrean community.
According to an Eritrean human rights activist based in Khartoum who asked to remain anonymous for their safety, Dahlak and the other Eritreans on the bus were turned away from the refugee camp. They were sent to an area called Gate 13 near the border, from where they were ordered by Eritrean security officials to cross into Eritrea.
What happened to Dahlak next remains a mystery.
Dahlak had deserted the Eritrean army and fled to Sudan a year and a half earlier from the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray, where he and thousands of other Eritrean troops had been sent to fight alongside Ethiopian forces during the federal government’s war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
Eritrea is one of the world’s most authoritarian states, and like thousands of young men before him, Dahlak had been forced to join the army under the country’s policy of universal, indefinite conscription.
“I am frightened about my little brother, we do not know what will happen to him,” his brother Abdel said. “I didn’t have money to go with my brother, otherwise I would have travelled with him.”
Abdel said he had tried to work out what happened to his brother by speaking to other Eritreans who boarded the evacuation bus from Khartoum, but they were too afraid to speak. Relatives in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, told Abdel that Dahlak had not returned to the family’s home there.
According to the Eritrean human rights activist, Dahlak is one of more than 3,500 Eritreans who have been forcibly deported over the border to the town of Teseney in recent weeks. Among those allegedly deported, 95 were taken to a prison, including eight women, the activist said. Some of those detained were known political activists who opposed the regime of the Eritrean dictator, Isaias Afwerki, the activist said, but the majority were men who had escaped military service. The activist did not say if they knew what had happened to Dahlak.
The activist said they had been told by people at the United Nations refugee agency the UNHCR that some Eritreans were turned away from camps because the camps did not have enough food and lacked the resources to buy more food.
A UNHCR spokesperson said: “No refugee or asylum seeker has been prevented by UNHCR from reaching refugee camps in Kassala. In fact, UNHCR is working together with Sudan’s Commission for Refugees and partners to do all that we can to receive and help the Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers who have been relocating to the camps and provide them with assistance.
“UNHCR is aware of reports of Eritrean refugees allegedly being returned to Eritrea. However, we do not have confirmed information that this has occurred. We have raised the issue with the Sudanese authorities and continue to look into the matter. We will continue to monitor for any indications of involuntary return of refugees.”
The majority of the Eritreans not taken to prison have been given permission to see their families in Asmara and in other cities, the activist said. “The Eritrean regime is brutal,” the activist said. “I am worried that some of them will disappear forever, especially those who had opinions on Afwerki.”
At least nine Eritreans are known to have died so far in the fighting in Khartoum and Khartoum North, which along with Omdurman make up a three-city agglomeration around the confluence of the Blue and White Nile rivers. Four died in crossfire in the Jabara neighbourhood, where the RSF leader, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, and other prominent figures have homes.
Sudan hosts about 1.1 million refugees in total, of whom about 80% are from South Sudan. An estimated 126,000 Eritrean refugees had made their home in Sudan before the outbreak of hostilities between the army and the RSF, of whom about 75,000 lived in the Khartoum metropolitan area.
Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees have long faced harassment in Sudan, including being arbitrarily detained and forced to pay security officials to secure their release.
Since the violence in Sudan started, many Eritreans have fled south, paying as much as $410 for a one-way ticket to Wau, a city in north-west South Sudan. Those in Khartoum who cannot afford the fare have been forced to stay put as violence rages around them.
Source: The Guardian