My fascination with Ethiopia long before visiting dated to my teenage immersion in reggae culture, and later flourished thanks to my friendships with Ethiopians in diaspora. More importantly, I was on my way to an Eritrean refugee camp in northern Ethiopia, in the Tigray region, located only some 100-kilometres away from the Eritrean capital, Asmara. My decision to pack up and go was a result of my exposure to the tragic stories of Eritrean exiles in Europe; I wanted to understand this more by tracing it back to the very beginnings of the treacherous journeys taken by Eritrean migrants: the Ethiopian-Eritrean borderlands.
The one-hour drive from Shire, the nearest town where all international NGOs are stationed, to Hitsats refugee camp cuts through harsh and yet stunning highland scenery. The zigzag road requires a skilful and an alert driver, able to quickly react to livestock who seem to reign; the road is covered in animal carcasses, usually dogs as their deaths do not lead to compensation claims. After some 45 minutes, the tarmac road turns into a dusty but wide path, leading to a camp for Eritrean refugees—Hitsats. Cows, sheep, and goats lazily wander around, sometimes mischievous enough to enter the shelters to grab a bite of injera or pee in a laundry bucket. An old, blind, and terribly skinny camel used to storm into the camp to munch on the leaves of scarce moringa trees. Refugees chased the camel away: after all, this was a very hard life for everyone.
The first two people I was introduced to when I jumped out of our 4×4 vehicle were young musicians from a band called Selam, which means peace in both Tigrinya and Amharic; they later became good friends, even though I did not know Tigrinya, and they did not speak much English. The strong artistic identity of the camp made it easier for me to befriend people regardless of the language barrier between us. Loud music with a distinctive, repetitive heartbeat was everywhere, and young refugees would kill time playing kirar, a type of lyra, in the shade of communal buildings constructed by various humanitarian organisations working in the camp. A shoulder-to-shoulder greeting was a form of non-verbal communication that helped me to overcome the linguistic divisions: I was overdoing it to the point of getting bruises, which caused lots of giggles among the young men, who were all significantly smaller than me.
It may seem somewhat bizarre to say it about a refugee camp, but I had a great time there. When my contract finished, I promised everyone, on the verge of tears, that I would return to Hitsats. They did not really expect that I would keep my word, and I did not really know myself how I would actually be back given complex bureaucracy of Ethiopian work visas and camp permits. But I did come back, twice, in 2018 and 2019. These were two nearly month-long fieldwork trips as part of my postdoctoral research on improving shelters in refugee camps.
Since I left Ethiopia in 2017 and returned to the UK, I have been receiving Facebook friend requests from people in Hitsats almost every day. Those Eritreans who did not speak English would still send me short messages, some men forwarding me their probably carefully chosen cutest selfies hoping that I would marry them and bring them to Europe. The sister of the musician that I met on my first day in Hitsats called me after the whole family was resettled in the U.S. just to say hello and to make chicken sounds, as this was our memory from the camp (some cheeky chickens nearly jumped on our laps when we were having coffee). I was eager to stay in touch with the refugees also because I knew that many of them were planning to reach Europe, and I was always worried that one of my friends might die on the way.
Tragically, I learnt last August that a young man I met in the camp died in a detention centre in Libya. His last words on Facebook Messenger were, “I hope one day I will see you. At any time write to me Natalia sis. Bless you and pray for me every day”. For some reason, I could not bring myself to unfriend him on Facebook; somehow, it would feel like a betrayal. So, I am still a Facebook friend of a dead man. I know I’m not the only one: most, if not all young Eritreans have lost a friend who didn’t make it to Europe; and most, if not all, have their Facebook walls full of dead friends’ photos with photoshopped ‘RIP’ lines surrounded by images of burning candles. I hate to see them pop out regularly on my timeline, this social media epitaph for a lost Eritrean generation, and a cruel reminder of many human tragedies behind seemingly dry and detached European asylum policies that conveniently speak of some abstract refugee numbers, not actual people.
My most recent visit to Hitsats, a year ago, felt a bit different. Most of my closest friends had left the camp, some to study in Tigray, others to continue their musical careers in Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. A few people have been resettled in the U.S., and several have made it to Europe, including the U.K. where we had an emotional reunion. On the other hand, there were new refugees arriving every day at Hitsats following the peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia in July 2018 and subsequent brief opening of borders between the two countries. Before the peace deal, the camp housed a steady number of around 10,000 residents (steady because, with an approximate number of 1,000 newcomers every month, there was an equal number of refugees leaving the camp and embarking on dangerous journeys towards Europe), but was now at nearly triple that figure.
After the exodus following open borders, there were simply no shelters left to accommodate the newly arrived refugees. Every day there was a group of roughly 100 newcomers waiting outside office of the Ethiopian government agency in charge of refugees, the Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), to receive their shelter allocation. Those who had some money were heading to Shire and other towns. They all seemed relaxed, most of them chatting with friends and relatives who were already living in the camp. Everyone just seemed to be happy to have left Eritrea, attesting to the fact that there was no improvement inside the country following the peace deal between the Eritrean dictator Isaias Afeworki and the new Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed.
On the minibus from Hitsats back to Shire, I used to have many heated political debates with Tigrayans who worked in the aid sector. Most were very hostile towards Abiy Ahmed, seeing him as a CIA agent. Growing up in Poland under communism, I was actually well accustomed to such conspiracy theories. Sometimes I would just nod and roll my eyes; I knew my colleagues’ political views. When one day on my laptop I played an album by Korchach, an Eritrean singer now living in exile, a brother of our bus driver pointed out, ‘Oh, you have Tigrinya music, good!’. I completely snapped and replied angrily, ‘This is Eritrean music!’. That was the moment when I realised that I have somehow become an Eritrean nationalist; all my Eritrean friends found this story extremely amusing, my own baptism into the Eritrean national project. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the passion of those late afternoon political discussions on the bus; one hour was also just the right timing for us all to end them amicably upon our return to Shire.
My most recent visit to Ethiopia was last December, but as I could not enter the camp on a tourist visa, I only stayed in Addis Ababa, where I met some of my friends who had left Hitsats. I first heard the rumours of Hitsats camp closure this January, but I disregarded them knowing how quickly refugees’ fears, which, unsurprisingly, always haunt them, are turned into facts. Moreover, last September, I received a message from a senior ARRA employee asking for some support with regards to construction of new transitional shelters, as the flow of refugees kept continuing and the agency was overburdened. This clearly implied an expansion of the camp, I thought, rather than its closure. Sadly, this time I was wrong: there was indeed a plan to close Hitsats and to relocate refugees to two older and already overcrowded camps, namely Adi Harush and Mai Ayni.
Three months ago, I got a WhatsApp call from an Eritrean friend based in Addis Ababa who told me that his underage sister living in Hitsats was very worried about the camp’s future. Another ARRA member of staff whom I befriended when working in the camp avoided answering my questions about closure, swiftly changing the topic every time I tried to discuss it in our online communications. I was not particularly surprised knowing how politically sensitive the issue of Eritrean refugees is in Ethiopia, but I just felt frustrated that I could not be there on the ground, and that COVID-19 meant that it would be unlikely to be there anytime soon. Most probably, I thought, I would get all the answers over the traditional three cups of freshly brewed coffee, sitting on a plastic chair next to an always wobbly table in one of the many charming little cafes in Shire. But I would not get any information from government workers on the phone, and certainly not in writing.
I went through the list of my Facebook contacts, and it seemed that everyone who was fluent in English had already left Hitsats. However, some people used to try their luck in Addis, and if they could not find a job there, they would return to the camp. I messaged one friend and asked if he was still in the Ethiopian capital; he replied that he was back in Hitsats. He had a deep sense of responsibility towards the community and he was happy to update me regularly on the developments, following refugees’ objection to the planned camp closure.
Since the last week of March, he has been calling me on WhatsApp almost every day, depending on the strength of the signal. Due to its remote location in the rural part of Tigray, the network coverage is extremely poor in Hitsats and requires climbing surrounding hills to be able to even make a local phone call, let alone use Internet. We often joke about donkeys interfering with the network, moving them out of the way, or jumping on their back waving a handset when calls keep dropping; patience is certainly one of the virtues a refugee must acquire, simply in order not to go crazy. We also coined our own spiteful advertising slogan for Ethio Telecom, the only telecommunications provider in Ethiopia: ‘Ethio Telecom: Always Here to Surprise You.”
Due to problems with internet in the camp, I received copies of the correspondence that refugee committee had with aid agencies with a delay. As of today, it was only the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that on 30 March replied to a letter sent by refugees on the 10 of March. The organisation wrote that they had not received official written notification about the planned camp closure, and were not, and I quote, ‘in principle against the closure, if it means that the refugees will have access to alternative and sustainable means of protection and livelihoods’.
UNHCR stressed that the refugees in Hitsats, Adi Harush, and Mai Ayni should be consulted, enough time should be given for the proposed relocation, and this should not be done during the COVID-19 emergency. But refugee committees in both camps had already disagreed with the relocation as there is not enough land available to build new shelters there. This was later confirmed by staff members of another organisation whose mandate includes construction of shelters. Refugees do not know the reason behind the decision to close the camp and were only told that this is due to “‘budget constraint”, although refugees told me UNHCR communicated to them verbally (and not in writing) that their budget for 2020 was secure. Any assets and livestock owned by refugees are required to remain in Hitsats after refugees’ relocation, which only increased Eritreans’ suspicion with regards to financial benefit that the process could bring to their hosts.
Hitsats is not fenced and merges into an Ethiopian town of the same name. It is in general poorly monitored and regulated, unless visitors are foreigners whose camp entry permits are tightly controlled (accessing the camp is equally difficult for Eritreans from the diaspora trying to help their compatriots). Due to the age restriction on the military service conscription in Eritrea, officially from the age of 18 to 40 with an extension to the age of 50 (as reserve army), older people tend to stay in Eritrea, as they no longer need to serve. As a result, Eritrean refugee populations lack the presence of elders, which is often seen as a reason behind the unruly behaviour of the troubled youth and a general sense of social anomie.
It is unclear on what scale violent crime actually occurs in the camp as there were conflicting accounts coming from refugees last year, but, overall, the majority of residents did experience breaking into their shelter in the night and having their property stolen on multiple occasions. These were usually smart phones and cash needed to facilitate the irregular crossing into Europe. Refugees suspect that some agencies may wish to incite violence in the camp in order to have a pretext to close it down.
Overall, there is much confusion, resulting in a growing sense of fatigue and anxiety among refugees. Refugees keep telling me that they want to be resettled to a third country, now even more than ever. Pictures of Eritreans who lost their lives trying to reach the shores of fortress Europe still flood my Facebook timeline, and declarations of love from desperate young men stuck in a country where they can’t envisage their future keep appearing on my Messenger.
This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
Editors: Nizar Manek, William Davison
Main photo: Hitsats, 23 April 2018. All photos by Natalia Paszkiewicz.
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