'We just ran': Ethiopians fleeing war find little relief

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Tigray refugees who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, wait to get cooked rice served by Sudanese local volunteers at Um Rakuba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. Tens of thousands of people have fled a conflict in Ethiopia for Sudan, sometimes so quickly they had to leave family behind. There is not enough to feed them in the remote area of southern Sudan that they rushed to. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

UMM RAKOUBA – The baby was born on the run from war. Her first bath was in a puddle. Now she cries all night in a country that is not her own.

Wrapped in borrowed clothing, the child is one of the newest and most fragile refugees among more than 40,000 who have fled the Ethiopian government’s offensive in the defiant Tigray region.

They have hurried into Sudan, often under gunfire, sometimes so quickly they had to leave family behind. There is not enough to feed them in this remote area, and very little shelter. Some drink from the river that separates the countries, and more cross it every day.

“We walked in the desert. We slept in the desert,” said one refugee, Blaines Alfao Eileen, who is eight months pregnant and has befriended Lemlem Haylo Rada, the mother of the newborn. One woman is ethnic Tigrayan, the other ethnic Amhara. The conflict could have turned them against each other, but motherhood intervened.

That, and tragedy. “I do not know where my husband is and whether he’s alive,” Eileen said.

Her journey took four days. “I slept on this scarf that I am holding," she said, "and I would wake up and do it again.”

Almost half the refugees are children under 18. Around 700 women are currently pregnant, the United Nations says. At least nine have given birth in Sudan.

It has been three weeks since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent federal troops into Tigray after accusing the region's forces of attacking a military base. Abiy's government and the regional one each view the other as illegitimate, and the Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister on Sunday warned that a final assault to take Tigray's capital is imminent.