Elderly Ethiopian refugees in Sudan long for home

Monday December 14 2020
Ethiopia refugees.

Ethiopian Asafu Alamaya (right), a 80-year-old blind who fled the Tigray conflict, receives her friend in a makeshift shelter at the Um Raquba refugee camp in Sudan's eastern Gedaref state, on December 12, 2020. PHOTO | AFP


Um Raquba, Sudan,

As fighting raged and bombs rained down on Ethiopia's Tigray region, 80-year-old Asafu Alamaya begged her daughters to flee with their children to Sudan, and to leave her to die at home.

Her daughters refused to abandon their blind, frail mother in their war-ravaged home town of Humera, however, as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's forces pressed a deadly military operation against Tigray's ruling party.

From Humera to the banks of the Sitet River that separates Ethiopia from Sudan, they held her by the hand and took turns carrying her when she could no longer walk.

With the help of fellow refugees, they brought her across the water to safety.

Asafu, who lost her eyesight five years ago, now lives in a makeshift shelter made from plastic sheeting and wood in Um Raquba refugee camp in eastern Sudan.


Every day, she weeps, wishing she could return home, where despite her age and condition she felt safe.

"I heard the bombs," said Asafu, wearing a white and brown dress, her white hair cropped short.

"The road was very hard. But my children helped me, they carried me here."

Live or die together

In Um Raquba, a sprawling, insalubrious camp that started welcoming refugees fleeing the Tigray conflict in November, her reliance on her daughters is total.

"At this age, I shouldn't be here," Asafu told AFP as she finished a meal. "Here, I am just tiring my children out... If I were home, I wouldn't need anyone's help."

Seated by her side on a blue mat was her 47-year-old daughter Sandayo Saggai, who has seven children.

"This is our mother. She breastfed us, she raised us," said Sandayo, who wore a blue and green dress and her hair in cornrow braids.

During the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s, it was Asafu who had brought her daughters -- children at the time -- to Um Raquba in search of food and safety.

"We couldn't leave her behind," said Sandayo. "If she makes it, so be it. If she dies on the way, we children will bury her. Either we live together or we die together."

Relatives lost

The United Nations says some four percent of the over 50,000 people who have fled Tigray for Sudan since the military operation began on November 4 are over 60 years old.

After losing track of their relatives in the conflict, some elderly refugees came to Um Raquba on their own.

Because of a communications blackout in Tigray that is only now beginning to lift, they have been unable to reach their loved ones.

In Um Raquba, home to some 15,000 refugees, elderly people like Walagabriel Sium, a 73-year-old farmer, do not have the stamina to endure the long lines for food and water.

And as the shelters at the camp are designed for families, people like Walagabriel, who arrived in Sudan alone, do not automatically receive accommodation.

For 17 nights now, he has been sleeping on the red, sandy ground under the starlit sky, with nothing, not even a blanket, to shield him from the elements.

"All I want is a mattress to sleep on and some water to drink," he said.

Since he arrived in Um Raquba, Walagabriel has been desperately looking for his adult children.

"I haven't been able to rest a single night because I cannot stop thinking about my children," he said.

Health care

Amir Yehya, a nurse with the Mercy Corps aid group that operates a clinic at Um Raquba, said elderly people in the camp need "more care".

"These are very difficult conditions" for elderly people, especially now that the nights are cold, Yehya said. "Every day they come with their complaints."

Speaking to AFP, camp manager Abdel Basset Abdel Ghani said the Sudanese authorities plan to build a shelter especially for elderly refugees who arrived in Um Raquba alone.

"The shelter should be located near the health centres," he said.

Seated on the ground as the sun set behind a barren hill, 70-year-old Arrafu Mbaye stared at the dying flames of a bonfire she was using to cook.

Arrafu came to Um Raquba with her son, though they do not know where his wife and children are.

Going out of her mind with worry for her grandchildren, she seeks solace in her faith.

"At my age I shouldn't have to run or cross any river. I should be praying in my church," said Arrafu, who wore a wooden rosary around her neck.

"But we were forced to do this. And I must accept God's will."