Ethiopian refugee Sejamara didn’t know what to expect when she and her husband waded across a river to Sudan, certainly not the welcome they received from local residents.
Hungry, thirsty and exhausted after a trek of several hours, they entered the poor border town of Hamdayit in the early days of the conflict in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
All they wanted was a place to sleep, away from the cramped makeshift camps housing thousands of refugees at the nearby Hamdayit transit centre.
“We thought of renting a place but the people here have put us up without money,” said Sejamara, who now lives in a straw-built shelter with a simple bed inside.
The young couple are among more than 40,000 Ethiopians turned into refugees inside Sudan since the Tigray conflict erupted in early November.
Hundreds have been killed in fighting between the federal government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
“They can stay here as long as they want,” said Sejamara’s hostess Mariam Abubakr, who lives nearby in a small mud house with a thatched roof.
Like thousands of others, Sejamara and her husband have registered with aid groups to receive daily meals at the transit centre.
“We’ll stay here for a few days, until things calm down… If not, we’ll have no option but to live in a refugee camp,” she said.
The border region of eastern Sudan has a long history of hospitality in times of hardship. Since 1967, it has hosted hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian and Eritrean war or famine refugees.
Many residents of Hamdayit, itself a poverty-stricken region, have again welcomed Ethiopian refugees in their modest homes.
Some offer shelter only, others are providing food and water.
Hamdayit’s transit centre says it has taken in 24,000 refugees.
“It’s become very crowded around here but that’s alright. They’re our guests,” said local farmer Eissa Hassan.
However, the influx has resulted in instant price hikes.
“Prices of vegetables, fruit, meat, and even water have increased dramatically,” said Hassan, with the price of bananas doubling for instance.
Farmer and trader Bahraldin Yacoub explained: “Now that demand is higher, prices have increased.”
Sudan is already burdened by its own economic woes and grinding poverty, especially in the eastern border states of Gedaref and Kassala.
Authorities and aid groups are struggling to prepare camps and provide food and basic medical services for the refugees.
‘Feel for them’
At “Village 8” camp, close to the Lugdi crossing, Ethiopians said locals could only provide them with basic help.
“Many gave us food from their farms and some mats to sleep on, and some allowed us to use their bathrooms,” said Adam Youssef.
“They’ve been very generous with us.”
But that has still left them to sleep on tattered rugs or the muddy ground inside small, cramped brick shelters.
Running water is scarce and bathrooms have yet to be built, forcing most to use surrounding grasslands.
Some farmers fear for their crops and the spread of disease.
“They arrived in large numbers, and are now living… without sanitary facilities,” said farmer Omar Hussein. “It’s extremely unhygienic.”
Around Um Raquba camp, 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the border, local people have been collecting donations of food and clothes for the refugees.
“The refugees arrived with fear all over their faces, and many were barefoot,” Ahmed Abdalla Ismail said in nearby Dokka village.
“We feel for them and we are trying to help as much we can.”
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