'I could hear the gunfire': Australian who escaped Ethiopia's Tigray region says he feared for his life

SBS News understands there are now more than 80 Australians stranded in Tigray and wider Ethiopia, as tensions continue to escalate.

Shibeshi Taffere Desta and three others were some of the first Australians to return to Australia after fleeing an intensifying  conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray.

Shibeshi Taffere Desta and three others were some of the first Australians to return to Australia after fleeing an intensifying conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray. Source: SBS News

An Australian refugee says he feared for his life while fleeing an escalating conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region. 

Until recently, Shibeshi Taffere Desta was among the dozens of Australians trapped in the country's north amid a violent military offensive that has seen hundreds reported killed and prompted thousands to flee the country. 

The father-of-two from Perth was one of the first to land back in Brisbane after escaping from the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle in a United Nations convoy. 

As the situation in Tigray continued to deteriorate, Mr Desta said he feared he may not be able to return home safely.

“We didn't feel safe at all, because it was night-time, we didn't know what was going to happen,” he told SBS News.

Mr Desta, who came to Australia in 1998 as a refugee from Sudan, said he is grateful to be back on home soil. 

He’s now serving out two weeks of hotel quarantine in Brisbane - a world away from the strife-ridden Mekelle where he claims he witnessed an air strike launched on a residential area.

“I could hear the gunfire, the artillery fire … but I saw the bombing with my eyes, I saw the bombing,” Mr Desta said. “There was an air attack, there were four bombs. Four bombs - I counted them.”

Ethiopian refugees who fled the Tigray conflict, start building temporary huts at Um Raquba camp in Sudan's eastern Gedaref province.
Source: AFP

Mr Desta was initially stranded in Addis Ababa when the coronavirus pandemic hit before learning his mother in Tigray was gravely ill.

He travelled to see her, but she died on the day he completed his 14-day mandatory quarantine.

“She just passed away a few hours before. But at least I got to go to her funeral,” he said.

Last month, like millions of other Tigrayans, Mr Desta then became trapped amid the violent military offensive launched by the Ethiopian government on 4 November. 

He said he was “very scared” to be stuck there, and worried about his two children.

“There was no way to communicate to them that I was okay,” he said. “I was worried and I was scared.”

On Wednesday morning, the Ethiopian government confirmed its security forces shot at and detained UN staffers trying to reach part of the embattled Tigray region.

The government proclaimed it did not need a "baby-sitter" for relief operations in the war-hit north.

Redwan Hussein, spokesman for the Ethiopian government's task force for Tigray, said the government would investigate any reports of atrocities or mass killings.

"We will allow independent investigation when we feel we have failed... for anyone to assume they can come and do the things we cannot do is belittling the government," he said.

"Ethiopia is being run by a strong functional government that knows how to govern a nation. It doesn't need a babysitter."

A Tigray woman who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region holds her child inside temporary shelter at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan
Source: AP

The UN security team was seeking access to the Shimelba camp for Eritrean refugees, when they were fired at on Sunday.

The UN has confirmed that Ethiopian federal troops shot at and detained workers with the organisation.

“These are alarming reports and we are engaging at the highest level with the federal government to express our concerns and avoid any such incidents in the future,” a spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General said.

Dr Eyal Mayroz, a University of Sydney expert on international responses to genocide and other mass atrocities, said there needs to be strong international pressure on Ethiopia.

“The African union needs to play a strong role there,” he told SBS News. “But there needs to be a strong backing and pressure from the European Union, from the United States and from the UN.”

A representative from Australia's Tigrayan community says they have a list of more than 80 Australian citizens and residents who are stranded in Tigray and wider Ethiopia.

When contacted for comment on Wednesday, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it is working to assist Australians stuck in Tigray.

“The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is working with international agencies to assist Australians understood to be in Tigray, including for those who wish to return to Australia facilitating onwards travel where possible and providing consular support," a spokesperson told SBS News in a statement. 

“Since the outbreak of conflict in Tigray on 4 November 2020, the Australian Government has contacted the Ethiopian Government regarding the need to respect human rights, protect civilians and allow full access to humanitarian agencies to those impacted.”

Published 9 December 2020 at 9:11pm
By Virginia Langeberg, Gavin Fernando