BASUNDA, Sudan: Ethiopian refugees of the Qemant ethnic group queue for food at a camp in the village of Basinga in Basunda district of Sudan's eastern Gedaref region.-AFP

BASUNDA, Sudan: Dragged into a conflict not of their making, members of Ethiopia's Qemant ethnic group say their only choice was fleeing to Sudan-marking another bleak turn in a widening war. "Houses were burned, and people killed by machetes," said refugee Emebet Demoz, who, like thousands of others, ran from her village last month. "We couldn't even take the bodies and bury them."

Thousands have been killed since fighting erupted in November in Ethiopia's northernmost Tigray region, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent in troops to topple the Tigray People's Liberation Front, the regional ruling party, saying the move came in response to TPLF attacks on army camps. The violence has since sucked in other groups in bitter battles over land, and has spread from Tigray into Ethiopia's neighboring Amhara region, homeland of both the Amhara people and the ethnic minority Qemant.

Amhara fighters supported Abiy's forces, in an attempt to settle a decades-long dispute over territory they claim was seized by the TPLF during its nearly three-decade rule before Abiy took power in 2018. The Qemant have long chafed under the cultural and economic influence of the dominant Amhara people, and in recent years have called for self-rule. A 2017 referendum on the question of creating a Qemant autonomous zone ended in rancor, with the resulting territorial dispute sparking increasingly frequent clashes between the two groups. "The Amhara fighters backed by the government wanted us off our land," 20-year-old Emebet said. "They are killing us because we're an ethnic minority."

'Refused to take sides'

But Amhara regional spokesperson Gizachew Muluneh squarely denied that members of the Qemant ethnic group were being targeted. Amhara leaders say the Qemant's quest for self-rule has largely been stoked by Tigrayan rebels, who they allege are fighting a proxy war by backing the group. Gizachew told AFP that those described as refugees were "pro-terrorist TPLF, and they are created by TPLF for the purpose of distracting Ethiopia and Amhara".

The United Nations estimates that some 200,000 people have been displaced from their homes in Amhara, where the violence is driving a wedge deeper between the ethnic groups. "The Amharas wanted us to pick their side in the conflict against the Tigrayans," said refugee Balata Goshi. "We refused to take sides, so they fought us."

Clashes between the Amhara and Qemant forced thousands to flee in April this year, according to the UN's humanitarian agency. Qemant campaigners claim that their historic homeland includes villages bordering Sudan. But that has also led to accusations that the Qemant have received support from Sudan, which has territorial issues with Ethiopia, mostly in areas located near the Amhara region. Relations between Khartoum and Addis Ababa have also soured over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, which downstream Egypt and Sudan fear threatens the water they depend on.

For civilians like Emebet stuck in the middle, the violence left her no option but to leave. She is part of a stream of some 3,000 Qemant refugees who have crossed into Sudan in recent weeks, Sudanese officials said. "We are expecting more Qemantis to arrive, as well other ethnicities," said Mohamed Abdelkareem, from Sudan's refugee commission.

Sudan already hosts more than 60,000 refugees from Ethiopia, according to the UN, putting heavy pressure on a country already struggling with its own acute economic crisis. Emebet has found shelter in the Sudanese border town of Basinga, cramped inside a school converted into a makeshift camp, now a temporary home for a thousand refugees. There are basic food supplies, but she is sleeping under plastic sheeting that offers little shelter from either sweltering heat or heavy rains.

"We are safe here at least," she said.

'Can't go back'

Refugees said they are victims of long-running ethnic strife. "Tensions had already been rising for years," said Aman Farada, a 26-year-old refugee from Ethiopia's northern city of Gondar. "Initially, it was inter-ethnic disputes, but now it's the government fighting us." Kasaw Abayi believes the Amharas used the Tigray conflict as "an excuse" to expand their control over other land.

"They see the entire area as theirs, so they want neither us (Qemant) nor the Tigrayans there," said the 50-year-old builder. Early in the fighting, Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, declared victory after his forces seized Tigray's regional capital Mekele. But in June, the TPLF recaptured much of Tigray, including Mekele, and pushed east and south into the Amhara and Afar regions. The UN says the conflict has driven 400,000 people into famine-like conditions. Fighting continues. Qemant refugees say they see little chance of returning to Ethiopia any time soon. "We can't go back," said Emebet. "How can we return when this government is still in place?" -AFP