The small town of Debark in Ethiopia’s Amhara region is now home to over 16,000 people displaced by recent fighting.
Amhara militias allied with federal government forces have been battling advancing forces allied to the neighbouring Tigray region.
Debark’s townspeople have seen their own resources stretched with the arrivals of their neighbours in need seeking food and shelter.
In interviews with The Associated Press, more than a dozen witnesses offered the most widespread descriptions yet of Tigray forces striking communities and religious sites with artillery, killing civilians, looting health centres and sending hundreds of thousands of people fleeing in the past two months.
Fenta Terefe is a communication officer for the Amhara Regions North Gondar Zone.
He wears a camouflage jacket and never leaves home without his machine gun that hangs off his shoulder.
He says the displaced have been sheltered in three seperate centres but their conditions remain poor and school is closed for the winter.
Tigrayan forces have been fighting Ethiopia’s central government since November 2020. The government says they are terrorists.
In June, they took back Tigray’s capital Mekele, and vowed to go after Amhara fighters who had occupied parts of Tigray during the war.
Debark lies some 80 kilometres from the border of Tigray region.
The displaced Amhara now shelter in a kindergarten and wait for food.
Shewaye Mare walked for over a day from the border town of Addi Arkay with her 4-year-old son.
Adults and children alike had to keep up with the retreating soldiers as they withdrew south.
“The reason we are here is because of the (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) junta. While we were in Addi Arkay they came and started attacking the town with heavy artillery, so we fled,” Mare said.
The United States, which for months has been outspoken about the abuses against Tigrayans, this week turned sharp criticism on the Tigray forces.
USAID, which feeds several million people throughout Ethiopia, has seen Tigray forces looting and emptying some of its warehouse, according to the head of the U.S. Agency for Economic Development, Sean Jones.
“As we came here, there were lots of dead bodies” of defense forces and civilians, said Khadija Firdu, who fled the advancing Tigray forces to the muddy camp for displaced people in Debark.
“Even as we entered Debark, we stepped on a dead body. We thought it was the trunk of a tree. It was dark. We came here crying.”
Like much about the war, it is not clear how many people in Amhara have been killed, and claims by the warring sides cannot immediately be verified. Each has accused the other of lying or carrying out atrocities against supporters for propaganda.
The Tigray forces say their offensive is an attempt to break the months-long blockade of their region of some 6 million people, as an estimated 400,000 face famine conditions in the world’s worst hunger crisis in a decade.