HAMDAYET, Sudan (AP) – He is a surgeon and a father. Every morning he wakes up under a plastic tarp and is reminded that he is now a refugee too.
Tewodros Tefera is one of more than 60,000 people who fled ethnic violence in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, crossing the border into a remote corner of Sudan. Horrified by what he saw during the fighting between Ethiopian and Tiger forces started six months ago, and through stories from newcomers, the 44-year-old recounts the pain while treating it.
“It’s getting worse,” he says of home life.
Ethiopia says it is “deeply dismayed” by the deaths of civilians, blames the now fugitive leaders of Tigray and claims that normalcy is back. But Tewodros patients tell him that the killings, gang rapes and mass deportations of Tigrayans continue as some 6 million civilians are targeted because of the political past of their leaders.
This story was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
For Tewodros, it hasn’t been a comfortable transformation from a detached and cool doctor in one of Tigray’s largest hospitals to a motivated spokesperson for his people. He used to write such moving thoughts about the war and his new life that it burned them later.
“Ethiopia is dead to me,” he says, then corrects himself, “Ethiopia is dying.”
His wife and grandchildren are staying there, and he doesn’t know when he’ll see them again. They don’t know how raw his experience was and he hesitates to tell them. Once he was well off, he arrived in Sudan with only the clothes he wore – jogging pants and a polo shirt – and his wedding ring.
He slept in the market his first days in Sudan before introducing himself as a doctor and being welcomed.
Stress shaped it. He has lost weight, 12 kilograms (26 pounds), over the past five months, enough to worry his mother still inside Tigray. Sometimes he closes his eyes and bangs a fist against his forehead, trying to push back the anxiety.
Tewodros is now filling an increasing number of notebooks as he compiles a “dossier” on the Tigray conflict. Sometimes he dreams of taking it to the International Criminal Court in a quest for justice.
He works from dawn to well beyond dusk at a clinic run by the Sudanese Red Crescent Society in the border community of Hamdayet. Without running water or electricity, he and a handful of colleagues see well over 100 patients a day. Tewodros gave birth and treated gunshot wounds, despite a lack of anesthesia.
“He feels the same pain,” says a patient, Rahwa Haylay, her jaw still bandaged from an operation.
Recently, Tewodros examined the fresh marks on the back of a young man who had just arrived from Tigray. The man said he and his friends were forced to lie down in the hot sand and beaten up by soldiers from neighboring Eritrea collaborating with Ethiopian forces. He heard a soldier call a superior and ask him, “Should we kill them or let them go?”
Between patients, Tewodros is sidelined by fellow refugees who ask for his help with community affairs, hushed up confidences, legal questions. Meanwhile, he uses Arabic phrases to improve his treatment of local Sudanese. His exhaustion is brought under control with cigarettes and coffee.
“This man, I think, is a special man,” said Yagoub Mohamed, director of the Sudanese reception center for refugees. He and Tewodros meet daily to discuss their work but get lost in the staff.
“When he talks about his wife and children, he cries,” Mohamed said.
At night, as Tewodros sits in the dark outside the clinic and listens to the hum of thousands of refugees fade away, he worries about the war. It disturbs his sleep.
“It’s definitely genocide,” he said. “If someone is attacked for their identity, if they are threatened with disappearance because of their identity, there is no other explanation for that.”
He thinks the killings are only the first step against the Tigrayans, the famine the next. He has already seen a number of severely malnourished people arrive.
Tigray remains largely cut off from the outside world by the Ethiopian government, with no internet access in most of the region.
“They are foolish to think that the truth could be hidden forever,” says Tewodros.
Despite his criticism, he treated wounded soldiers on behalf of the Ethiopian government in the early hours of the conflict.
“A doctor is a doctor,” he says.
He would see 93 bodies in all, combatants and civilians, before fleeing, taking some wounded with him.
He plans to continue his work in Sudan. The high-rise buildings of his town of Tigray, Humera, can be seen on the horizon.
He could walk home, but he’s not sure he’ll ever return.