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United Nations Sounds The Alarm On Humanitarian Crisis In Ethiopia

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As a war in Ethiopia enters its third week, it is pushing thousands of refugees into neighboring Sudan. The U.N. Refugee Agency is warning that a full-scale humanitarian crisis is emerging. NPR's Eyder Peralta is following the story from Nairobi and joins us now.

Hi, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Bring us up to speed on this war that the Ethiopian refugees are fleeing.

PERALTA: Yeah, so it's a war between the Ethiopian federal government and what they consider a rogue regional state. The government has been bombing parts of Tigray in Northern Ethiopia, and the federal troops have been advancing toward Mekelle, which is the capital of that regional state. The government says that the objective is to take the capital and arrest the leaders of the TPLF - the Tigray People's Liberation Front - which controls that state.

There have been firefights across the state, and over the weekend, the TPLF launched rockets at two airports in Ethiopia and at targets in neighboring Eritrea, so the fighting has been intense. About 30,000 people have fled to Sudan already, and hundreds have been killed.

SHAPIRO: Thirty thousand people - what are you hearing from Sudan where these people are arriving?

PERALTA: It's grim. Refugees are telling reporters and human rights groups that civilians are being killed by militias with machetes. Some of them said that they had to leave at night as they heard military planes dropping bombs. They say that they saw bodies strewn on the streets as they fled. And they're also walking hours in what are essentially desert conditions, and, you know, all they have is the clothes on their back. I spoke to Jean-Nico Dangelser (ph) of Doctors Without Borders, and he says some of the camps are already overwhelmed, that there is very little shelter. There are no bathrooms or showers. Here's a bit of what he told me.

JEAN-NICOLAS DANGELSER: Overall, a very complicated situation - people that have to travel very far in harsh conditions to arrive here. And when they arrive here, very dire conditions in the camp.

PERALTA: He says for right now, the refugees seem healthy. But if conditions continue like this, they're going to get sick.

SHAPIRO: And what are the reports you're hearing from inside the conflict zone?

PERALTA: So that's a difficult question because since this conflict started, the Internet and phone lines have been off. But the International Committee of the Red Cross sent a team to try and gauge the situation. They couldn't get very deep into Tigray, but they say they found a devastating humanitarian crisis. They say that hospitals just outside the conflict zone have been treating hundreds of critically injured patients, but they're running out of supplies. I also spoke to Zewdu Ayalew of the ICRC, and he says the Red Cross is getting desperate calls from families. Let's listen.

ZEWDU AYALEW: One of the biggest challenge for the public is lack of communications. The families are worried, and they need Red Cross support to re-establish contact with their families.

PERALTA: So the Red Cross has set up a hotline, but they're also collecting written messages to try and connect families. The government says that it is mounting an offensive in Mekelle today, so I have been trying to get in touch with sources there, but I haven't had any luck. So this blackout affects our reporting.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta in Nairobi.

Thanks, Eyder.

PERALTA: Thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MODEST MOUSE SONG, "BLAME IT ON THE TETONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.