Mixed emotions for family partially reunited after fleeing Tigray conflict
Letha was seven months pregnant when she made the difficult decision to leave her home in Ethiopia’s western Tigray region without all of her family.
When the fighting broke out in November 2020, she was separated from her husband, son and daughter and fled across the border into Sudan with her two youngest children, Ermyas, 9 and Mahelet, 7.
“I was scared something bad would happen to us if we stayed,” she says. “We had no choice but to escape.”
After crossing the border, they were accomodated at a reception centre where UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, provided them with assistance, including food and shelter.
She later delivered a healthy baby boy, but she still felt bereft.
“I wasn’t at peace, because I didn’t know where the rest of my family was,” she says.
Nearly 60,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled to eastern Sudan since the conflict began in Ethiopia’s Tigray region in November 2020.
The fighting had scattered Letha’s family to different parts of Tigray. Her 11-year-old daughter Eymaret had gone to stay with her aunt in another town after the conflict closed schools, while her son was with his father in Shire, a town in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region.
"The silence was tough to handle."
Even though communication lines were often down in Tigray, Letha was determined to keep trying to contact her loved ones. A Restoring Family Links antenna service was set up by UNHCR partners, the International Committee fo the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Sudanese Red Crescent Society (SRCS), in the reception centres near the border to help refugees like Letha locate loved ones they had lost contact with by making free phone calls or writing letters. In cases where contact can not be restored, ICRC and SRCS register tracing requests and conduct active searches both within the camps and across the border, in cooperation with the ICRC in Ethiopia.
“The silence was tough to handle,” says Letha. “I was scared something terrible had happened, “but I couldn’t give up.”
She finally made contact with Eymaret, who had traveled with her aunt to Humera, near the border with Sudan. Eymaret later crossed Tekeze River on her own, and then made her way on foot to Hamdayet Transit Centre where she was met by her uncle.
“I didn’t have time to think. I just crossed the river and prayed I would make it,” she recalls.
With help from UNHCR, UNICEF and the Sudanese State Council for Child Welfare (SCCW), Eymaret was eventually reunited with her mother, bringing their seven-month period of anxious separation to an end.
“I was so happy to see her,” says Letha. “It’s every mother’s worst nightmare to lose a child and I was scared this would be my fate.”
In addition to the work of partners on reunifiying separated families, UNHCR is providing assistance to unaccompanied and separated children like Eymaret, such as education and arranging foster families.
“We are pleased this story has a happy ending and that we were able to ensure Eymaret’s protection and wellbeing,” says Sameh Fahmy, UNHCR’s Protection Officer in Gedaref, who worked closely with partners to reunite Letha and Eymaret.
Still for Letha, the reunion is bitter sweet as she constantly thinks about her husband and son for whom the search is still ongoing and who are yet to meet the newest member of the family.
She is worried about the security situation and the fact that "it is dangerous and increasingly difficult for people, especially men, to travel due to the fighting.”
“We had a good life back home and lived peacefully. My dream is for our whole family to be together again,” she says.