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Refugee doctor chronicles Tigray's pain as he treats it

by CARA ANNA THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | May 7, 2021 at 3:30 a.m.
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, stands at the Tezeke River crossing in Hamdayet, Sudan, on March 16, 2021. At left across the river is Ethiopia. He plans to continue his work in Sudan. The high-rise buildings of his city in Tigray, Humera, can be seen on the horizon. He could walk home, but he’s not sure he will ever go there again. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

HAMDAYET, Sudan -- He is a surgeon and a father.

Every morning, he wakes up under a plastic tarp and is reminded he's now a refugee, too.

Tewodros Tefera is one of more than 60,000 people who have fled ethnic violence in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region, crossing the border into a remote corner of Sudan. Horrified by what he saw when the fighting between Ethiopian and Tigray forces began six months ago, and by the tales of new arrivals, the 44-year-old chronicles the pain even as he treats it.

"It's getting worse," he says of life back home.

Ethiopia says it is "deeply dismayed" by the deaths of civilians, blames the now-fugitive Tigray leaders and claims normality is returning. But Tefera's patients tell him that killings, gang rapes and mass expulsions of ethnic Tigrayans continue as some 6 million civilians are targeted for their leaders' political past.

For Tefera, it has not been a comfortable transformation from cool, detached doctor at one of Tigray's largest hospitals to driven spokesman for his people. He used to write down reflections so emotional on the war and his new life that he later burned them.

"Ethiopia is dead to me," he says, then corrects himself: "Ethiopia is dying."

His wife and small children remain there, and he doesn't know when he'll see them again. They don't know how raw his experience has been, and he hesitates to tell them. Once 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 few days in Sudan before introducing himself as a doctor and being welcomed.

The stresses have shaped him. He has lost weight, 26 pounds, in the past five months, enough to worry his mother still inside Tigray. At times he closes his eyes and knocks a fist against his forehead, trying to drive back anxiety.

Tefera now fills a growing 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. With no running water or electricity, he and a handful of colleagues see well over 100 patients a day. Tefera has delivered babies and treated gunshot wounds, despite a shortage of anesthesia.

"He feels it as if he has the same pain," one patient, Rahwa Haylay, says, her jaw still bandaged from an operation.

On a recent day, Tefera examined the fresh welts on the back of a young man who had just walked in from Tigray. The man said he and his friends had been forced to lie in the hot sand and be beaten by soldiers from nearby Eritrea collaborating with Ethiopian forces. He heard one soldier call a superior and ask, "Should we kill them or let them go?"

Between patients, Tefera is pulled aside by fellow refugees who seek his help with community matters, hushed confidences, legal questions. Meanwhile, he is picking up Arabic phrases to improve his treatment of local Sudanese. His exhaustion is kept at bay with cigarettes and coffee.

"This man, I think, is a special man," said Yagoub Mohamed, the director of the local Sudanese reception center for refugees. He and Tefera meet daily to discuss their work but stray into the personal.

"When he talks about his wife and children, he's crying," Mohamed said.

At night, as Tefera sits in the darkness outside the clinic and listens to the hum of thousands of refugees fade, he agonizes over the war. It troubles his sleep.

"It is definitely genocide," he says. "If someone is being attacked for their identity, if they're threatened to be vanished because of their identity, there is no other explanation for this."

He believes that the killings are just the first step against the Tigrayans, with starvation the next. Already he has 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 the truth could be hidden forever," Tefera says.

Despite his criticism, he treated wounded soldiers for the Ethiopian government in the early hours of the conflict.

"A doctor is a doctor," he says.

He would see 93 bodies in all, both combatants and civilians, before he fled, taking some wounded patients with him.

He plans to continue his work in Sudan. The high-rise buildings of his city in Tigray, Humera, can be seen on the horizon.

He could walk home, but he's not sure he will ever go there again.

Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, right, drinks tea and eats breakfast with a friend before starting his workday, at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic where he takes shelter and works, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, right, drinks tea and eats breakfast with a friend before starting his workday, at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic where he takes shelter and works, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
The main market in front of the clinic run by MSF (Doctors Without Borders), where surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, goes to help staff, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
The main market in front of the clinic run by MSF (Doctors Without Borders), where surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, goes to help staff, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, lights a cigarette and rests on his bed after finishing his work, at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, lights a cigarette and rests on his bed after finishing his work, at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Tigrayan refugee Hareg, 23, from Mekelle, Ethiopia, reacts after learning of her positive malaria test, administered by surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Tigrayan refugee Hareg, 23, from Mekelle, Ethiopia, reacts after learning of her positive malaria test, administered by surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
A malaria test indicates a positive result for Tigrayan refugee Hareg, 23, from Mekelle, Ethiopia, administered by surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
A malaria test indicates a positive result for Tigrayan refugee Hareg, 23, from Mekelle, Ethiopia, administered by surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, listens after finishing a meeting with Sudanese and Ethiopian representatives of their communities focusing on plans for Tigrayan refugees, inside the Hamdayet Transition Center near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Sudan, on March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, listens after finishing a meeting with Sudanese and Ethiopian representatives of their communities focusing on plans for Tigrayan refugees, inside the Hamdayet Transition Center near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Sudan, on March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, prepares a malaria test for 23-year-old Tigrayan refugee Hareg from Mekelle, Ethiopia, at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, prepares a malaria test for 23-year-old Tigrayan refugee Hareg from Mekelle, Ethiopia, at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, performs surgery on a man's severely infected toe, inside the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, performs surgery on a man's severely infected toe, inside the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, background center, attends a weekly meeting with all non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives focusing on Tigrayan refugees, inside the Hamdayet Transition Center near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Sudan, on March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, background center, attends a weekly meeting with all non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives focusing on Tigrayan refugees, inside the Hamdayet Transition Center near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Sudan, on March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, uses his mobile phone camera to document the welts on the back from a beating by Eritrean soldiers of Adhanom Gebrehanis, a 20-year-old Tigrayan refugee from Korarit village, at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic shortly after his arrival in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 17, 2021. “It is definitely genocide,” he says. “If someone is being attacked for their identity, if they’re threatened to be vanished because of their identity, there is no other explanation for this.” (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, uses his mobile phone camera to document the welts on the back from a beating by Eritrean soldiers of Adhanom Gebrehanis, a 20-year-old Tigrayan refugee from Korarit village, at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic shortly after his arrival in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 17, 2021. “It is definitely genocide,” he says. “If someone is being attacked for their identity, if they’re threatened to be vanished because of their identity, there is no other explanation for this.” (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, prepares to preform a medical checkup on an infant, inside the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, prepares to preform a medical checkup on an infant, inside the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Dr. Tewodros Tefera treats a patient at the Sudanese Red Crescent Clinic in Hamdayet, Sudan, on March 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Dr. Tewodros Tefera treats a patient at the Sudanese Red Crescent Clinic in Hamdayet, Sudan, on March 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, fills a container with clean water to sanitize medical equipment, at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic at the Hamdayet Transition Center near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Sudan, on March 22, 2021. With no running water or electricity, he and a handful of colleagues see well over 100 patients a day. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, fills a container with clean water to sanitize medical equipment, at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic at the Hamdayet Transition Center near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Sudan, on March 22, 2021. With no running water or electricity, he and a handful of colleagues see well over 100 patients a day. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, sanitizes medical equipment, at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, sanitizes medical equipment, at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, takes a cigarette break inside his shelter at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic where he works, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, takes a cigarette break inside his shelter at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic where he works, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera and Tigrayan refugee midwife from Adwa, 26-year-old Elsa Tesfa Berhe, have coffee in front of the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic where he takes shelter and works, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera and Tigrayan refugee midwife from Adwa, 26-year-old Elsa Tesfa Berhe, have coffee in front of the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic where he takes shelter and works, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, checks a Tigrayan refugee inside the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic, at Hamdayet Transition Center near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Sudan, on March 23, 2021. Tewodros fills a growing 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. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, checks a Tigrayan refugee inside the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic, at Hamdayet Transition Center near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Sudan, on March 23, 2021. Tewodros fills a growing 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. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, performs an ultrasound scan on 5-month-pregnant Tigrayan refugee Rahwa Haile, inside the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 22, 2021. With no running water or electricity, he and a handful of colleagues see well over 100 patients a day. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, performs an ultrasound scan on 5-month-pregnant Tigrayan refugee Rahwa Haile, inside the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 22, 2021. With no running water or electricity, he and a handful of colleagues see well over 100 patients a day. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, right, walks by as Sudanese Red Crescent clinic staff pray at the clinic in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 22, 2021. His wife and small children remain in Ethiopia, and he doesn’t know when he’ll see them again. They don’t know how raw his experience has been, and he hesitates to tell them. Once well-off, he arrived in Sudan with only the clothes he wore — jogging pants and a polo shirt — and his wedding ring. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, right, walks by as Sudanese Red Crescent clinic staff pray at the clinic in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 22, 2021. His wife and small children remain in Ethiopia, and he doesn’t know when he’ll see them again. They don’t know how raw his experience has been, and he hesitates to tell them. Once well-off, he arrived in Sudan with only the clothes he wore — jogging pants and a polo shirt — and his wedding ring. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, cleans a wound and makes a cast for 31-year-old Tigrayan refugee Kalayu Hagos, who recently fled and was severely wounded in the conflict at home, inside the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 23, 2021. Tewodros is one of more than 60,000 people who have fled ethnic violence in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, crossing the border into a remote corner of Sudan. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, cleans a wound and makes a cast for 31-year-old Tigrayan refugee Kalayu Hagos, who recently fled and was severely wounded in the conflict at home, inside the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 23, 2021. Tewodros is one of more than 60,000 people who have fled ethnic violence in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, crossing the border into a remote corner of Sudan. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
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