A former detainee at Wachemo University told Reuters the facility had enough food and water, and people could move around freely. But prisoners had to buy their own medicines, often pooling money to do so.
At least two prisoners died there this year – a man and a woman – said four people with direct knowledge. These sources included a university official and Melak Mihret Aba Teklemichael, head of nearby St. George’s Church, where they were buried.
Alemayehu, the Shone district spokesman said, “We don’t know about reports of death.”
A lawyer who was working to try to free detainees told Reuters that, based on his conversations with people in the facility, 100 women and 10 babies were among those held there. Reuters couldn’t independently confirm the lawyer’s figures. Melak, the church head, said several women had given birth at the facility.
Thousands of Tigrayans from Abala, the town on the border between the Tigray and Afar regions, were rounded up by an Afar regional force in December, loaded onto trucks and driven to Soloda College in the nearby town of Semera, witnesses said.
A source briefed on the matter said 7,000 to 12,000 people are still detained at the college. The Red Cross tweeted last month that it provided aid to 9,000 displaced people in Semera. It declined to give further details when contacted by Reuters. Two prisoners confirmed to Reuters that they received aid from the agency.
Jean Bosco Ngomoni from the UN refugee agency’s Semera office, told Reuters that
“limited service provision coupled with overpopulation do not allow decent living conditions.”
The men were beaten when they were first detained, three prisoners said. Men and women are separated by a fence, and many families are living under tarpaulin in the yard.
One prisoner told Reuters that 63 detainees at the college had died, including 11 infants. He shared with Reuters a list of those who had perished, compiled by inmates. In interviews, other prisoners confirmed three of the names.
Where names were missing on the list, the inmates entered whatever other details they had – such as “worked at the mill,” or “twin infants.”
A priest at nearby Afar Semera St. John’s church said he had participated in burials of seven or eight people from the camp. Reuters could not determine if those deaths were included in the list.
Satellite pictures of the facility appear to show its compound crowded with blue and white plastic rectangles consistent with prisoners’ descriptions of living under plastic tarpaulins.
The Afar regional government didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Many Tigrayans who were arrested in Addis Ababa were held for days or weeks in the capital’s Aba Samuel maximum security prison before being bussed south to other facilities.
One Tigrayan inmate estimated there were around 1,500 Tigrayan civilians there when he was held in the early days of November.
The numbers then grew, said four other prisoners.
One of them, a 28-year-old man, said he was held with 36 other Tigrayans in a 70-square-metre cell – twice the number of prisoners allowed under the Council of Europe’s minimum standard. He said the number of detainees had reached about 3,100 at the facility when he arrived on Nov. 27. He shared hand-written notes with Reuters tabulating the numbers, which he said he recorded based on conversations with other prisoners.