Harsh conditions in forced labor camps and renewed heavy fighting in Ethiopia's war-torn Tigre Province are generating an influx of refugees into neighboring Sudan, according to sources here.
An estimated 800 Ethiopian refugees entered the frontier post of Helet Hakuma this week, while smaller numbers are crossing into eastern Sudan at other nearby points, according to the country's commissioner for refugees, Abdul Rahman Beshir.
Most seem to be conscripted laborers fleeing Ethiopian state farms near the town of Humera, but they also include Army deserters and peasant farmers escaping the combat now reported in western Tigre between Soviet-backed government forces and nationalist guerrillas there.
Coupled with the 746 who arrived from the Humera area in February, this brings the total of new refugees at this border crossing to approximately 18,000 since early 1980, according to relief officials.
Meanwhile, these officials express concern that severe drought in eastern and central Tigre could swell the flow of refugees to crisis proportions in the coming weeks.
Sudan plays host to over half a million refugees by the count of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), including 400,000 from Ethiopia, including Eritrea, where several loosely allied nationalist movements are currently battling the Addis Ababa government.
Repeated Ethiopian claims of the repatriation of thousands leaves the two countries competing for the same limited funds from potential donors, though attempts to bring about a rapprochement between the two northeast African neighbors has led to a muting of the public debate over the issue.
Ethiopia recently forwarded a request to the United Nations for more than $1 billion in emergency assistance, much of it for the resettlement of returning refugees.
Sudanese officials privately express anger over the audacity of the proposal and complain bitterly over the lack of adequate funding for the growing number of refugees here.
Published figures put the total UNHCR budget for Sudan in 1980 at only $12 million.
The Sudanese also dispute Ethiopia's claims, citing statistics showing that only 250 refugees returned to Ethiopia between October and the end of February. Moreover, the Sudanese say this group was composed mainly of people who sought sanctuary in Sudan during the middle 1960s.
These officials confirm the existence of the forced labor camps in Ethiopia's Humera area, and add that they now fear the entire work force, estimated at between 20,000 and 45,000, may soon cross into Sudan.
Ethiopia's Minister of State Farms Hailu Shawl recently hailed the state farms as "the biggest success of our revolution." But escapees to Sudan tell a different story.
Gebre Amiak Asebeha arrived in the Sudanese border town of Gedaref recently after an 18-hour journey over the 18 miles from Humera. His clothes were torn and tattered, his feet cut by sharp rocks, and his body painfully thin.
"We heard the announcement in Addis Ababa offering employment," he recounted during a lengthy interview. "many of us registered at the kebeles [local committees], but I later met others, wounded fighters from the militia, pensioners, and street children, who were captured by the Army and sent with us.
"On the fifth of July we were taken to the Tatak military camp. There wasn't enough food and we couldn't go outside. On July 11 I left at 8 in the morning. There were 65 or 70 of us on every truck.
"In Addis they told us not to bring anything, that they would supply us with what we needed. So none of us had shoes or blankets. The trucks were so crowded that many got sick. We couldn't breathe.
"At Humera I was put in charge of 32 people. They brought us building materials and told us to make our homes.
"The wood was all in a heap and everyone rushed in, grabbing some pieces. Some of the girls didn't get anything, so they had to live with the men. In the night I sometimes heard them crying as the men raped them again and again.
"In the beginning we got milk and sugar from the Red Cross and some sorghum rations from the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission. Then that stopped coming , and they told us to get our own food, but it was a 2 1/2- hour drive by tractor to the nearest market, so most could not go.
"Every day we started working at 6 in the morning and couldn't stop until 6: 30 at night except for lunch. They always told us not to try to escape. They said we were surrounded by tanks. All the people were sick and dying. Many got one cup of cereal to make three meals, so they were weak, but if you didn't work , you didn't get paid, so some of them worked to death.
"In October I turned in my report with some other supervisors. We wrote that 2,650 people had worked for 22 to 25 days, and that they weeded only 29.5 hectares [about 75 acres] of land.
"I knew it wasn't good enough, but everyone was sick, and they couldn't do anymore.
"I waited and waited, but the money didn't come. They were angry because the workers weren't producing. I was scared to run away, but I knew it was better to be shot running than to die slowly."
Gebre's story is typical of hundreds who are now coming into Sudan from the Humera farms, according to relief workers in Gedaref, who charge that Ethiopia is maintaining a subsistence labor force on donated relief supplies in order to produce export crops to pay mounting arms debts to the Soviet Union.
An estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Soviet- equipped Ethiopian troops are now engaged in a major counterinsurgency campaign near Humera, according to spokesmen here for the Tigre People's Liberation Front, which operates in the rural areas there. The government is also reported to be constructing a major military base in the tense border town.