The Kunama

Who Are the Kunama?
  • The Kunama ethnic group are located mostly in the Gash-Barka region of Eritrea between the Gash and Setit rivers, in Western and Northwestern regions of Tigray, and in small areas of Sudan.
  • There are an estimated 260,200Kunama, with the majority living in Eritrea. They comprise around 2percent of the Eritrean population.
  • A 2007 Ethiopian census estimated that there are approximately 4,860Kunama in Ethiopia, of which approximately 2,976 are in Tigray, while a 2017 research interview by an ethnic local government official estimated that there were approximately 7,000 Kunama in Tigray (3,300 in Tahtay AdiyaboLelem area, 3,100 in Hilet Koka, and 600 in other towns). It is currently estimated that there are around 10,000 Kunama in Tigray today. This makes the Kunama one of the smallest ethnic groups in Ethiopia.
Who Are the Kunama? Cont
  • The Tigrayan Kunama settlements are mostly in Adi Goshu, HiletKoka, Adebay Ademiniti, Mentebteb, Geza Meker, Geza Adura, Sheraro, Medabe, Erdi Weyane, Shemblina, Waela Nihbi, Badme,and Biyara. However, some members of the Kunama community have migrated to other parts of Ethiopia, such as the Amhara and Oromo regions.
  • The Kunama speak a Nilo-Saharan language, which they call Kunama. They have their own distinct culture. They also have their own traditional religion, but some have converted to Christianity or Islam.
  • The Kunama are a matriarchal society and descendents are considered members of the society only if the child’s mother is Kunama.
  • Most Kunama are herders and farmers. The Kunama land inEritrea is incredibly fertile and is called the “bread-basket ofEritrea.”
A Brief History on the Origins of the Kunama People
  • The history of the Kunama is widely unknown. The majority of what is known has been passed down through oral traditions.
    • Oral traditions indicate that the Kunama lived in Axum and the surrounding areas as nomads.
    • A king named Baden or Bazen and his wife Kuname ruled in Axum from 8 B.C. – 9 A.D., and the nomads only began to consider themselves and call themselves Kunama during their rule. Many of the Kunama believe that they originated from King Baden (Bazen)and refer to themselves as Kunama after his wife. Under King Baden (Bazen) and Kuname, a common identity began to form among the Kunama.
    • According to the tradition, when the king died in battle the neighboring people killed many Kunama and pushed the Kunama from the Axum area into North and Northwestern Tigray. Some of the Kunama crossed the Mereb river and migrated to modern day Eritrea while others remained in Tigray.
  • Others claim that the Kunama are a Nilotic ethnic group and they originated from the Ethiopian-Sudan border before migrating and settling in Tigray and Eritrea.
  • One of the earliest written recordings of Kunama came from an Arab traveler who visited Alwa (near Khartoum, Sudan) in 872 AD. He mentioned that the ‘Barya’ and ‘Cunama’ tribes were living on the borders of the Alwa Kingdom (now central and southern Sudan).
  • A 10th century Arab geographer named Ibn Hawqal wrote that the Kunama lived in the Baraka valley of Eritrea.
A Brief History on Eritrean Kunama Refugees in Tigray
  • Since the Ethio-Eritrean war (1998-2000), there have been many Eritrean Kunama refugees in Tigray along the border of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
  • Some Eritrean Kunama crossed the border to Tigray during the Ethio-Eritrean war after being accused of helping Ethiopian forces.
  • The Kunama were afraid that the Eritrean government would perceive them as enemies of Eritrea and subsequently fled to Tigray to escape persecution.
  • Soon after Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace agreement in 2000,around 4,000 Eritrean Kunama followed Ethiopian troops back to Ethiopia.
  • The Eritrean refugees eventually settled into Wa’ala Nihobi refugee camp, near Sheraro, before they were moved inland to Shimelba camp to be further away from the disputed Ethiopian-Eritrean border.
Atrocities to the Tigrayan Kunama During the War on Tigray
  • The Kunama are one of Tigray’s ethnic minorities and are at a high risk of extinction during the current war in Tigray.
  • Tigrayan Kunama are very vulnerable to attacks by Eritrean troops. Their proximity to the Eritrean border leaves the population at the mercy of Eritrean forces. The Kunama settlements in Tigray have been occupied mostly by Eritrean troops.
  • Little has been reported regarding Tigrayan Kunama, but Kunama diaspora have reported on starvation, looting, massacres, and displacement of their people.
  • Kunama settlements in Tigray have been burned down by Eritrean troops. The troops have destroyed their property and looted their livestock. Many of the Kunama are now internally displaced after fleeing their homes when the war started.
    • Some of the Kunama were hiding in the forests in the beginning of the war and were eating leaves for over a month to survive.
    • When they returned to their settlements and found their homes destroyed and looted, many travelled to Sheraro and Adi Goshu areas. Some are still hiding in the forests.
    • One account says that they counted 21 houses before they fled, near the Sheraro area in Geza Adura and Geza Meker, that were set on fire and burned by Eritrean troops.
  • The Kunamas are at risk of starvation. The displaced Kunamas currently rely on locals for food and aid or eat leaves to survive.
Atrocities to the Eritrean Kunama Refugees During the War on Tigray
  • Refugee camps in Tigray have been under attack since the beginning of the war. Shimelba camp, which hosted many Eritrean Kunama refugees, has been completely destroyed. Satellite images show the camp in ruins and blackening structures indicate that the buildings were set on fire.
  • In December 2020, a UN team trying to reach Shimelba camp was shot at by Eritrean troops. The refugee camps in Tigray, Shimelba and Hitsats, only became accessible to the UNHCR in March 2021.UNHCR staff found the camps destroyed and refugees scattered throughout Tigray without access to aid. Many individuals are still completely unaccounted for.
  • In January 2021, the Human Rights Concern-Eritrea (HRCE) received eye-witness accounts of Eritrean officers entering Shimelba camp and shooting four Kunama refugees in the camp.
  • On February 1, 2021, the UNHCR claimed that residents who fled from Shimelba and Hitsats refugee camps reported Eritrean troops were killing and abducting refugees to return to Eritrea.
Call to Action to Protect the Kunama
  • Humanitarian aid is still inaccessible to much of Tigray, especially the remote areas of Tigray where the Kunama have been displaced. The Kunama people are at serious risk of starvation and extinction. Unhindered humanitarian access must be allowed for all of Tigray, especially for vulnerable populations.
  • Objective, independent investigations are needed throughout Tigray. The abduction of Eritrean refugees and Kunama refugees, as well as the extrajudicial killings of refugees need to be investigated.
  • How to Support the Kunama people
    • Share and amplify this post
    • Join Omna Tigray’s Kunama Twitter campaign, starting on April 10, 2021
    • Sign our petitions advocating for special protection, minority rights and the removal of Eritrean troops from Tigray