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The civil war in Ethiopia is intensifying

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The almost year-long civil war in Ethiopia is intensifying. The government is bombing targets in the rebel capital, and its soldiers are engaged in a bloody battle over two strategic towns. NPR's Eyder Peralta is one of the few journalists near the frontlines, and he sends us this report.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: When we first drive into the town of Kombolcha, we see four trucks jam-packed with hundreds of militia members. They're headed to the frontlines armed with whatever they can find - machetes, axes, spears, sticks. The signs of war are everywhere here in the Amhara region of Ethiopia. Men walk around with rifles. There are ambulances shuttling the injured. Every once in a while, you feel the low rumble of artillery. People fleeing the violence are sleeping on sidewalks, resting underneath trees.

I find Mohammed Sina Segu and Imam Fanta in a school that is now converted into a camp for displaced people.

MOHAMMED SINA SEGU: (Speaking Amharic).

IMAM FANTA: In this village, many houses are burned.

PERALTA: They say the rebels stole their clothes. And amid the fighting, most houses were burnt. They fled through treacherous mountain terrain. And now they are afraid that the fighting could follow them here.

SINA SEGU: (Speaking Amharic).

FANTA: Us, we don't know. We don't know the place. We don't know anybody. So we'll remain here, and we don't know whether they can kill us or not.

PERALTA: "Maybe," they say, "this is where they all die."

These two adjacent towns, Kombolcha and Dessie, are of both strategic and symbolic importance in this war. The government has spent the past few months bolstering its military, training hundreds of thousands of new recruits, signing arms deals with other countries and signaling that it would soon push the rebels out of neighboring states. But as we drive to Dessie, owners are closing stores. Residents are making long lines at ATMs. Buses are jam-packed with people. The word is that the rebels are advancing and it's time to leave.

ISMAN ZELAZEWAT: (Speaking Amharic).

PERALTA: Isman Zelazewat is walking fast across downtown. He says the price for a bus ticket has skyrocketed, but he has nowhere to go.

FANTA: (Speaking Amharic). Where should I go?

PERALTA: Another passerby cuts in.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Amharic).

PERALTA: "He will not leave," he says. "He will die here if he has to."

We drive out of downtown and up a mountain to another school that has turned into a camp for displaced people. The man who used to be the principal is now running the place. And as some of his fellow citizens flee, he is worried about the things that the almost 2,000 refugees at this school desperately need.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: A shortage of water, a shortage of food. And they are crowded in the classroom.

PERALTA: There is little food, little water. People are sleeping outside. As we talk, Haimanut, a young woman, walks in with her 2-year-old son. He's crying. She's crying. Amid artillery fire in her village, she fled.

HAIMANUT: (Speaking Amharic).

PERALTA: "In the middle of the jungle," she says, "a rebel soldier raped her." She halts. Her words become a whisper. The world is closing in.

HAIMANUT: (Speaking Amharic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: She's saying it's up to God.

PERALTA: "God," as she says, "is the only one who knows what happens next." Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Dessie, near the frontlines of the Ethiopian Civil War. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.