Ethiopia: atrocious stories of violence against women in Tigray, where rape is used as a weapon of war
More than five months after the announcement of the end of the war in Tigray, shocking evidence continues to emerge of violence inflicted on the population by Ethiopian, Eritrean and local militias in the region of Northern Ethiopia, where according to journalists and activists sexual violence is being used. as a weapon of war on an “almost unimaginable” scale.
“This is ethnic cleansing,” an 18-year-old victim of an attempted rape that cost her arm amputated told The New York Times, saying soldiers target women in the region “to prevent them from giving birth to new Tigers.” In addition to the conflict areas, violence has continued to occur in the capital of Mekelle in recent months. However, many women choose not to go to hospitals, which soldiers themselves have easy access to. In the British newspaper Telegraph, a doctor from Mekelle reported that every woman who goes to the hospital “says there were 20 others with her, who can’t make it to the hospital”. In many cases, doctors say government officials choose not to register cases out of fear of retaliation by the military.
In March Wafaa Said, deputy director of the United Nations Humanitarian Affairs Office for the East and Southern Africa region, said more than 500 Ethiopian women reported having been subjected to sexual violence at five hospitals in Tigray, an estimate of the a phenomenon already considered a downside “due to the stigma associated with rape. According to health and humanitarian workers, cases of violence in the region are increasing day by day.
The war in Tigray
The conflict, which began with the offensive launched on November 4 by Ethiopian Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed against the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (Tplf) which governed the region, involved, in addition to the forces of the federal government , including militiamen from the Amhara region and soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, accused by refugees and residents of committing massacres and indiscriminate violence on civilians. The presence of Eritrean soldiers was denied for months by the Ethiopian government, until Abiy’s admission on 23 March.
Last week, the G7 countries called for the “swift, unconditional and verifiable” withdrawal of Eritrean forces in a statement. According to the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry, they “started” to leave Tigray, claiming that they had crossed the border after being provoked by members of the TPLF.
Eritrea became an unexpected ally of Ethiopia in 2018, with the signing of a peace agreement that formally ended a conflict that began 20 years earlier. Abiy Ahmed took office in Addis Ababa a few months ago, after three decades of governments led by the Tplf. The first head of government of the Oromo ethnic group, which constitutes more than a third of the population, has promoted ambitious political and economic reforms in a few months, freeing tens of thousands of political prisoners. The attempt to overcome the ethnic violence that in previous years had caused millions of displaced people in the country earned Abiy the acclaim of the international community, leading him to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
However, the reforms have not prevented many of the ethnic and internal divisions of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the coalition that has ruled the country since the end of the Mengistu regime in 1991, from becoming irreversible. Tplf, a party of the Tigrinya minority that had always been hegemonic within the coalition until the rise of Abiy, refused to join the new Prosperity party wanted by the prime minister in view of the elections scheduled for next June.
In an escalation that led to the November offensive, the TPLF first attempted to organize local elections without government authorization, and then attacked a federal military base. The harsh response of Abiy Ahmed has rekindled the never-subsiding tensions between ethnic groups such as the Amhara and Tigers, who represent about 6 percent of the country’s 110 million inhabitants, fueled during the three decades in power of the TPLF. Even Eritrea, since independence in 1993 under the regime of Isaias Afewerki, has seized the opportunity presented by the conflict to settle the score with the Tplf, accused of supporting the internal opposition.
Systematic violence against women
The blockade of telecommunications, imposed intermittently even after the official conclusion of the conflict, has prevented news from reaching the rest of the world about what is happening in the region, where according to a reporter for the Telegraph, brutality is being committed against women on a scale “almost unimaginable“. In recent weeks, with the arrival of international organizations and journalists, chilling testimonies have emerged, accompanied by extremely crude details.
“The women say they were raped by armed actors, they also told stories of gang rapes, rapes in front of family members and men forced to rape their families under the threat of violence,” said Said, addressing the Security Council of the United Nations last March 25.
In one of the most striking cases, a video circulated on social media and confirmed by the press shows a surgeon from the Adigrat hospital extracting nails and pieces of plastic inserted into a woman’s vagina. Several survivors of the violence told stories of group violence that lasted entire days, accompanied by the killing of family members.
Last week Abiy acknowledged that “atrocities” were committed in Tigray by “raping women and looting property”, without attributing the incidents to specific groups. Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Ghebremeskel, on the other hand, declared that the rape allegations against the country’s soldiers are “sad and revolting”. “All the invented stories, which are foreign to our culture and our laws, are passed off to cover up the crimes of the TPLF that started the war”.
Many testimonies, on the other hand, underline the systematic nature of the abuses. Several women have been infected with HIV or contracted sexually transmitted diseases as a result of the rape, a contagion intentionally sought by some of the soldiers, according to survivors. A doctor in the Sudanese refugee camp of Hamdayet, Dr. Tedros Tefera, told CNN that many victims said they were raped by Amhara militiamen who told them they wanted to “change their identity” and carry out ethnic cleansing. “Basically this was genocide,” he said.
Read also: Why the conflict in Tigray can turn Ethiopia into a powder keg