English translation of the article published on Svenska Yle, 20 February 2021. Två miljoner människor riskerar att svälta ihjäl inom loppet av några veckor i Tigray – samtidigt nekas biståndsarbetare fortfarande tillträde [in Swedish]. https://svenska.yle.fi/artikel/2021/02/20/tva-miljoner-manniskor-riskerar-att-svalta-ihjal-inom-loppet-av-nagra-veckor-i
The conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia, has now been going on for over a hundred days, and despite the government’s successful communication blockade, the testimonies are beginning to seep out, one by one. They are about brutal mass rapes, the murder of civilians and famine. Among other things, mothers are reported to shave their daughters’ heads in an attempt to spare them from being abducted and raped.
Humanitarian aid workers continue to be denied access to the region, where the situation is acute for the civilian population.
“Right now, one and a half to two million people are on the brink of death. If they do not receive aid into the region within the next three to four weeks, they might die of starvation,” says Kjetil Tornvoll, professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjørknes Høyskole in Oslo. He’s been researching Ethiopia for over 30 years.
The Ethiopian Government, headed by Prime Minister and Peace Laureate Abiy Ahmed, has given international aid organisations the cold hand – despite the government itself claiming that there are no obstacles to aid work on the ground.
According to Tronvoll, this double talk is just another tool in the government’s propaganda backing, in which it has been part of painting a completely different narrative for its own population.
”Pics or it didn’t happen”
Foreign journalists are also denied entry, and there is even talk that the war in Tigray is one of the least documented conflicts in modern history.
Due to the government’s communication blockade, which has been going on since the war broke out in November, there is very little video material or images from the region.
“The government imposed a total information blockade where they disconnected the internet and broke off the telecommunication from the war zone. The power was also disconnected, which led to the end of mobile phones and cameras’ batteries after a few days, Tronvoll said.
This is simply why the inhabitants did not have the opportunity to film when the war came to their city,” Tronvoll explains.
Tronvoll reminds us that we easily tend to forget things we don’t see in pictures or video, but that it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
Genocide, obstruction of witnesses or bureaucracy?
The government’s not letting aid workers in could be due to three things, according to Tronvoll.
The first theory is that it is a conscious choice in which the goal is simply to let the population starve to death.
“You can interpret it as a genocide, that you want to kill a large part of the Tigrean population. In that case, starvation is the most effective weapon.
The Tigrean Resistance movement lives among the population, and by killing the population, the resistance also dies, Tronvoll explains.
It’s about ‘draining the sea to catch the fish’, he says.
The strategy has been used in the past in Ethiopia, in the mid-1980s when the military junta ruled the country.
The second theory is that you do not want international aid workers into the area because in that case they become witnesses to the massive abuses, massacres and rapes that take place there.
As a third theory, Tronvoll presents the possibility that it is all about bureaucracy. That the processes tread water because of paperwork.
“It’s hard to see that this is what this is about because you see how systematized this blockade is.
Rape is used as a weapon
Last week, a minister in the Ethiopian Government confirmed what both eyewitnesses and the UN have previously testified about: rape is used as a method of warfare, and there are many victims.
Minister for Women Filsan Abdullahi Ahmed confirms that rapes have occurred extensively during the conflict.
“There have undoubtedly been rapes, unfortunately,” Filsan said in a post on Twitter.
Filsan did not comment on which forces were responsible for the crimes, but according to testimony, it is mainly Eritrean forces that carry out the cruellest abuses.
But according to Tronvoll, for example, government forces are also guilty of war crimes and human rights violations.
The government forces that are now murdering and raping the Tigrean people are led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
In 2019, Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize for “his work to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea”.
Ironically, Eritrea has been most involved in the war ever since it broke out. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has long denied Eritrea’s involvement, although there is extensive evidence of it.
“Eritrea has helped both the federal forces with soldiers, but also with artillery bombardment of villages in northern Tigray. It was probably surprising that the Eritrean forces were so eager to fight, they have systematically fought on the government’s side,” Tronvoll explains.
The war has entered a new phase
The more than 100-day conflict between prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the TPLF (Tigrean People’s Liberation Front) does not appear to be cooling, although Abiy declared victory when government forces entered the Tigrean capital Mekele at the end of November.
“The war has only entered a new phase. We are seeing developments over the last two weeks where the resistance has stepped up its offensive warfare, while government forces have entered a more defensive phase.
According to Tronvoll, government forces are under a lot of pressure from the resistance, and according to reports he received on Tuesday, they have now gone in to build trenches around Mekele.
No one knows how to resolve the conflict, and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has so far been uninterested in negotiating.
“But at least this conflict cannot be solved with weapons, I have been saying that since day one,” Tronvoll states.
”A war about survival”
The Resistance, for its part, has said it is willing to negotiate, but in the absence of a response, it has announced that it will now fight to the last man and woman.
Young men and women flee the conflict to the resistance controlled areas where they are then recruited by resistance forces, and right now there are more people who want to become soldiers than can be handled, Tronvoll explains.
But it is not a question of being bloodthirsty, it is about surviving and going against the government that, according to the people, betrayed them.
“It is clear that the people of Tigray see the war as a war against them, not just as a war against the party TPLF. When you look at the enormous suffering the war causes to the civilian population, you understand that it is a war that is about survival,” Tronvoll says.
People forced to rape family members
The UN warned in January that it had received reports of sexual violence in Tigray, including people being forced to rape their own family members.
An Ethiopian schoolgirl told the BBC in an interview how she lost her right hand defending herself against a soldier wearing the Ethiopian military uniform who tried to rape her.
The soldier first tried to force her grandfather to rape her. When the grandfather became angry and refused, the soldier pulled him out into the yard and shot him in the thigh and shoulders.
“No one can save you now. Undress,” the soldier then said as he repeatedly punched the girl.
After they fought for several minutes and the man shot her in the hand and leg, he disappeared when he heard gunshots from outside.
It turned out her grandfather was still alive, even though he was unconscious.
For two days they are reported to have been hiding at home despite the serious injuries, as they were too scared to try to get help. The girl has been in hospital in Tigray for two months since then.
Mothers shave their daughters’ heads
The fact that the government now recognises that rape is being used as a method of warfare is a major step in the right direction, according to the founder of the Ethiopian feminist organization Setaweet Movement, Sehin Teferra.
“It is very, very difficult to talk about any figures and to confirm rape anywhere. All we know is that it is happening to a large extent and that we have had it confirmed by first-hand sources,” she said in an interview for the AFP news agency.
According to Teferra, some mothers shave their daughters’ heads and dress them in boy’s clothes in an attempt to save them from being raped. This is something Tronvoll confirms.
“You try to dress them up as boys to protect them,” he says. People are also very afraid to send their children to school because there is a risk that they will be abducted and then raped. There are several examples of this,” Tronvoll says.
Seferra also points out that it is not only the conflict in Tigray, there are more conflict zones in Ethiopia – as in the western zone of Metekel where inter-ethnic violence is constantly escalating.
“We should not forget about other active conflicts. I am aware that resources are limited, but it is very important to remember that rape and abuse take place everywhere,” she says.
The multiple conflicts are also highlighted by Tronvoll, but the one in Tigray is the most serious and complicated, he says.
Sources: AFP, Reuters, AP, BBC