Mass rape in Ethiopia: ‘Not any woman feels safe in Tigray’

English translation of the article published on Libération 21 mars 2021 (one of the leading newspapers in France): https://www.liberation.fr/international/afrique/viols-de-masse-en-ethiopie-plus-aucune-femme-ne-se-sent-en-securite-au-tigre-20210321_MBNPIWC7NFGPNAZKN3HDH7ZXZU/


“Libération” has collected a series of testimonies of women who were raped by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers in the northern province of the country, which has been embroered in armed conflict since November 2020.

by Maria Malagardis

March 21, 2021 at 5:34 PM

Hannah (1), a 45-year-old mother of six, appears to have “lost the use of speech” after being raped by six soldiers who forced the door of her house more than a month ago. Samri, 25, was brutally beaten by the four soldiers who raped her and “now remains prostrate in a chair, with no energy.” And then there is also this 17-year-old girl, who was allegedly raped by a soldier who came to search the parental home. Arriving at the hospital, injured and bloodied, she has been crying ever since, shouting, “What’s happening to us? What is happening in this country?” At Aydar Hospital, the largest hospital in Mekele, the capital of Tigray, a northern province of Ethiopia that has been facing a closed-door war since November 2020, caregivers are also worried about a mother of two. Arrested on the street in January and then taken to a camp, where she was raped “without respite” for two weeks by about fifteen soldiers. ‘She has completely lost control of her consciousness and her mental state is very worrying,’ the record notes.

At a refugee camp for Tigrayans at the Sudan-Ethiopian border on Tuesday. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)

Libération was able to obtain a transcript of a dozen reports, drawn up since January by the One Stop Center, a center dedicated to women victims of violence opened in 2018 within the Aydar Hospital. Each sheet, established with clinical coldness, suggests dizzying suffering that seems difficult to imagine, even when the victims are safe within this structure. “These are horrible stories, which have broken them. Our country has experienced many violent periods in its history. But these massive rapes, those soldiers who come into houses or kidnap young girls in the street, we’ve never seen anything like it. Not any woman feels safe in Tigray now,” sighs a doctor joined by Libération in Mekele. “For the medical teams who are confronted with these stories, it’s also very hard. They too are overwhelmed by emotion and despair. When I talk to them, I feel that they are often on the verge of tears,” says a social worker now in exile abroad, who has been in daily contact with the One Stop Center. There are tears, but also a lot of fear.

All the interlocutors contacted by Libération preferred to speak on condition of anonymity. As a result, the veracity of these rape stories could be disputed. Except that doubt is no longer possible: mass rapes take place in Tigray. Since November, access by journalists and humanitarians to the province of five million people has remained limited. The central government in Addis Ababa, the country’s capital, frequently disputes the disturbing reports of violence in general filtering from this “confined” region, which is larger than Switzerland, where the current regime opposes local authorities, who are now on the run without giving up fighting. But when it comes to the rape of women in Tigray, no one is trying to deny it, including the Ethiopian regime.

Macabre party

For several months, Pramila Patten, the UN representative on sexual violence, has been openly expressing concern and calling for an investigation into the alleged rapes. Now even the new interim administration set up in Mekele by the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed recognizes it. On Tuesday, the women’s office of this administration referred to “more than 500 recorded rapes” in Mekele or in surrounding towns such as Adigrat, “between December and the end of February”. Moreover, this body has openly implicated not only Ethiopian soldiers, but also Eritrean soldiers (from the neighbouring country), while the Addis Ababa regime still denies their presence in Tigray. “This is a dirty war that is primarily affecting defenceless victims,” said at mid-March General Yohannes Gebremeskel Tesfamariam, head of the task force set up by the Ethiopian Women and Defence Ministries on 1 February to investigate the abuses.

And it is also up to the top of the state that one worries about the ordeal experienced by the women of Tigray. “I spoke with those who had the courage to speak and I read many things in the eyes of those who did not have the strength,” said Sahle-Work Zewde, The President of Ethiopia, on international Women’s Day on 8 March, a week after her visit to the Mekele hospital. A “scary experience” confessed the President, who is also the first woman to hold this honorary but symbolically important post in Ethiopia.

Her visit to Mekele, however, had caused some controversy. Not only because she has refrained from openly identifying the perpetrators of these crimes. But also because she went with the soldiers of her close guard to the safe house, the place where some of the victims are hiding hosted by the One Stop Center. “At the sight of the military, the women suddenly panicked. They thought they were coming to rape them again,” explains the doctor contacted by Libération.

Among those under protection is Sara (1), 29, who arrived on 15 February from Adigrat, an hour’s drive from Mekele. A single mother of a 12-year-old boy, she has been raped three times since the conflict began. But “it was the last one that was the most excruciating,” the report notes. Eritrean soldiers reportedly disembarked at her home and forced her to board a minibus with her son, whom she refused to leave alone. She finds herself in a secluded corner, in the middle of the countryside, with “about thirty women,” she says. All were raped night and day, beaten, insulted, in a macabre party atmosphere, during which alcohol flowed. Sara worried about her child, asked to see him. Her torturers bring him in. In front of her eyes, one of them then kills her son with a bullet to the head. She was not released until several days later, when she had been injected with an unknown product that would leave her unconscious for a long time.

“None of them will file a complaint”

There is also Samri, 19, who arrived on 15 February from a village near the town of Adwa. It was her father who took her to the One Stop Center, praying and crying incessantly. Attached to a chair, he was forced to witness the rape of his daughter. In the case of Merri, 24, it was her 5-year-old boy who was present at the time of the rape, after the young mother was abducted with the child outside a shopping mall in Mekele. Merri didn’t want to go into the safe house. She fears arousing the suspicions of her husband, who might abandon her if he learned that she had been raped. Desperate, Merri made the child promise to remain silent.

“These women come from a very conservative culture. Their attackers cannot ignore that they will be permanently broken by rape,” notes the social worker, who from abroad remains in contact with the One Stop Center. “None of them will file a complaint,” says the doctor contacted in Mekele. “All they want when they come to us is to know if they are pregnant. And if so, be able to discreetly abort. This is also experienced as a trauma. We only see very few of these cases of rape, many victims do not even dare to come to us or cannot afford it,” he adds.

Yorda’s husband had to pay a ransom to secure the release of his wife, who was taken with their 2-month-old baby to a camp where she was raped for five days by nine soldiers. “She’s worthless, even for you,” they reportedly told the 24-year-old’s husband just before releasing her. Sometimes victims remain trapped by their tormentors even after they have been officially released. This is the case of a 24-year-old woman, who arrived at Mekele Hospital on 24 February for fear of becoming pregnant. And who remains the sex slave of the soldiers who raped her for two weeks in a camp near the capital of Tigray. They eventually released her, but according to the young woman, the same men continue to pick her up every night, threatening to kill her family if she runs away. How many such frightening tragedies will take place with impunity before steps are taken to put an end to them?

On Thursday, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, agreed to participate in a joint investigation with Addis Ababa into the humanitarian consequences of the conflict in Tigray. But some observers fear the limited scope of this approach, overseen by the Ethiopian government, even though the Ethiopian government has not renounced its logic of war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which ruled the martyred province until early November. In an official statement on Friday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed once again called on the remaining fugitive TPLF leaders to surrender “to avoid further losses.” Adding that their surrender would “protect their people from misfortune.” A call in the form of a threat to all the inhabitants of the region. In Tigray, where the inhuman thrives far from the eyes of the world, the nightmare, and that of women in particular, is not about to end.

(1) Names have been modified.

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