In the Tigray war, rape is a weapon

English translation of the article published on De Tijd (Belgium), 9 April 2021

Sarah Lamote
09 April 2021 17:05

Five months after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed began his “brief battle” against the northern Tigray region, more and more testimonies of extreme sexual violence are coming out.

When she tried to flee with her 14-year-old son, they were overtaken by a group of soldiers. “They tied us up and we were raped for 10 days,” the woman says from the garden of a refuge in the Ethiopian conflict zone of Tigray. “Around us lay corpses that were eaten by vultures. I begged the men to let me go, but they didn’t listen.’

The woman gently tells her story to British news channel Channel 4, which was one of the only ones allowed to enter the region with a camera. “One of them pointed a gun at my son. I went crazy and cried. I saw my son lying on the ground and they just kept going.’

The war in the northern province of Tigray began five months ago, on November 4. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a “law enforcement operation” against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to oust them from power. He accused them of trying to overthrow his government. Less than a month later, Abiy announced the victory.

The 40-year-old woman was raped by Eritrean soldiers in a village outside the Tigrayan town of Adigrat. She has difficulty walking and is supported by an aid worker. ©AFP

But the violence continues. As more and more independent observers gain access to the mountainous region, more and more testimonies are seeping out, often about sexual violence.

The stories of the women and girls are similar. They are tied up and raped for days by multiple men, not infrequently in front of their father, partner or children. There are testimonies of teenagers who are in hospital with broken bones after gang rapes and of fathers and grandfathers who are forced to rape their daughters and granddaughters.

Tip of the iceberg

“The reports of sexual violence are extremely concerning,” Alyona Synenko, regional spokesman for the International Red Cross, said by phone from Mekelle. That was one of the first humanitarian actors to gain access to the area. ‘We document the allegations and discuss them with the parties where possible. This work is extremely important to prevent future violations.’ Our country also wants to do its part and decided to join the project (see box).

At the end of March, the United Nations had known about 516 Ethiopian women who had formally reported sexual violence in Tigray, although that would be the tip of the iceberg. Many hospitals have been destroyed and not all women dare to come out. At the end of March, 12 UN officials demanded an independent investigation. ‘There continue to be reports of random and targeted attacks on civilians, including rape and other horrific forms of sexual violence. This has got to stop.’

Many of the witnesses talk about the role of the Eritrean army, which supports neighbouring Ethiopia. However, the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea had soured for years. After Abiy took office in 2018, a thaw occurred, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. Abiy denied the presence of Eritrean troops for months, but eventually admitted it in March. He also promised to hold any soldier guilty of rape or looting to account.

‘Ethnic cleansing’

Little of that seems to happen. Suspicions of war crimes are on the rise. Victims’ stories show a region where rape, looting and murder are carried out. There are indications of mass graves and mass executions. UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet sees ‘serious violations of international law by all parties’.

Especially in West Tigray, things are going fast. Several human rights groups– as well as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken – talk of “ethnic cleansing” in West Tigray. The area is currently held by troops from Amhara, the region south of Tigray. The two have been arguing over areas for some time and at the outbreak of war Amhara decided to support the government forces.

Before Abiy took office in 2018, the Tigrayan TPLF ruled with a hard hand for almost three decades. Until the second half of 2019, it was part of the ruling EPRDF coalition under Abiy’s premiership, but since December it has been in opposition and retreating to its Tigray base. Still, the TPLF remained a thorn in Abiy’s side. The rebellious state stands in the way of his pan-Ethiopian unity dream.

Ethiopia, with a population of 110 million, is the second most populous country on the African continent. The country in the Horn of Africa has good growth rates: 6.1 percent in the corona year 2020. Through economic success stories, such as that of Ethiopian Airlines, it slowly shook off a history of severe famines.

But Abiy’s “short battle” seems to culminate in a protracted civil war. ‘Neither side has a victory ahead of it’, says think tank International Crisis Group. Ethnic violence – Ethiopia is a patchwork of 80 peoples – continues to increase across the country.

Hunger again

The European Union traveled to the region this week and hopes to put pressure on the regime. That hope doesn’t have to be vain. Under international pressure, Abiy promised more access for humanitarian aid and a withdrawal of Eritrean troops. Although the latter has yet to be revealed.

Meanwhile, more than a million people are on the run and more than four million people need help. The spectre of another famine looms. The UN has repeatedly warned of malnutrition.

‘Ethiopia has only one harvest season and the population has to plant soon’, says Synenko from Mekelle. ‘Because of the violence, many farmers do not have access to their land or to seeds. If they miss the plant season, it will be dramatic for food security in the coming year.’

Belgium backs search for evidence of sexual violence

Belgium is releasing EUR 4 million for the victims of the violence in Tigray. Specific attention is paid to victims of sexual violence. In doing so, our country is entering a project of the International Red Cross.

In addition to collecting and documenting sexual assault charges, efforts are being made to protect the affected population, bring together family members who have lost each other in the conflict and respect for humanitarian law.

‘In recent weeks, more and more reports of horrific facts have reached us’, says Development Minister Meryame Kitir (Vooruit party). ‘Together with the International Red Cross, we want to take care of the victims as best we can and prevent the conflict from escalating further.’ The funds for the project come from the budget generally earmarked for humanitarian aid.

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