Thousands of women and girls are being targeted by the deliberate tactic of using rape as a weapon in the civil war that has erupted in Ethiopia, according to eyewitnesses.
In a rare account from inside the heavily isolated region of Tigray, where communications with the outside world are being deliberately cut off, an Ethiopian nun has spoken of the widespread horror she and her colleagues are seeing on a daily basis since a savage war erupted six months ago.
“Rape is starting at the age of 8 and to the age of 72. Many, many have been raped. This has all happened so quickly,” said the sister, who cannot be named to protect her security but is based in the regional capital of Mekelle.
“It is so widespread, I go on seeing it everywhere, thousands. This rape is in public, in front of family, husbands, in front of everyone. Their legs and their hands are cut, all in the same way.”
The northern area of Ethiopia, home to 5.6 million people, has been racked by civil war since the Nobel peace prize laureate, the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, sent the army in to oust the powerful regional government there on 4 November. The forces were joined by Eritrean troops, allied to Ahmed’s government, in fighting against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The conflict has led to thousands of people being displaced internally, as well as more than 63,000 people fleeing to bordering regions in east Sudan.
“For us, it’s so shocking. So sudden. We have a normal life, things are improving, health centres, lives and education programmes,” she said. “Then, as if in a day, there’s a fully fledged war. For the last three months now we are trying to feed 25,000 displaced people … some are 120km away from Mekelle.
“[Rape is happening] wherever there are Eritrean or Ethiopian troops. Tragic. Every single woman. Not only once. It is intentional; it is deliberate. I am confident in that from what I am witnessing. Some 70,000 civilians are under attack. So much looting, fighting, raping. All targeting the civilians. The brutality, the killings, the harassing.
“This region has been closed off. Cut off from all support that people deserve. We are isolated, lonely, neglected. The young people are so scared.”
The conflict has plunged the region even further into severe food insecurity, and a deliberate military blockade of food risks mass starvation, a recent report by the World Peace Foundation warned. At least 5.2 million people are in need of food aid.
The UN has confirmed that military forces are impeding humanitarian access to parts of Tigray, and there have been reports of military forces from Eritrea working with Ethiopians to cut off critical aid routes.
In the UN’s first statement confirming that aid was not getting through to people, the secretary general’s spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said on Wednesday that “blockades by military forces” had stopped humanitarian aid from reaching the areas where people were most in need and that the situation was “fluid and unpredictable”.
“Of the three million people targeted to receive emergency shelter and non-food items, only 347,000 people – that is, about 12% – had been reached since 3 May. With the start of the rainy season, our humanitarian colleagues warn that it is critical that aid agencies can provide minimal dignified shelter for the displaced,” the statement said.
Laetitia Bader, director for the Horn of Africa at Human Rights Watch, said the communications shutdown across the region was hampering efforts to document what was happening in Tigray.
“Since the beginning of this conflict, the warring parties have gone out of their way to make it extremely difficult to document the human rights abuses and humanitarian situation in real time. In the last three weeks, with the internet shutdown, it has become impossible.”
The head of the women’s rights committee at the European parliament, Evelyn Regner, called this week for perpetrators to be called to account for the widespread sexual violence being used as a weapon of war in Tigray, saying lessons from the Rwandan genocide and the war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina have still not been learned.
“Sexual violence against women and girls has been used as a weapon of war for centuries. Unfortunately, it is still the case in many conflicts throughout the world and the civil war in northern Ethiopia is yet another example of it. More than 500 women have formally reported sexual violence – but the toll is expected to be much higher,” she said.
“Sexual violence and rape are to be condemned and addressed by leaders worldwide, as President Biden already did. These atrocities have to come to an end and soldiers, as well as their commanders, involved in these acts have to be convicted.”
Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, head of the UK charity Mary’s Meals, which is supporting the nun and her fellow humanitarian workers and has launched an emergency appeal for Tigray, said: “The deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Tigray is terrifying. It would be hard to exaggerate the acute suffering of the people there and how bleak their future looks.
“We thank God for the sister, and all our amazing co-workers there, who are literally saving lives through their incredibly courageous efforts. The world might be understandably distracted by the pandemic right now but we surely we cannot just turn our backs on this enormous human catastrophe?”
The nun in Mekelle told the Guardian: “Everybody in the world should condemn the killing of civilians. People having to leave their loved homes and the sexual violence … so many woman and girls raped.
“I would like to say to the world: they must not wait for another second. Everybody in the world must act, must condemn this.”
A full piece by the nun is online