Ethiopia 'siege' of Tigray hampering help for rape victims: HRW

Tigray conflict

Ethiopians fleeing intense fighting in their homeland of Tigray gather in the bordering Sudanese village 8 on November 13, 2020.

Photo credit: Ebrahim HAMID | AFP

The Ethiopian government's "effective siege" of Tigray is preventing victims of rape committed by warring parties during the year-long conflict of getting access to health care, Human Rights Watch charged in a report Wednesday.

The HRW claims coincided with a report by fellow campaign group Amnesty International that said Tigrayan rebels raped, robbed and beat up women during an attack on a town in Ethiopia's Amhara region, the latest disturbing testimony from the war.

HRW accused the warring sides of committing widespread sexual violence and deliberately targeting healthcare facilities, documenting the physical and mental trauma of rape victims aged six to 80.

"The government's effective siege of Tigray since June is doubly victimising survivors" by denying them critical medical and psychological care, it said.

The report said victims of rape required treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, broken bones, stab wounds and post-traumatic stress.

"One year since Tigray's devastating conflict began, survivors of sexual violence -– from gang rape to sexual slavery -– remain in desperate need of health care and support services," said Nisha Varia, HRW's women's rights advocacy director.

"Not only have Tigrayan women and girls experienced horrific abuses, they are confronting shortages of food, medicine, and other desperately needed support to rebuild their lives."

'Despicable acts' 

The Amnesty investigation, which drew on interviews with 16 sexual assault survivors in the town of Nifas Mewcha, followed an earlier report by the rights group that documented the rape of hundreds of women and girls by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers in Tigray.

The report on Wednesday focused on assaults during an August offensive by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), with 14 of the 16 women interviewed telling Amnesty they were gang-raped by the rebels, in some cases at gunpoint and with their children watching.

"The testimonies we heard from survivors describe despicable acts by TPLF fighters that amount to war crimes, and potentially crimes against humanity," said Amnesty's secretary general Agnes Callamard.

"They defy morality or any iota of humanity."

In one of the incidents detailed by Amnesty, Gebeyanesh -- not her real name -- said TPLF fighters gang-raped her while her children, aged nine and 10, wept.

"Three of them raped me while my children were crying," the 30-year-old food seller said.

"They slapped me (and) kicked me. They were cocking their guns as if they are going to shoot me."

Many of the rapists used ethnic slurs against their victims, with a 28-year-old mother-of-two telling Amnesty that one of the four men who assaulted her called her a donkey while her daughter watched.

"He was saying: 'Amhara is a donkey, Amhara has massacred our people, the Federal Defence forces have raped my wife, now we can rape you as we want'."

Another woman told Amnesty she fell unconscious after TPLF fighters raped her and beat her, using the butts of their guns. The men also stole her jewellery after assaulting her, she said.

Amhara government officials told Amnesty more than 70 women reported rapes in Nifas Mewcha during the TPLF's nine-day rule over the town. 

The rights group said the vast majority of the women interviewed were suffering from health problems as a result of the sexual assaults, but were unable to get the help they needed after Nifas Mewcha hospital was damaged in the TPLF offensive.

The war, which has ravaged northern Ethiopia since November 2020, has been punctuated by accounts of massacres and mass rapes, with thousands of people killed and two million displaced.

A joint investigation by UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet's office and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published last week found evidence of "serious abuses" by all sides in the conflict, saying some of the violations may amount to crimes against humanity.

The TPLF has dismissed the report as biased because of the government-affiliated EHRC's involvement while calling for independent investigations into rights abuses. 

Abiy Ahmed's government has said it is committed to holding perpetrators of rights abuses accountable.

In May, the attorney general's office said three soldiers had been convicted and sentenced for rape in Tigray and that another 25 had been charged with "committing acts of sexual violence and rape".

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