Tigray women forced to choose between rape or death

Children play in front of a hotel damaged by mortar shelling, in Humera, Ethiopia, on November 22, 2020. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, announced military operations in Tigray on November 4, 2020, saying they came in response to attacks on federal army camps by the party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). Hundreds have died in nearly three weeks of hostilities that analysts worry could draw in the broader Horn of Africa region, though Abiy has kept a lid on the details, cutting phone and internet connections in Tigray and restricting reporting. |

Dozens of African and African-origin women observed the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict on Saturday by speaking out against an ongoing campaign of sexual violence that's at “a level of cruelty beyond comprehension” in the war-torn and predominantly Christian region of Tigray in northern Ethiopia.

Fifty-six women from Africa or of African descent wrote an open letter and launched a petition to be delivered to the U.N. Security Council, the African Union and the European Council calling for urgent action.

It is estimated that 30% of all incidents against civilians involved sexual violence used “as a weapon of war, as a means to humiliate, terrorize and traumatize an entire population today and into the next generation,” according to a study quoted in a report by the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Sir Mark Lowcock, the letter says.

Organizations, including Amnesty International, CNN and Sky News, have previously published investigations into massacres committed against civilian populations in the Tigray region. Fighting began after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front attacked an Army base as part of an uprising in the region, which sparked military responses from Ethiopian forces joined by defense forces from neighboring Eritrea last November.

“Reports continue to emerge from Tigray of wives being raped in front of their husbands; mothers raped in front of their children and vice versa; family members forced to choose between raping female relatives or death, and of women themselves being forced to choose between rape or death,” the letter states.

“Several victims report their assailants boasted of “cleansing” their bloodline, while others arrive at medical facilities having suffered additional traumatic injuries to their reproductive organs inflicted by attackers to prevent them from bearing children,” added the authors, which include human rights activists, writers, artists, parliamentarians, politicians, religious leaders, lawyers and academics from more than a dozen countries.

The perpetrators, the authors of the letter say, were identified as members of the “Ethiopian National Defence Forces, Eritrean Defence forces, Amhara Special Forces, and other irregular armed groups or aligned militia,” and nearly a quarter of the cases involved gang rape over an extended period of time.

The authors added that “appalling violations are underway in the nation where the African Union is based, and amidst profound silence from African leaders,” which “impugns the aspiration for ‘African solutions to African problems.’”

“Appeals and statements of condemnation are not sufficient,” said Dr. Khataza Gondwe, the U.K.-based group Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s head of advocacy and team leader for Africa and the Middle East.

“The international community must move swiftly, decisively and robustly to ensure a ceasefire, unimpeded humanitarian access to the entire region, and that those implicated in violations that may amount to atrocity crimes are held accountable using every available mechanism,” Gondwe added.

Thousands of civilians, including priests and Sunday school children, have been killed in Tigray since last November.

Priests, old men, women, entire families and a group of more than 20 Sunday school children, some as young as 14, were among the thousands killed previously in Tigray by soldiers from Ethiopia and Eritrea, according to eyewitnesses and family members who spoke with CNN

In one instance of violence, hundreds of people were hiding in Maryam Tsiyon Church in Axum city, which is said to contain the Ark of the Covenant described in the book of Exodus, on Nov. 28. 

In another attack, witnesses say Eritrean soldiers opened fire on the Maryam Dengelat Church, where hundreds of believers celebrated mass. Although many tried to flee on foot to neighboring villages, troops were said to have chased after them.

The massacre was said to have continued for three days as soldiers went house to house, dragging people from their homes and slaughtering residents.

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