Unknown number of women & girls are struggling to breathe in Tigray region of Ethiopia where darkness has reigned for nearly 4 months. They are being raped, their voices silenced and their stories being told by those who are using it for political gains.
On November 3, 2020, Ethiopia, yet again, was getting into a deadly war with itself. The conflict was between the central government and the state of Tigray that houses over 7 million people. The government assured supporters (and foes) that there will be no civilian suffering and life will go back to normal in a matter of 3 days. Following the announcement, Tigray and her people were cut off from the world. Electric power, telephone & internet were disconnected. Absolutely no national or foreign media were allowed in.
As days progressed, stories of sexual abuse began to surface. People fleeing the conflict zone and seeking refuge in Sudan started reporting the horrific ordeals happening to innocent civilians. Those following the development closely urged Ethiopian authorities to act immediately.
Just 20 days into the conflict, the UNFPA estimated that there were about 150 survivors of gender-based violence in need of assistance. This report was only for women who fled the country. Those who couldn’t were trapped. The atrocities were being committed by Ethiopian & Eritrean troops who descended on the state for the war. They began feasting on their prey weeks after they controlled the state.
Concerned over the humanitarian crisis that could possibly arise, the world pressed the Ethiopian government to ease the blackout. As the darkness was lifted in just 7% of the region after five weeks, gruesome stories came flooding in. They were mostly told by refugees and families of victims who lived outside the state & the country.
“Please tell everyone I am okay” my sister pleaded. She was disconnected from her family outside & inside of Tigray for over a month. She managed to make a short and harried call before her phone battery was dead again. She was okay. But for so many other unfortunate families, many phone calls brought heartaches.
An aid worker in the town of of a small town told Reuters victims had recounted how a husband was forced to kneel and watch while his wife was raped by soldiers they identified as Eritrean.
The UN announced two months into the conflict that it had received “disturbing” reports of sexual violence. The report included a number of cases were individuals were allegedly forced to rape members of their own family under threats of imminent violence & women were being forced by military elements to have sex in exchange for basic commodities. Medical centers saw an increase in the demand for emergency contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). New arrivals in refugee camps continued to report cases.
Atrocities happening tacked away in the dark was tarnishing the image of the country and its once revered Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali. Prominent news outlets started reporting on these horrendous crimes — amplifying the deafening silence by the government. As a disaster recovery & to continue to secure favors from prominent world leaders, the government hired a US based lobbying firm.
It seemed like part of the strategy that followed his expensive contract with the firm was admitting into the crimes . Prime Minister Abiy’s Minister of Women, Filsan Abdullahi Ahmed, was assigned with the task. So she sent a tweet. A short unofficial post shared three months after the first allegation was reported. The Minister promised further investigation.
The sitting government seized the opportunity to make the situation political. Instead of allowing immediate humanitarian access to the region that desperately needed it and calling an immediate stop to such evil acts after its admission, it thought it best to play the blame game. The country’s President released a statement following a heavy criticism she received after her visit to the war torn state almost 3 months into the reported violations. She expressed a frustration bordering self petty. She believed the criticism were unfairly targeting female officials such as herself and not the men.
The state of Tigray is known for it’s beloved cultural practice of celebrating womanhood in a yearly festival called Ashenda. In August 2020, months before such misfortune befallen upon them, young girls and women of the region were celebrating their gender with little to no fear of sexual violence, looking forward to life’s endless possibilities, promising to come back in 2021 better and stronger.
The president attended the 2020 festival. She showered the girls with compliments. She suggested such women empowering event be recognized by UNESCO as a unique heritage for no other country in the world dedicated almost 4 weeks in a year for the sole purpose of celebrating women.
Few months after this colorful festival, every Tigrean girl is struggling to survive each day. The world has not yet acknowledged what has happened to her in the dark because there are no videos or pictures she can bring as a proof. There are no live facebook videos showing her attacker pressing on her neck. There are no independent media that can verify her story. There are few hospitals to treat her wounds. She has no money to hire expensive lobbying firm. To top this off, she is not from a wealthy nation where an injustice gets echoed around the world when it happens.