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Ethiopia confirms reports of rape in Tigray war

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Youngsters play in front of a damaged truck belonging to the Ethiopian Defense Forces in the village of Bisober, in Ethiopia’s Tigray region on December 9, 2020. – Tigrayan forces settled in the school several months ago. The November 14 killings represent just one incident of civilian suffering in Bisober, a farming village home to roughly 2,000 people in southern Tigray. In retrospect, Bisober residents say, the first sign of the conflict came seven months ago, when members of the Tigray Special Forces took over the village elementary school, which had been emptied because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP)

Rape has “without a doubt” taken place during the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, a government minister said, corroborating eyewitness reports and warnings from the UN.

The statement Thursday night from women’s minister Filsan Abdullahi Ahmed marks the first official acknowledgement of crimes activists fear have been widespread.

A government taskforce “unfortunately established rape has taken place conclusively and without a doubt,” Filsan said on Twitter.

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Law enforcement officials “are currently processing the data in terms of numbers,” she said, expressing hope that perpetrators will be “brought to justice”.

Filsan did not say which forces were responsible for rapes documented by the government taskforce.

But multiple women have told AFP about being raped by Eritrean forces, whose presence in Tigray is widely documented but officially denied by Addis Ababa and Asmara.

Friday marked the 100th day of fighting pitting forces loyal to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government against troops supporting the ruling party of Tigray, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Though Abiy declared victory in late November when the Ethiopian military entered the Tigrayan capital Mekele, the TPLF vowed to fight on, and aid workers say persistent insecurity is hampering the humanitarian response.

Thousands have died in the conflict, according to the International Crisis Group, and tens of thousands of refugees have streamed across the border into Sudan.

But humanitarian and media access restrictions have made it difficult to assess conditions on the ground.

The UN said last month it had received “disturbing” reports of sexual violence in Tigray, including of individuals forced to rape members of their own family.

A ‘big’ step
Sehin Teferra, founder of Ethiopian feminist organisation Setaweet Movement, told AFP it was “a big thing” that Filsan acknowledged rape had happened in Tigray.

“It’s really, really hard to talk about in terms of numbers and to verify rape anywhere. All we know is it’s happening on a large scale and we know that from firsthand reports,” she said.

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Some parents in Tigray are shaving their daughters’ heads and dressing them “as boys” to protect them from rape, she said, adding that her organisation had received multiple accounts of rape committed by Eritrean soldiers.

It is important for the government to follow through on promises to investigate and provide support to victims, Sehin said.

She also called for authorities to investigate rape in other conflict zones in Ethiopia, including in the western zone of Metekel where inter-ethnic violence is intensifying.

“We really shouldn’t forget about other active conflicts,” she said.

“I know everybody’s resources are stretched, but it’s really important to acknowledge that rape happens everywhere.”

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