July 20, 2024

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Ethiopia’s Tigray War Survivors Hope for a Better Future

5 min read

The civil war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region killed hundreds of thousands and displaced over one million people. Many survivors remain optimistic despite the scars left by the war.

Warning: This article includes graphic accounts of sexual abuse which some people may find disturbing. Please exercise caution before reading on.

In the streets of Mekele, the capital of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, a woman in her 70s sits on the pavement, shaking her hands with the last of her strength, begging for a small donation of money to buy some food.

When the sun goes down and the tuk-tuks (rickshaws) lights light up the streets, the situation becomes more severe. Abandoned children aged between three and nine intercept pedestrians to sell them handkerchiefs and chewing gum.

Before the outbreak ofwar in Tigray, life was quite different for 42-year-old Kebedesh and her family. She ran a small hotel and was also involved in agricultural activities. Everything was going so well and the future looked bright.

Then, on November 4, 2020, fighting between the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (FDRE) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)broke out. The war — which lasted two years — later saw Eritrean forces and Amhara militia joining hands to support the Ethiopian government forces.

How the Tigray war started

Clashes erupted after the TPLF fighters attacked the central government’s main army base in Mekele. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed vowed to crush the insurgency and ordered a massive military offensive in the region.

The TPLF, which governed the Tigray region, had initially refused to recognize Abiy’s postponement of elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic and unilaterally defied the prime minister by holding regional elections in Tigray.

Moreover, TPLF, which had dominated Ethiopian politics since 1991, fervently opposed Abiy’s reforms, claiming that it was an attempt to undermine its influence.

Rape as a weapon of war

On December 11, 2020, a week after the outbreak of the conflict, as Kebedesh and her 8-year-old daughter were walking through Kafta, a rural area near the Eritrean border, five soldiers intercepted them, four from the neighboring country and one from the central government.

They aggressively asked me, ‘Do you have a man at TPLF?’ — I said no, Kebedesh recalled.

But despite her refusal, the five men gang-raped her. At the same time, they stabbed her daughter and poured boiling water on her stomach to silence her desperate cries for help.

After the perpetrators had left, Kebedesh gathered all the strength left in her and took her seriously wounded child to an Ethiopian military base to receive first-aid medical assistance.

According to the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute for the Parliamentary Group on International Law, Justice and Accountability (APPG), around 120,000 people were subjected to sexual violence during the war in Tigray.

“Some of them have committed suicide because of the stigma,” Yirgalem Gebretsadkan, head of the Violence Against Womenunit of the Tigray Genocide Commission of Inquiry, told DW.

Life at the IDP camp

After this harrowing incident, Kebedesh and her daughter’s lives became uncertain. For three months, they lived in an internally displaced persons (IDP) center in Adwa, having to cope with subhuman conditions.

Adwa, located 160 km (99 miles) north of Mekele, has a population of about 40,500 people. The Adwa Women’s Affairs Office states that it has recorded 1,374 cases of rape; 86 of those cases were HIV positive, 72 of whom are children.

“Father Luan [of the Don Bosco mission], who is in charge of the religious centre, heard about our story and chose us to be part of the programme for women victims of sexual violence,” Kebedesh told DW, with a tone of relief in her voice.

Since then, she has been sharing a compound of five rooms with ten people who are also survivors of sexual violence.

Dealing with trauma and stigma

When her little daughter, who just turned 11, lifts her T-shirt, it is impossible not to feel distressed. A visibly huge scar, which gives her an aesthetic complex, compounds the stomach problems she carries from the stabbing,

The girl attends a private school that is paid for by the Don Bosco Center.

According to her mother, she has no friends. “Sometimes she is afraid when she walks to the student center, she is afraid that someone will attack her again.”

On top of all the experiences endured over the past four years, they now suffer from stigmatization.

Now, both mother and daughter live in the shadow of suffering, afraid to speak out because of the stigma and harassment that society tends to impart on survivors of sexual violence. They fear being pushed into a corner and forced to leave the city.

A family separated by war

Kebedesh’s husband fled at the beginning of the war, leaving her in charge of four children. He was never heard from again until recently when news came that he had died during the conflict.

Kebedesh now lives in a room financed by the Don Bosco association with three of her four children, the eldest of whom is in Sudan fighting with the TDF (Tigray Defence Force).

“After the signing of the peace agreement (in November 2022), I received a letter from him, so I know he is alive”, Kebedesh said with a tone of relief.

Hope for a better future

Despite deep physical and psychological wounds, Kebedesh and her children remain hopeful.

“I dream of setting up my own mini-market and sending all my children to study,” Kebedesh said. “My daughter dreams of becoming a doctor to help herself and her people,” she added, smiling.

Tigray endured one of the bloodiest wars of the 21st century, with at least 600,000 people killed and more than one million internally displaced.

Despite a peace agreement signed by TPLF and Ethiopia’s federal government in November 2022, the situation in Tigray remains uncertain despite meetings for dialogue between Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party (PP) and the TPLF.

Currently, Tigray faces severe famine and extreme poverty, with tens of thousands of civilians living in internally displaced people (IDP) camps.

Efforts to consolidate the peace deal

The third dialogue meeting took place on May 15 in Mekele. These discussions are part of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement signed in November 2022.

During the session, both sides agreed to work towards long-term peace, jointly addressing any emerging conflict to prevent new tensions, as reported by local media.

A report by the US-based New Lines Institute published on June 4 alleges that there is compelling evidence that Ethiopian government troops committed acts of genocide against the Tigrinya people during the two-year-long conflict.

The 120-page draft refers to credible sources, who indicated that government forces and their allies engaged in ‘acts amounting to the crime of genocide.’ The authors are calling for Ethiopia’s government to be taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to answer charges.


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