Rape as a weapon of war

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(Following is a translation of a report by the BBC Amharic about women’s experiences of violence during the civil conflict in the Amhara region, published on the news website on Dec 23th, 2021.)

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A single mother aged probably above fifty lived with her son whom she raised up as best she could by baking injera and doing other odd jobs in the neighborhood. Now she is no more. A heartbreakingly tragic accident that befell her made her commit suicide. Her fate has saddened the whole town. The incident that caused her tragic end happened when the town of Shewa Robit fell to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces. On the approach of the occupying forces, many of the residents fled the town to the surrounding towns. Others stayed behind, ready to face whatever fate had in store for them.

On 20 November, TPLF forces entered and occupied the town for about eleven days. Until December 1st, when the town was recaptured by the government forces, no one knew what was going on in the town. Commander Ahmed Mohammed, a police officer of the town, said that he came to learn of the woman’s suicide following a gang rape while collecting information on allegations of sexual abuse crimes committed by rebel forces against women in the town.

According to the officer,  the rebel forces broke into the woman’s house and raped her after shutting her son in another room. The abuse inflicted on her by six soldiers was such a humiliating experience that she decided to end her life by hanging herself in her kitchen, said Commander Ahmed, citing information gathered from the son and locals. What made it an unbearably degrading act was that the abuse took place with her 16-year-old son nearby, just a room away. Her burial which was conducted at a Muslim cemetery in the town was attended by a large crowd.

The commander said that the rebel forces raped scores of women and girls and committed other war crimes during their brief occupation of the town.

Asnaku Deres, head of the bureau of women, children, and youth affairs in the Amhara region said that the rebels perpetrated organized and widespread sexual violence against girls and women in areas they controlled, adding that “many have lost their lives or been seriously injured as a result of sexual violence.”

The survey on violence against women was conducted at the end of October, with a focus on Debark and Dabat in North Gondar, Tatch Giant, Lay Giant and Nefas Mewitcha, and towns of North Shoa.

Asnaku said her bureau has documented more than 147 cases of rape being committed by the rebel forces and 19 of them were under the age of 18. She noted that it is exceedingly difficult to obtain full statistics and the number of victims is probably much higher because there are many incidents of sexual assaults and rapes that are not reported due to fear of social stigma.

Nifas Mewcha, another town in the Amhara region, also reported a number of rape victims. TPLF forces entered the town on August 12 and stayed there for nine days. The mayor of the Nifas Mewcha town, Mulaw Tenaw, said that during those days 73 women were raped in the town, including four who were mothers and two who were visibly pregnant, suffering terrible injuries as a result. “These are the women who came forward to say they were victims of rape or sexual assault,” he said.  The number would certainly be much higher because there are others who may not come forward because of shame and stigma, he added. According to Mulaw, among the 73 women, 28 of them have received medical and psychological support from Felege Hiwot Hospital in Bahir Dar. “Two of the victims thereby contracted HIV and one was diagnosed with severe mental illness,” he said.

Last month, Amnesty International reported that sixteen women who spoke with the human rights watchdog said they were gang-raped by fighters from the TPLF. Some described being raped at gunpoint. Others said the fighters raped them while their children watched. The women of Nifas Mewcha who spoke with Amnesty were mostly from low-income families and doing menial jobs, Amnesty said. Almost all were left without medical care after the attacks because the Tigray forces had looted the local hospital and health center, it said, leaving the women without post-rape care.

Similar acts of violence including rape, sexual assault were also reported in Meket woreda in North Wello Zone in Amhara. Hospital sources confirmed that TPLF forces raped, robbed, and beat several women when the area was occupied by the group from early August to September. Yibeltal Geta, an administrator of Flakit Hospital, said eight women assaulted by TPLF forces were treated at the hospital following the government takeover of the area. He stated that three women died there as a result of being raped and among rape survivors were elderly priests’ wives.

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