War’s Invisible Toll

Women Bear the Brunt of Trauma in Tigray Conflict

The war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region was characterized by extreme brutality and widespread sexual violence, resulting in the victimization of thousands of women and girls. Despite the signing of a peace agreement, the issue of sexual violence remains unaddressed, mainly due to recurring famine and a lack of foreign aid. Survivors face significant challenges in accessing medical care and support, and many suffer in silence due to the stigma and societal taboos surrounding rape. In this article, EBR’s Samuel Getachew discusses the devastating impact of the war and highlights the obstacles survivors face in seeking assistance and addressing the issue.

Amidst the intense conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region in 2021, characterized by widespread sexual violence, the Special Representative of Sexual Violence in Conflict for the United Nations Secretary-General Pramila Patten issued a strong warning about the alarming situation unfolding in the volatile area.

“Extreme brutality and sexual violence have been hallmarks of the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region”, Pramila’s office warned.

The conflict would continue for yet another year, displacing millions, pushing many to the edge of starvation and destroying critical infrastructure.

Furthermore, the conflict resulted in numerous victims of sexual violence, which persisted until the war came to an abrupt halt with the signing of a peace agreement in Pretoria between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Motivated by a deep sense of urgency and compassion, Meseret Hadush established her charity organization called Hiwyet in Mekele to provide much-needed support to the numerous victims of sexual violence in her province. Despite feeling overwhelmed by the immense challenge, Meseret was determined to act swiftly and bring healing to those affected by these atrocities.

Meseret shared that when Hiwyet opened its doors, a long queue of victims eagerly sought their services. These individuals, profoundly vulnerable and in need of protection, were seeking counselling and support to cope with the profound impact of the traumatic experiences they had endured. As Meseret reflected on the situation, she faced the challenge of expanding their services despite limited resources, contemplating ways to meet the overwhelming demand for assistance.

Through her charity organization, Hiwyet, Meseret has been instrumental in providing support to hundreds of women and girls in various areas. Hiwyet offers assistance in employment opportunities, facilitates family reunions, and combats the stigma associated with being a survivor of sexual violence.

Senait (last name withheld upon request) arrived at the centre as a shattered individual, seeking urgent support for her mental health struggles. Her life had taken a devastating turn when she was forcibly abducted from her home while enjoying a casual Sunday afternoon coffee with friends. In a horrifying incident, Senait was subjected to a brutal gang rape before being abandoned on a lonely street, left to grapple with the traumatic aftermath.

The organization enrolled Senait in a comprehensive home-based care program. This initiative not only provided her with essential psychological support but also extended financial aid to help her rebuild her life.

Almaz (last name withheld) joins the chorus of survivors, bravely sharing her own story of being a victim of sexual violence. This narrative tragically resonates with numerous others who have endured similar experiences.

At the onset of the war, Almaz found herself in a uniquely challenging situation. She was a new mother, eagerly preparing to embark on her journey as a culinary student at a local private college. Meanwhile, her husband was away, dedicating himself to work with a local charity organization.

With vivid memories, Almaz recalls when she returned home, eager to cook for her children, who were due back from school. As she heard a knock on the door, she instinctively assumed it was her usual helpful friend arriving to lend a hand. However, to her dismay, the reality that unfolded was far from her expectations, shattering the sense of safety and trust she had cherished.

Almaz’s hopes turned to horror when she opened the door and discovered four men with sinister intentions. Over the next hour, they subjected her to a brutal and relentless assault, leaving her unconscious and in a state of unimaginable pain. Eventually, she was rushed to a local hospital, ill-equipped to provide the comprehensive care she desperately needed after enduring such a traumatic ordeal.

Given painkillers, the doctors at a local hospital managed to halt Almaz’s internal bleeding, but due to limited resources, their ability to provide further assistance was severely restricted. As Almaz recovered, she bore witness to the heartbreaking plight of numerous other victims of sexual violence within the hospital’s walls.

“In the following weeks, I remained in the clinic, consumed by uncertainty about the well-being of my children and whether I would gather enough strength to eventually leave the confines of the hospital,” Almaz shared with EBR.

Despite her arduous journey, Almaz was eventually released from the hospital, only to be met with devastating news—her husband had lost his life in the war. This tragic revelation compounded the challenges faced by the young woman, as she now had to shoulder the responsibility of caring for her children while also confronting the brutal reality of widowhood.

Seeking solace and assistance, Almaz turned to Hiwyet for support. Recognizing her dire circumstances, the charity organization stepped in to provide the much-needed financial aid. This included covering the cost of rent for a small room, enabling Almaz and her two children to have a living space.

Human rights experts employed by the United Nations have reported that the conflict in Tigray has had a profound and devastating impact, with an estimated minimum of 10,000 individuals, predominantly women and girls, affected by rape and various other forms of sexual violence. This alarming statistic highlights the widespread and severe consequences of the war, echoing the stories of countless survivors like Almaz.

With recurring famine now overwhelming the Tigray region and continued embargo on foreign aid, there is currently no priority to address the issue of sexual violence that took place in the last few years.

In the town of Yichella, located a four-hour drive from Mekelle, there is a prevailing reluctance among the community to discuss the heinous crimes committed against women and girls openly.

Henok Tesfaye has heard from many victims and witnessed many women being gang raped in the open. His sister was raped, but there was little that he could do, he said.

“Rape became a disturbing norm during the war, with violence permeating every aspect of life. Now, as much of the village grapples with famine, discussing the sexual crimes that occurred during the war era has become a difficult and taboo topic,” Henok shared.

“Our primary concern right now is addressing the severe food shortage and the alarming number of people dying from starvation,” he expressed while anxiously waiting at the entrance of a USAID warehouse for the infrequent food deliveries that have become a rarity in the town.

A report conducted by Physicians for Human Rights and the Organization for Justice and Accountability in the Horn of Africa has brought attention to the extensive prevalence of sexual violence during the Tigray War. This report corroborates the alarming revelations shared by Henok in Yichella, shedding further light on the grim reality countless individuals face.

According to the report, survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in the Tigray war are experiencing significant health challenges but are encountering delays in accessing necessary medical care.

In Mekelle, Meseret revealed that there is a prevailing reluctance among many survivors of sexual violence to discuss their experiences openly. The stigma and silence surrounding these crimes create a barrier for victims to come forward and seek justice. Instead, their immediate concerns revolve around meeting their basic needs, such as finding affordable housing and securing stable employment.

A beneficiary of Hiwyet, who wishes to remain anonymous, shared her painful story as a survivor of rape during the Tigray conflict. The experience was deeply traumatic for her, leaving lasting emotional wounds. Overwhelmed by the taboo and stigma attached to discussing rape, she has made the difficult decision to keep the horrific ordeal hidden from others.

In this particular case, the survivor of rape during the Tigray conflict has chosen to confide in and seek support exclusively from the organization, Hiwyet. The organization is aware of her situation and provides crucial psychosocial support.

“I have kept the truth about what happened to me during the conflict hidden from my husband and children,” she disclosed. “Alone, I cry and battle with nightmares on most nights, while my family remains oblivious to my pain. They believe that I am here seeking employment counseling, unaware of the counseling I truly need to heal from the trauma I endured,” she shared.

She further expressed, “I am an invisible casualty of a senseless war, my suffering hidden from the world, but the trauma I endure is profound.” Her poignant words capture the profound impact of the conflict on her life, leaving her deeply scarred and traumatized.EBR

12th Year • March 2024 • No. 127

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