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Reports of executions and mass-rape emerge from the obscured war in Ethiopia's Tigray region

Conflict ravages Ethiopia's Tigray region
Conflict ravages Ethiopia's Tigray region 07:29

Johannesburg — The medical charity Doctors Without Borders has revealed details from the gruesome war playing out virtually out of sight in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region, reporting that government forces executed civilians in cold blood.

Since the violence erupted in Tigray months ago Ethiopia's government has imposed a media blackout, preventing both foreign and local journalists from getting into the region at all until recently. Some journalists have started to get near to the fighting now, but with little freedom to move around, so the veil of secrecy is being lifted slowly, and we keep hearing of horrific violence long after the fact.  

That's why the eyewitness account from Doctors Without Borders — known by its French acronym MSF — of recent brutality has become a key piece of evidence in the ongoing conflict. 

The group said its clearly marked MSF car and two public buses travelling behind it were stopped on a road by Ethiopian soldiers. Their driver was beaten but allowed back into the vehicle, but the organization said the passengers on the buses were offloaded, the men and women separated and the men, who numbered at least four, were shot at point blank range.  

Ethiopian army patrols streets of Mekelle city
Ethiopian army soldiers patrol the streets of Mekelle, in the Tigray region, March 7, 2021, after the city was captured with an operation against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty

It's a horrific account, but what's worse is that it seems to be a regular occurrence in region, as stories of massacres and other violence keep emerging, usually long after the fact and always difficult to verify.

Sexual violence 

On Monday, the United Nations called for a stop to indiscriminate and targeted attacks against civilians in Tigray, including rape and other forms of sexual violence. 

Gender-based violence has long been used as a weapon of war around the world, and in this particular conflict — which has started to look more and more like an example of ethnic cleansing — rape is being used to humiliate, shame, destroy dignity and shatter the souls of Tigrayan women.  

Ethiopian government troops have been accused of joining forces with soldiers from neighboring Eritrea to brutalize and rape Tigrayan women. Some of the limited reports to emerge from the region suggest that when these women are attacked, they're told it's to cleanse them of their Tigrayan blood.  

Britain's Channel 4 recently aired a devastating report on these atrocities. One survivor recounted a harrowing 10-day ordeal to the network during which she said she and five other women were gang-raped by Eritrean soldiers. She said the troops joked and took photos as they injected her with a drug, tied her to a rock, stripped, stabbed and raped repeatedly her.  

Concerns grow over humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia's Tigray Region 09:12

Doctors who've treated Tigrayan women have said one woman's vagina was stuffed with nails, stones and plastic.

For the first time since the conflict began, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has acknowledged that atrocities have been committed, saying any soldier found guilty of raping women or other war crimes would be held accountable. But as he said it, he also suggested circumstances in the region were being exaggerated for propaganda. 

What's the war in Tigray about?

The conflict began in November after Ahmed ordered an offensive against the ruling party in Tigray, a semi-autonomous region of Ethiopia, accusing them of attacking a government military base.  

But it was the result of long-festering tension between the Tigray People's Liberation Front and Ahmed's central government in the capital Addis Ababa. The TPLF used to be the ruling party of Ethiopia, dominating politics and enjoying disproportionate economic power for several decades.

Tigray leader calls on Ethiopia PM to withdraw troops; China and Australia clash over graphic tweet 03:39

Abiy came to power in 2018 in the wake of widespread anti-government protests and he immediately sought to increase the central government's control and minimize regional autonomy.  TPLF officials were purged from government, some being accused of corruption, and tension between the two entities grew steadily from then until the armed conflict began in November.  

Eritrean forces crossing the border to join Abiy's troops has been particularly worrying.

In 2019 Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing the long war between Ethiopia and Eritrea to an end. As recently as Tuesday of this week, Abiy and his government blatantly denied the presence of any Eritrean forces inside Ethiopia, but the evidence was overwhelming, and he was forced to admit that Eritrean troops had crossed the border.

He said they came because they were concerned they'd be attacked by their long-time foe – the TPLF, whose forces bore the brunt of the fighting during the Ethiopia-Eritrean war.  

Eritrea used to be part of Ethiopia, but became a separate nation after a war of independence in the early 1990's. Then war broke out between them again in 1998. Abiy said this week that Eritrea had promised its forces would pull back out when Ethiopia's military was able to control the border.

Eritrean forces now stand accused of the worst of the human rights atrocities committed in Tigray since the current conflict began.

U.S. intervention?

The Biden administration has sent $50 million dollars in aid and despatched Senator Chris Coons to speak with leaders in Ethiopia, but many experts would argue that not only the U.S., but the rest of the Western world is falling short when it comes to addressing the crisis.  

Despite repeated condemnation from the U.S. and the United Nations over the atrocities, the brutality has continued and, from the reports emerging, become even more severe.  

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called Abiy to urge an end to the conflict, and there's no doubt that diplomatic pressure is mounting on the Ethiopian leader to end stop violence.  

Until recently Ethiopia, a close American military ally, was seen as the strategic linchpin in the volatile Horn of Africa, but as the Tigray conflict drags on, analysts worry that Ethiopia could become yet another source of instability in a region plagued by Islamist insurgencies and unrest.  

In an indication of how seriously the U.S. regards the crisis, Blinken announced on Wednesday night that a special envoy would be appointed for the Horn of Africa, with Ethiopia being a top priority.

Blinken held talks this week with European Union officials to discuss "a variety of measures to support unhindered humanitarian access, investigation of human rights abuses, a cessation of hostilities, and the immediate withdrawal of Eritrea from Ethiopian territory."

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