The ongoing genocidal war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, which has reportedly killed more than half a million people, internally displaced over 2 million people, subjected over 100,000 women and girls to systematic rape and sexual violence, and led over 4.5 million people to starvation has been characterized by extreme levels of disinformation and misinformation.
Despite the magnitude of the crisis and Ethiopia being one of Norway’s foreign-development priority countries, it has not received sufficient coverage on Norwegian media. One of the main reasons could be due to a total communication blackout and ban on media access to the region imposed by the Ethiopian regime. Nevertheless, even the little information that trickles out of the region through few sources like aid agencies has not received the coverage that it deserves in the Norwegian media.
On the other hand, Vårt Land, one of the few Norwegian media outlets that has given coverage to the crisis, has been publishing misleading opinion articles in favor of the Ethiopian regime in general, and the Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, in particular, with whom the contributors and editors seem to share religious views. While the bias in their publications so far may have religious grounds, as scholars, we found their recent publication, titled Ny Amnesty-rapport avdekker alvorlige krigsforbrytelser i Etiopia (rough translation: Amnesty report reveals serious war crimes in Ethiopia), which included the viewpoints of an NMBU professor, deeply troubling.
Following a publication of an Amnesty International report on rape and sexual violence in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, Vårt Land published a news article citing Stig Jarle Hansen, who, we argue, provided overly simplistic opinion regarding the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war.
In the article, Stig Jarle Hansen argued: “ I don’t think this is a strategy for the leaders on both sides in the conflict, but there can definitely be ideas among officers and soldiers.” While this can be true for the incidents of rape and sexual violence by Tigrayan forces, mounting evidence indicates the systematic use of rape and sexual violence by the Ethiopian army and allied forces throughout the genocidal war on Tigray. Overwhelming evidence points towards the widespread and systematic use of rape and sexual violence by Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF), Amhara regional para-millitary forces and millitas, and Amhara ethnic vigilante group known as Fano. For example, in June 2021, the UNFPA reported that more than 26,000 women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 years were expected to seek medical assistance for rape and sexual violence related complications in Tigray. Many international observers also argue that the rape and sexual violence in Tigray amount to “a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a constitutive act of genocide”. In June 2021, Samantha Power, the Administrator of United States Agency for International Development (USAID) stated that the “systemic attempt to use rape and gender-based violence as weapons of war [in Tigray] have been almost too grim and too rife to bear”.
Speeches by several high-profile Ethiopian officials also confirm the systematic nature of the rape and sexual violence in Tigray. During a parliamentary address in March 2021, Abiy Ahmed Ali said “The women in Tigray? These women have only been penetrated by men, whereas our soldiers were penetrated by a knife,” justifying the rampant rape and sexual violence in Tigray. Daniel Kibret, the PM’s advisor, said on state television that “the wombs of Tigray’s mothers are possessed by evil spirits and demons” and suggested the need for the complete extermination of Tigrayan mothers and their offsprings. Moreover, the things the perpetrators say to the rape and sexual violence victims – for example, ‘A Tigrayan womb should never give birth’ and “ … they’ve come there to cleanse them … to cleanse the blood line” – clearly show the systematic nature. Systematic and organized transmission of diseases such as HIV, particularly by Eritrean troops were also reported indicating the genocidal intent in the use of rape and sexual violence on Tigrayan women and girls.
Filsan Ahmed, former Minister of Women and Children under the Abiy Ahmed regime, who resigned in September 2021 in protest of the regime’s handling of the crisis, has on multiple occasions testified about the systematic use of rape and sexual violence by the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies and allied forces that invaded Tigray in November 2020. After her resignation, she testified that she was forced to revise a report compiled by her ministry that documented the widespread and systematic nature rape and sexual violence in Tigray.
Rape and sexual violence such as the ones reported by Amnesty International cannot be denied and should be condemned in the strongest possible way. However, we argue that comparing the occurrences of rape and sexual violence by Tigrayans forces in the Amhara region with the evidently widespread and systematic use by ENDF and its allies in Tigray on a similar ground is to disregard the broader context and nature of the war, which we argue is a genocide on the people of Tigray. As Tigrayans and academics, we expect fellow scholars to provide critical insights and help address the growing challenge of misinformation and disinformation, not the other way around.
Teklehaymanot G. Weldemichel (PhD) is a post doctoral researcher at NTNU.
Meley Mekonen Rannestad (PhD) is a researcher at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.