By Duke Burbridge
It has been more than two weeks since two young women, Zewdu Haftu and Semhal Gebrezgher, were attacked on their way to a birthday party in Mekelle, Tigray. They were reportedly stopped and sexually harassed by a truck full of security personnel. When the women resisted and cried for help, Zewdu was reportedly dragged down the street by her hair and crushed under their vehicle. She died at the scene. Semhal survived the attack and was taken to Ayder Hospital in Mekelle under police custody.
On August 30, Semhal was forcibly removed from the hospital by police officers in Mekelle without doctor’s discharge. According to one legal professional in Mekelle with knowledge of her case, Semhal was told that she was being taken as a witness but was labeled a “suspect” in a warrant for her arrest. She was brought to court on September 1 without her lawyer and was remanded to police custody. Semhal’s mental and physical health is reportedly deteriorating in police custody. She is expected to be back in court again in a few days.
In my opinion, it is important that the Tigrayan Interim Regional Administration (T-IRA) understand that the removal of Semhal Gebrezgher from Ayder Hospital and her treatment throughout the investigation have alarmed and galvanized many of Tigray’s more prolific advocates, from within the Tigrayan diaspora and outside friends of Tigray, such as myself. Any treatment of Semhal or any other survivor of gender-based violence (GBV) that violates her personal security, or her human or legal rights breaks a critical bond of trust between the T-IRA and advocates of Tigray. To many advocates, Semhal’s removal from the hospital was a stab in the back.
The focus of the investigation and the treatment of Semhal Gebrezgher raise serious questions about the commitment of the T-IRA to pursue justice for Zewdu’s murder and protect Semhal’s human and legal rights. Furthermore, the T-IRA’s failure to engage with the public on this matter raises broader questions about the priorities of political leadership in Mekelle. The current administration of Tigray could answer these questions today with meaningful action.
The broader implications of inaction
There is an obvious need for the T-IRA to be dedicated to aggressively pursuing justice for the hundreds of thousands of victims of sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV) from the past three years of genocide. More immediately, the T-IRA is entrusted to protect the safety, dignity, and human and legal rights of Tigrayan women and girls everywhere and more particularly survivors of SGBV.
A large and growing collection of studies and investigations have found that a staggering amount of SGBV was committed by occupying armies and militias during the Tigray genocide. Other studies and humanitarian monitoring instruments show that the needs of survivors were not met during two years of “war,” nor have they been met during a year of “peace.” Still more research shows that unspeakable atrocities against Tigrayan women and girls continue with impunity in Western Tigray, Irob, and areas along the borders with Eritrea and Amhara that remain under military occupation. As the hellish conditions described would indicate, Tigrayan women and girls have not been short of courage. However, the response to genocidal SGBV has been unfortunately mixed.
The people of Tigray mobilized to push out the occupying armies wherever they could. With remarkable bravery, Tigrayan men and women placed themselves between three genocidal armies and the women and girls of Tigray. Many lost lives in the process, others sustained permanent injuries, both physical and mental. Their service and sacrifice are testament to the courage of Tigrayan women and girls.
Outside Tigray, all of the influential actors were found to be lacking courage. Policymakers, diplomats, national and multinational bodies who claimed to be great champions of women’s and human rights ignored these atrocities against Tigrayan women and girls. Around the world, political stakeholders pretended not to see the genocidal violence in Tigray, until the picture was so vivid that they could only pretend not to be able to understand or act. The failure to use the first lull in violence to intervene in any meaningful way to protect Tigrayan civilians from a second invasion is a sign of how ineffective the international system has become.
On the broader issue of justice for women and girls, political leadership is allowed to sit somewhere on the courage spectrum between the Tigrayan people and the international community. No one is asking politicians to sacrifice their lives as so many Tigrayans have; but neither will anyone accept indifference, inaction, or excuses from Tigrayan leaders.
The credibility of the T-IRA is inextricably linked to its ability to ensure the safety of women in areas under T-IRA control, lead a transparent and aggressive pursuit of justice for victims of SGBV, while safeguarding the physical safety and the human and legal rights of survivors. The cases of Zewdu Haftu and Semhal Gebrezgher call for high level oversight, transparency, and meaningful action. Specifically, I am appealing to the T-IRA for:
- The return of Semhal Gebrezgher back to her doctor’s care and official assurances that her human rights, legal rights, and personal security and those of all Tigrayan women will be protected by authorities as a matter of highest priority.
- The aggressive pursuit of justice for Zewdu Haftu and official communication of major developments in Zewdu’s case, as well as regular briefings on progress in the pursuit of justice for all Tigrayan victims of gender- and sexual-based violence during the genocide.
T-IRA Cabinet Secretariat Prof. Kindeya Gebrehiwot (PhD) has offered sympathy for the murder of Zewdu Haftu and assurances that justice is being pursued. His statements undoubtedly reflect the personal views of every member of the administration who is horrified by the murder of Zewdu Haftu and eager to see justice served. Advocates of Tigray look forward to working in collaboration with the T-IRA towards advancing a future where women are safe to walk the streets of Mekelle, and in any town, village, or farm under the control of the T-IRA; justice for the victims of GBV is swift and impartial; and protection of the personal safety, dignity, and legal and human rights of survivors is a whole-of-government priority.