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Genocidal Rape in Tigray, Ethiopia

Don’t Turn Away From These Images and These Crimes

Rahel, a rape survivor in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Credit...Lynsey Addario

Meet Rahel, 19, a human face of a brutal "ethnic cleansing" now underway in Ethiopia. [Genocide Watch comment: "Ethnic cleansing" is a euphemism used for genocide denial. Mass rape is genocide.]

“There were three soldiers,” she said as she lay on a bed in a crowded hospital. “They were asking me to take off my dress. I refused. I said, ‘You can kill me.’”

The men paid no heed and gang-raped her, part of a scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign of murder, rape, pillage and famine by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops against rebels and also against innocents like Rahel in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.

Countless thousands of Tigrayans have already been killed, and tens of thousands of children are in imminent danger of starving to death. This month the United Nations declared that Tigray was in the midst of the world’s worst famine in a decade.

Tigray has attracted little attention, partly because Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has kept out most journalists (expelling one working for The New York Times), so there aren’t many photos or video clips of the suffering.

Women and babies in clinic in Tigray...Credit...Lynsey Addario

These photos were taken by Lynsey Addario, a conflict photographer and old friend who happened to be in Ethiopia to shoot photos for National Geographic, a visit approved long before the latest attacks. She interviewed nine women who had been raped as part of the "ethnic cleansing" [genocide].

Rahel told Addario: “When I got home, I told my mother that I was raped and that I thought I might be pregnant. My mother kicked me out of the house and said, ‘How can you get pregnant with these killers?’”

Rahel was being treated at a hospital in Tigray that soldiers had looted earlier. A hospital official said troops had carried off everything that they could and destroyed the rest, including X-ray machines, neonatal equipment, the contents of an OB-GYN center, pharmaceuticals and even medical records.

The violence follows decades of ethnic tensions in Ethiopia. For many years, Tigrayans ruled the country harshly, but Tigrayan domination ended in 2018, and Prime Minister Abiy initially won the Nobel Peace Prize for taking genuine steps toward peace and democracy. Then last November he dispatched armed forces to crush a mutiny in Tigray, leading to civil war. Abiy then invited in Eritrean soldiers who have been particularly brutal toward Tigrayans and who now seem unwilling to leave.

A Times colleague reported that soldiers had beaten a man to death with beer bottles. The United Nations reports that girls as young as 8 have been targeted for sexual assault. CNN chronicled a massacre of people attending Mass at a church.

Child in Tigray ...Credit...Lynsey Addario

In contrast to other countries where atrocities are unfolding, including Myanmar and Syria, Ethiopia is one where the United States has considerable influence, if we will use it.

President Biden has denounced the “large-scale human rights abuses.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken has bluntly referred to “ethnic cleansing,” and the United States has imposed visa sanctions on some Ethiopian officials. That’s all welcome but seems tepid in the face of mass atrocities and starvation on this scale. I worked with Biden during the Darfur genocide and I know he cares about distant suffering; after seven months of brutality in Tigray, we need to see more signs of that concern.

The newest catastrophe in Tigray is mass starvation, with the U.N. reporting that 350,000 people are already suffering famine conditions. “This is going to get a lot worse,” said Mark Lowcock, the U.N. humanitarian chief.

The famine appears in part a tactic to starve a restive people into submission. Ethiopia has allowed some assistance, but soldiers have blocked or impeded much emergency aid, and Addario talked to one farmer who had four sons shot dead for working in their fields.

Shamefully, the U.N. Security Council has yet to discuss the crisis publicly. That’s because China and Russia are preventing a public meeting, claiming that this is Ethiopia’s internal matter.

Child in Tigray ...Credit...Lynsey Addario

Here is a photo Addario took of a 5-year-old girl screaming in pain as her wounds were being cleaned after her family home was destroyed. An internal matter? Addario says nine people in the house were killed, including the girl’s sister, mother and grandfather.

When governments turn weapons on their own people, that is no longer a domestic affair. That is a challenge to our shared humanity.

“Rape is being used systematically to terrorize and brutalize women and girls,” Lowcock told a closed session of the Security Council this week, according to a copy of his remarks that I obtained. “Eritrean soldiers are using starvation as a weapon of war. … Aid workers have been killed, interrogated, beaten, blocked from taking aid to the starving and suffering and told not to come back.”

We can’t stop every atrocity. We can’t avert every murder or rape. We can’t save the life of every starving child. But this is a rare case where we do have significant leverage: Ethiopia is the largest recipient of American aid in sub-Saharan Africa and a close security partner of the United States. We should apply every ounce of leverage we have to rein in a savagery in Tigray that increasingly reeks of genocide. [Genocide Watch comment: Finally Kristof uses the right word for the crimes.]

Nicholas Kristof has been a columnist for The Times since 2001. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage of China and of the genocide in Darfur.

A version of this article appears in print on June 17, 2021, Section A, Page 23 of the New York edition with the headline: Don’t Turn Away From These Images and These Crimes

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