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Ethiopia Accused of Using Rape as a Weapon of War in Tigray as New Evidence Emerges of Massacres

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We get an update on how the Ethiopian government has announced Eritrean forces are withdrawing from the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia, where harrowing witness accounts have emerged of Eritrean soldiers killing Tigrayan men and boys and rape being used as weapon of war by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers. Eritrea entered the Tigray region to support Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s military offensive in November targeting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The true death toll from the conflict remains unknown, but researchers recently identified almost 2,000 people killed in 150 massacres by warring factions. CNN senior international correspondent Nima Elbagir, who just returned from reporting on the region, says what started as a “competition for power” has descended into ethnic cleansing. “Many people believe that it is now genocidal, that what is a political intent to destroy is becoming now an intent to destroy, in whole or part, a people,” says Elbagir.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

A warning to our audience: The following segment contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence and disturbing images.

The Ethiopian government has announced Eritrean forces have started withdrawing from the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia. Harrowing witness accounts have emerged of Eritrean soldiers killing Tigrayan men and boys and committing acts of sexual violence, including rape against displaced civilians. Eritrea entered the Tigray region to support Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s military offensive in November targeting the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front. The true death toll from the conflict remains unknown, but researchers recently identified almost 2,000 people killed in 150 massacres by warring factions.

The Biden administration has been pressuring the Ethiopian government to end its military offensive and for Eritrea to withdraw its forces. Biden recently sent Senator Chris Coons to meet with the Ethiopian prime minister, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

Rape has also been used as a weapon of war in the Tigray region by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers. CNN’s Nima Elbagir recently spoke to one Ethiopian woman who fled to Sudan after being raped.

RAPE SURVIVOR: [translated] He pushed me and said, “You Tigrayans have no history. You have no culture. I can do what I want to you, and no one cares.”

NIMA ELBAGIR: What brought you to the clinic here today?

RAPE SURVIVOR: [translated] I haven’t told anyone, but I’ve been thinking that I’m pregnant from the rape, so I came to check. And I discovered I am.

AMY GOODMAN: Nima Elbagir also spoke to Dr. Tedros Tefera, who’s treating rape survivors who are now living in a refugee camp in Sudan.

DR. TEDROS TEFERA: The women that have been raped say that the things that they say to them when they were raping them is that they need to change their identity, to either Amharize them or at least leave their Tigrinya status. And then they’ve come there to cleanse them. They’ve come there —

NIMA ELBAGIR: Cleanse the bloodline?

DR. TEDROS TEFERA: Cleanse the bloodline, and then get them that they are different. Practically, this has been a genocide of different phases.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the crisis in Ethiopia, we’re now joined by Nima Elbagir, award-winning senior international correspondent for CNN, based in London.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Nima. Describe this whole issue of rape as a weapon of war. And describe the region. People are so unfamiliar with it outside that region.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Well, I think probably the best way to explain, in a nutshell, is that this is essentially a conflict for power, between the TPLF, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, who were the dominant party and the ruling party in Ethiopia for almost 30 years, and Abiy Ahmed, who was swept to power when demonstrations toppled that ruling coalition. So, you have an understandable conflict, an existential conflict, between these two once-upon-a-time allies.

But what is happening is that the way that the ethnic numbers break down in Ethiopia, Tigrayans are a minority, but you also already have all these different, disparate groups kind of together in this centralized process. That centralization is what is currently falling apart, because when you bring in militia from other regions — and that’s what the doctor was talking about, about Amharization — when you bring in Amhara ethnic militia, that historically have enmity with Tigray, then that’s what you see. You see ethnic cleansing taking place of a basis of a competition for power. And that is perhaps the problem, is that the world has seen what’s happening in Tigray through that aperture of a competition for power, and has been slow to realize that, as Dr. Tedros says, many people believe that it is now genocidal, that what is a political intent to destroy is becoming now an intent to destroy, in whole or part, a people, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about the women who were coming forward to describe what’s happened to them.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Well, the heartbreak is that many of the women don’t actually feel able to come forward. When we spoke to Dr. Tedros, I asked him how many women had been able to tell him that they had been raped, and he said five — all five of them because they thought they were pregnant. And I asked him, “Well, how many did you suspect, based on the trauma and on the injuries that they presented with?” And he said thousands.

So there are thousands of women who have been through that camp or are still in that camp who are not getting the treatment and the support that they deserve and need, because rape is such an act of psychological and intimate violence, but it’s also an act of communal violence. That’s what the women say, is that they feel that this rape has kind of isolated them within their communities because of the shame and the stigma.

So, for a lot of these women, it is not just the immediate act of rape. It is what that act of violence does. And that is if they’re not pregnant. If they’re pregnant, then that is where a lot of the despair comes in. Dr. Tedros told me that one of the women that he had been trying to seek out, because he had heard she was raped, never actually made it to Hamdayet, to the camp, because she had committed suicide, because her rape had been done in such a public way that she felt unable to continue as part of that community, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain this area — you are Sudanese; you were reporting from the Sudanese-Ethiopian border — and the means of exit refugees have, who are desperately fleeing, being blocked off.

NIMA ELBAGIR: There is currently only one path to safe refuge, which is across the Setit River, which is the geographical border, essentially, between Sudan and Ethiopia. And when you cross the Setit River, you come into Hamdayet camp, and that’s why the reception center is there. And when we were there, what we discovered from speaking to the refugees and also speaking to people stationed at that Hamdayet border, that the Ethiopian forces had arranged themselves in such a manner that this border, that for months had been seeing thousands of people rushing to refuge in Sudan, was now seeing, at best, 12 refugees able to escape Ethiopian forces and cross to safety.

Now, that is, by all definitions, a war crime. Blocking the avenue to safe refuge in a time of war, in a time of humanitarian disaster, is a war crime. The Ethiopian government’s argument is that refugees are able to cross into Addis. But given the ethnic targeting, given what refugees are telling us about being stopped and having their ID checked for their ethnicity and how they’re treated by Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers when that ID says Tigray, it is unacceptable to believe that going back to Addis is really an option. So, that one safe haven in Sudan is now being blocked off for refugees.

AMY GOODMAN: Nima, I want to turn to your latest report on Ethiopia about a massacre in Tigray. This video was a collaboration between CNN and Amnesty International. Again, a warning: This video contains very disturbing images.

NIMA ELBAGIR: You are watching footage filmed by a soldier-turned-whistleblower, now in hiding. This video was obtained by a pro-Tigray media organization based in the U.S. The video you’re watching will show these Ethiopian soldiers execute these men — a war crime.

The Ethiopian government has waged war against Tigray’s ousted regional leaders for the last five months, with the help of neighboring Eritrea. Ethiopia has implied the atrocities in Tigray are mainly Eritrea’s doing. That’s not true. And here’s why.

We know these are Ethiopian soldiers because of the Ethiopian flag on their shoulders, here and here. Examining details of the stitching, color and camouflage patterns, military experts confirm to us that the uniforms match those of the Ethiopian army. In addition, the soldiers are speaking Amharic, the official language of the Ethiopian federal army, distinct from the local language.

We also know the location by analyzing the video and geolocating the footage. We know it’s in central Tigray by the mountain range and terrain just south of the city of Axum. This model developed by Amnesty International then verifies that location through spatial analysis. You can see the mountain range matches the footage. The captives were moved from where you saw them sitting to here, 1.7 kilometers away. We know that because the video was tracked and mapped, and key geographical features were matched on the basis of a high-resolution satellite image of the site.

By pinpointing the location, CNN was able to speak to local villagers, who confirmed their family members were dragged away by Ethiopian soldiers and have not been seen since. Some believe their loved ones are in this video. You can hear soldiers asking the whistleblower to come closer.

SOLDIER: [translated] Why don’t you get close and film the execution of these?

NIMA ELBAGIR: The wording here is important. “Execution.” This is premeditated. They’ve rounded up these men to kill them. We must warn you: What you’re about to see is horrifying.

SOLDIER: [translated] Walk them down there, shoot him in the back of his head.

NIMA ELBAGIR: “Shoot them in the head,” he says. And they do. Look at the left of your screen. The man shoots. We pause the video just before his victim falls to the ground. And again, another soldier raises his weapon towards the man in the white scarf. The video cuts out, but the next scene tells you what happened to him, to all of them. The soldiers continue to shoot, making sure that there are no survivors.

What you are witnessing is an extrajudicial execution. We counted at least 34 young men at the beginning of this video. All are now presumed dead, their bodies casually flung over the ridge, no attempt to hide what has been done here, no apparent fear of consequences. Their actions are so appalling, we can only show individual frames from the video.

But it doesn’t stop here. You can hear someone saying, “Check that one. That one is not dead. Kill him, or I will come.” The same soldier moves further along the ridge and shoots from close range as other soldiers watch on.

Much of the region remains under an Ethiopian government blackout, but CNN and Amnesty International were able to speak to local villagers and family members who told us that at least 39 men remain missing from the village. One man was able to watch the video and confirm to us that his brother is among the dead depicted here.

Family members continue to search for their loved ones but have been unable to reach this remote area. Their wish to respectfully bury their dead will go unheeded.

Nima Elbagir, CNN, London.

AMY GOODMAN: That report, again, by Nima Elbagir, award-winning senior international correspondent for CNN, based in London, produced in collaboration with Amnesty International. Nima, in these last few minutes, you mentioned that the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, before he came into office, this was one of the few issues he addressed. And now President Biden sent Chris Coons, his fellow senator from Delaware, to Ethiopia to meet with the prime minister. What is the U.S. demanding? And do you believe that the Eritreans are pulling out, as has just been announced today?

NIMA ELBAGIR: Well, the U.S. is demanding a timeline, a verified timeline, for the Eritrean pullout. And that’s well and good, but the issue is that the Ethiopians have refused access to the head of the Human Rights Commission at the U.N. and refused access to aid organizations. So, how would you verify the timeline? That hasn’t been made clear.

The other thing that they’re asking for, this is — the U.S.-supported mechanism for investigation is a joint mechanism with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the U.N. And it’s really in that joint mechanism that people are having a lot of concerns. What you’re saying is that a government, whose state actors, as we saw in that video, are committing extrajudicial executions, should be allowed to have influence, let’s say, because the EHRC, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, is a state-appointed body — should have influence on the investigations of their own alleged atrocities. That seems like something that you wouldn’t expect to happen under judicial law in the U.S., so why are you allowing that to happen internationally? It’s clear that President Biden has said, and Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, has said, you know, “We care about human rights. That’s back on the table.” But now it’s about how you are effectively pushing human rights abuses. And that’s the part that there doesn’t really seem to be a clear and concise policy on, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think would be the most effective way to deal now with Ethiopia and with these mass crimes against humanity that you are documenting?

NIMA ELBAGIR: Ethiopia is economically in a lot of trouble. They are seeking support from the World Bank. They’re seeking loans. They’re seeking to leverage those loans. And the World Bank is looking very seriously at giving them these loans.

At a certain point, as an international community, you have to make the statement that human rights abusers, murderers should not be allowed to seek money at the same time. Because who knows where that money will go? That has to be the bigger concern.

So, we have to try and look at what points of leverage exist across the international sphere, and look to cooperate to bring those points of leverage to bear. Nobody says that there is anything bad about America coming back to the table as an arbiter of morality and human rights. It just has to be done effectively and in collaboration with the rest of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Nima Elbagir, I want to thank you so much for being with us, award-winning senior international correspondent for CNN. We’re speaking to her in London. She’s just back from Eritrea and Sudan, her recent report headlined “'Two bullets is enough': Analysis of Tigray massacre video raises questions for Ethiopian Army.”

Next up, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated 53 years ago. We’ll hear Dr. King in his own words. Stay with us.

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