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Survivors of Ethiopia's two-year conflict are crying out for justice

Angesom, centre, holds a candle and a flower during an event in Washington to commemorate victims killed in the Ethiopia-Tigray war. [AP Photo]

Nearly two years ago, Habtom (name changed) lost four of his family members in a massacre that lasted 24 hours in Axum, a city in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

Historically famous for its ancient obelisks and its religious monument, it is now synonymous with bloodshed after hundreds of people died when Eritrean soldiers went on a rampage from November 28 to 29, 2020, shooting at unarmed civilians on the streets. The soldiers also went from house to house, killing men and boys, and stealing food and valuables.

Habtom is one of hundreds of Ethiopians mourning the loss of loved ones due to the cruelty of Eritrean troops who went on several killing sprees as the conflict, which began on November 3, 2020, rages on. All areas affected by the conflict - Tigray, Afar, and Amhara – have become scenes of unspeakable crimes, including shocking numbers of rape and sexual violence, perpetrated by all parties to the conflict.

Women’s bodies have been turned into battlefields. Letay (name changed), a 20-year-old woman who was gang raped in Western Tigray by Amhara militia said: “They raped me one after the other. I don’t know if they realised I was pregnant. I don’t know if they realised I was a person.”

Women in the Amhara region were also raped by the Tigrayan forces who controlled the town of Nifas Mewcha in mid-August 2021. Fourteen survivors told Amnesty International that they were gang raped.

The Ethiopian government imposed an information and communication blackout, shutting down internet access across the Tigray region. Despite this, information about the atrocities continues to find its way to the outside world.

Some reports are made at great risk by courageous individuals who continue to document violations against the civilian population; but some atrocities are documented by the perpetrators themselves.

For instance, in Mahbere Dego, a locality near Axum, soldiers from the Ethiopian National Defence Forces filmed themselves shooting and killing civilians. The gruesome video later went viral.

Despite the rising death toll and evidence of continuing grave violations by all parties to the conflict, an effective response from the international community, particularly from African leaders and the African Union, is desperately missing. This is largely because of the international community’s insistence on “African solutions for African problems”.

For African leaders and the African Union, this means the jealous guarding of a skewed vision of sovereignty, even if it has so far meant blocking justice for victims and survivors of the northern Ethiopian conflict.

This was made clear in a vote on 7 October in a resolution to renew the mandate of International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE), which was established by the UN Human Rights Council in 2021. All African member states, except Malawi, voted against renewing ICHREE’s mandate.

Victims and survivors looking to the African Union’s Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) for hope have so far been disappointed by the body, which has the mandate of preventing, managing, and resolving conflicts in Africa.

While the signing of the agreement for permanent cessation of hostilities between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in northern Ethiopia is a step in the right direction, it should have been accompanied by a clear, measurable, and transparent commitment, including unfettered access for human rights investigation mechanisms such as the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia mandated by the UN Human rights Council to justice ensure justice and accountability for victims and survivors of atrocity crimes in Ethiopia’s two-year conflict.

Amnesty has repeatedly documented widespread unspeakable abuses by all parties to the conflict, and these cannot be wished away. Yet, the accord fails to offer a clear roadmap on how to ensure accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and overlooks rampant impunity in the country, which could lead to violations being repeated.

The Ethiopian government must with immediate effect facilitate unimpeded flow of humanitarian aid towards Tigray so that thousands of people faced with starvation and medical needs can get the assistance they need.

The African Union cannot continue to drag its feet while the conflict in northern Ethiopia creates a worsening humanitarian crisis for millions of people, who face starvation, displacement and rampant human rights violations.

Thousands of survivors, like Letay and Habtom, are still seeking justice and redress, which may only come through independent and credible investigations into the atrocities they and their loved ones suffered. Their calls for justice and accountability must not go unheeded because of the international community’s empty and self-serving refrain of “African solutions for African problems”.