African Rape in The Washington Post

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Did The Washington Post stick up for girls and women against hordes of vicious degenerates? Or did The Washington Post exploit racist prejudice to peddle dehumanizing hate? The fine line between the two is the truth. A veteran Ethiopia correspondent ponders the evidence.

By Rasmus Sonderriis, from Addis Ababa

Harrowing tales of sadistic rape were recounted in The Washington Post and The Boston Globe by Katharine Houreld on November 26, 2023. This Nairobi-based East Africa correspondent touches every nerve of revulsion and anger in her retelling of tearful interviews with a dozen female rape survivors. These are not mere denunciations of bad apples, such as the three men who were recently sentenced by Ethiopian military courts. The sexual violence against women of the Tigrayan ethnicity is categorized as “sustained and organized”. Particularly the prevalence of gang rape suggests a whole culture of depraved cruelty. Indeed, the article puts the individual horrors into perspective: “More than 100,000 women may have been raped during the two-year civil war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, according to the most comprehensive study so far of these attacks in research conducted by the Columbia University biostatistician Kiros Berhane.”

The alleged perpetrators are: “Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers and […] militiamen from Ethiopia’s Amhara region”. This is the totality of allies who put down the insurgency of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the TPLF. However, there is no mention of this group at all in The Washington Post article, which is packed with closeups and devoid of zoom-outs. This follows a pattern in Western coverage of African affairs, which is meant to evoke commiseration and indignation, and not to generate insight. Going into the politics is typically seen as a distraction, even considered in bad taste. This lets the clueless reader fill in the context with the stereotypical “single story about Africa”, which the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has warned against. It features a continent of gut-wrenching savagery, leaving us primed to believe the worst without question.

I have written in detail about how this particular conflict was essentially a power struggle, challenging the clichés in big media about Africans yet again being in the grip of tribal rage. I refer to my freely available 50,000-word paper “GETTING ETHIOPIA DEAD WRONG”, which will be released in a slightly extended book version in early 2024. It tackles all the issues stressed and ignored by the world press, without shying away from the most delicate subjects. For instance, there is a section titled “Was rape used as a weapon?”

For sure, the focus here is not on Ethiopian politics, but on the rape described in The Washington Post. Yet what we assume about the context influences our standard of proof. By way of example, let us imagine a study concluding that American troops gang-raped a major percentage of women in Afghanistan. How would that be read? Even the most dangerous criminals in US prisons consider rapists to be the scummiest of scum, so we Westerners would need extremely compelling evidence to believe this about our patriotic young men.

It ought not surprise us that Eritreans and Ethiopians feel the same way about their young men, and also about a high number of young women, doing armed service for their country. Again, this is not just a tribal instinct. Their reading of claims about the truth is also influenced by the political context. The difference is that they have firsthand knowledge of it.

Photo: Women soldiers have served alongside the men in the multiethnic Ethiopian army’s UN-led peace-keeping missions, and also did so in the war against the TPLF.

We need to talk about the TPLF

So very, very briefly, the TPLF is not just some plucky guerilla force, as one would think from the David-and-Goliath-themed scripts of many an Africa reporter. From 1991 to 2018, this highly disciplined party with Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist roots had a firm grip on the helm of the Ethiopian state. Its characteristic obsession with ethnicity included putting “ethnicity” on ID cards, never mind that millions of citizens are mixed or see themselves simply as Ethiopian. Moreover, the TPLF expanded the Tigray region, renaming the lush territories west of Tigray as “Western Tigray”, which then became a laboratory for extremist Tigrayan ethnonationalism, driving out non-Tigrayans and moving in Tigrayan settlers. TPLF leaders occupied key positions in the monopolistic economy and ran the national army. Still today, the TPLF holds vast wealth in foreign currency, and has an extensive international network of friends in high places. Despite its militaristic ethos, it has, over the years, acquired fluency in the ‘donor-darling’ language that Westerners fall for. Its battalion of Wikipedia-editing activists, for instance, know which rhetorical buttons to push on women’s rights, never mind that the TPLF’s only-ever prominent woman was Azeb Mesfin, wife of the late dictator Meles Zenawi. And she was purged and exiled in 2017.

One world-famous TPLF luminary is Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization. Today, he talks like a pacifist humanitarian, as he spends Martin Luther King Day “reflecting on the interconnections between love, trust, peace and justice”. But as Ethiopia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2012 to 2016, he took a tough line when it came to jailing pro-democracy protesters. Ultimately, this oppression failed, enabling Abiy Ahmed to become prime minister in 2018, incidentally placing women in powerful positions for the first time in the country’s history. The TPLF retreated to its stronghold as the regional government of Tigray, sheltering its men prosecuted for corruption and torture. It also refused to let go of its control over the military.

War broke out when the TPLF attacked five Ethiopian army bases in Tigray on November 3, 2020, killing thousands of soldiers. One year and many bloody battles later, the rulers-turned-rebels were closing in on the national capital Addis Ababa, being widely hailed as the imminent victors by prominent Western pundits and think tanks. The special US representative, Jeffrey Feltmann, described the fall of the capital as a “bloodbath situation”, yet urged the Ethiopians to do nothing to prevent it. They turned a deaf ear and mobilized in defense. Yet another year and even more bloody battles later, the fighting had returned to Tigray. Staring at defeat, the TPLF leaders agreed to hand over their heavy weapons in exchange for staying in control of regional governance in Tigray, as per the peace agreement entered into on November 2, 2022, in Pretoria, South Africa. Oddly, Katharine Houreld’s article refers in passing to the Pretoria Agreement as a mere “cease-fire”. This happens to be the term preferred by the most extreme TPLF supporters, who refuse to admit defeat.

No need for due diligence on African rape?

Surely, in assessing the credibility of a hypothetical study showing rampant gang-rape of Afghani women by American soldiers, the first step of due diligence would be to google the authors to check for any pro-Taliban bias. Accordingly, a self-proclaimed anti-racist newspaper, such as The Washington Post, should be expected to do the same before publishing a highly incendiary story about mass rape by African soldiers. However, politely probed in an email by Ethiopian-American student, Samuel Kassa, Katharine Houreld volunteers this information: “Regarding the political leanings of Dr. Kiros, I haven’t looked into it.”

She may or may not realize that the Columbia University professor’s first name “Kiros” is typically Tigrayan. Anyway, this is definitely no smoking gun. After all the Ethiopian Minister of Defense since 2021, Abraham Belay, that is, the man in charge of the allegedly rapist army, is also a Tigrayan. And yet, though not every Tigrayan is a TPLF member, every TPLF member is a Tigrayan, so the minimum would be a rudimentary check of his Twitter account. This reveals total dedication to the TPLF’s storyline that the war was a one-way street of violence against the Tigrayans as a people.

It is beyond the scope of the present article to make the case that these accusations were, at least in the bigger picture, a ploy to justify an irregular army waging war against an elected government. My painstaking review of all these narratives in “GETTING ETHIOPIA DEAD WRONG” maps out how the TPLF, assisted by a handful of unscrupulous foreigners, managed to instill into Western minds the essentially false notion that this war was driven by pathological hatred rather than ordinary politics. But even if one shares Kiros Berhane’s view of the conflict, his partiality in conducting such a study should be obvious.

Kiros Berhane has also frequently endorsed and retweeted messages by the aforementioned Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who spent the war blaming the Ethiopian government for the hardship that the war caused to ordinary Tigrayans, while never uttering a word of sympathy for the victims in Afar and Amhara, the two regions that were ravaged by the TPLF during its march on the capital.

Responding to Ethiopian-American student Samuel Kassa, Katharine Houreld makes this defense of Kiros Berhane’s research paper and its publisher: “I know the BMJ is a very respected peer-reviewed journal and there were multiple scholars involved in the study, which I have sent to you”.

Indeed, 17 other names are listed at the top of the paper, all Tigrayan-sounding. It is stated that most of them live and work in Tigray, where the TPLF exerts control over every aspect of life, and would have a massive stake in a study about rape by enemy soldiers for worldwide publication.

The authoritative ring of the term “peer review” is being increasingly challenged after scandalous retractions by, for instance, The Lancet. And indeed, what could the peers possibly have reviewed for this study to go into the prestigious BMJ Global Health? They must have validated the statistical method, which is Kiros Berhane’s specialty. But did they cross-examine the witnesses? Did they check the translations from Tigrinya into English? Did they look for evidence of whether or not the interviewees were coached or even coerced? Whatever these mysterious peer reviewers did, they failed to point out the fundamentally absurd assumption of a free-speech climate in Tigray. It is inconceivable that this study could have reached any other conclusion, because that would have amounted to TPLF subjects disproving the TPLF’s war propaganda on TPLF soil. The BMJ might as well have published a survey by North Koreans conducted in North Korea documenting North Koreans’ love for their leader. 

The ugliest of crimes

Rape is more taxing on the human heart than murder. There is something uniquely sickening about deriving sexual gratification, or whatever it is, from inflicting horror on a vulnerable person. The dilemma is this: We know that sick bastards take advantage of armed conflict to commit sexual violence, but also that this is the staple of fake atrocity propaganda. Thus, in a scenario where many young Tigrayan men were reluctant to kill and die for the old guard of cruel and corrupt men, the TPLF needed an argument as strong as this: “If you run away from rebel-army conscription, you are failing to protect your mothers and sisters!” In some cases, this appeal to Tigrayan men’s honor also appealed, alas, to their dishonor, as when some TPLF fighters invoked “revenge” as a motive for raping women in Amhara and Afar regions.

Mr. Mulueberhan Haile was one of many Tigrayans who risked their lives by serving as interim administrators during the seven months, from November 28, 2020, to June 28, 2021, when the Ethiopian army tried, but largely failed, to take charge of security in Tigray. Talking to Voice of America a few months into the war, he said: “When we started investigating, we found out there were women instructed to make false claims of rape and to engender a feeling of anger and resentment in the Tigrayan youth.”

In June 2022, a Tigrayan journalist deserting from Radio Dimtse Woyane (‘Voice of the TPLF’) talked on Ethiopian television (incidentally to a famous interviewer who is also Tigrayan) about Tigrayan sex workers being paid to pose as university students and to tell rape stories to foreign NGOs. Nobody in the Western media or human-rights circles would touch his testimony with a bargepole.

There were, however, seven African UN professionals serving in Ethiopia who privately discussed the difficulty of sorting facts from fabrication, feeling under pressure to feed the media sensationalism and thus fuel the war. The audio of their meeting was leaked by a pro-TPLF website, indignant that Letty Chiwara, representative of UN Women to Ethiopia and to the African Union, had used language such as “take it with a pinch of salt”. Though most of the press ignored it, it nevertheless caused a bit of a stir, with an emphasis on shaming the African women on the ground who dared question the TPLF narrative.

This matches the extensive testimony of the Kenyan national, Doctor Steven Were Omamo, who served in Ethiopia during the war as the Country Director for the UN World Food Programme. In his highly recommended book “At the Centre of the World in Ethiopia”, he describes how Ethiopia-based UN staff, mostly Africans, had their life-saving work on the ground sabotaged by senior political UN figures, mostly Westerners, who made little secret of their nearness to the TPLF hierarchy, and who would rather hog the limelight with outright lies than engage with a largely cooperative Ethiopian government.

From accused to accuser: Tony Magaña

Katharine Houreld’s article stops short of using the ubiquitous expression “rape as a weapon of war”, but quotes a nurse from a rape crisis center lamenting the lack of HIV drugs, as “some of these women were deliberately infected with HIV.” Once again, this rhymes with what Westerners think they know about Africa being a hotbed of HIV/AIDS, never mind that Ethiopia has the same HIV prevalence rate as Ukraine, at 1.1%, while Eritrea at only 0.6% does better than some developed countries.

Another voice leveling the charge of rape-mediated “biological warfare” has been neurosurgeon Dr. Tony Magaña, whose American citizenship gives him a shine of neutrality.

Living in the capital of Tigray, Mekelle, when the war broke out, Dr. Tony Magaña was to be frequently rolled out as a truth witness, including to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Yet it is no secret that his full real name is Ignacio Antonio Magana. In Florida, he was arrested back in 2002 due to a series of sexual-assault accusations from his female patients. He was also hung out to dry in, of all places, The Washington Post, after he was suspended from practicing medicine in order to protect the public. In 2004, he pleaded guilty to battery and was sentenced to one year in the county jail (see image below). In 2005, he went on trial again for no less than ten women saying he forced himself on them across three counties in Florida, though he was cleared of the rape charges.

Ignacio Antonio ‘Tony’ Magana and his finger-printed sentence. The photos to the left were taken when he was in the dock in Florida. Those to the right are from his later years in Ethiopia.

The backstory of Dr. Magana has long been discussed among Ethiopians on social media. He says he came to Ethiopia in 2012, and was recruited to work at Ayder Hospital in Mekelle “by leaders of the university, who were also members of the TPLF”.  While the war was raging, he said: “I know the leaders of the TPLF.”

So how well did they know him? Given the sophistication of the TPLF intelligence apparatus, it is unthinkable that his googleable sex-offender record could have been overlooked. His TPLF protectors must have decided they could make him grateful, loyal and useful by taking him in. Indeed, Tony Magaña has testified widely about sadistic treatment of Tigrayans in graphic  and horrific detail, hyenas and all, featuring as a medical authority on this subject in a newspaper as prestigious as the Spanish El País. He has also provided input to the Belgian geographer Jan Nyssen’s ‘estimate’ of the death toll in Tigray, which became quoted by countless media as a serious study from the University of Ghent, even though Jan Nyssen gives speeches at TPLF rallies and events, and writes passionately about how “Western Tigray” belongs to Tigray.

And this is just one more example of how the TPLF has covered its propaganda in a veneer of academia, which the media lap up uncritically, because it fits so neatly with the “single story about Africa”.

The fine line between justice-seeking and hate-mongering

In her email reply to Samuel Kassa, Katharine Houreld declines to say who put her in touch with the women testifying for her article, having promised not to reveal anything that might identify them. Thus, the only objective conclusion that can be drawn about the individual horror stories is that they are impossible to prove or disprove. For outsiders wishing to stand up for abused women, yet mindful of sinister agendas, the only way forward is to support Ethiopian civil society and legal practitioners in investigating cases and bringing them to trial.

Katharine Houreld also sent Samuel Kassa a study published in The Lancet in August 2023, authored by the New York-based NGO Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), based on field research conducted by its Ethiopian (and undoubtedly Tigrayan) partner: “Organization for Justice and Accountability in the Horn of Africa” (OJAH). This outfit has been completely anonymized, as its staff “cannot be named for their own safety”. So in this case, there is no way to check for political leanings on Twitter, although a google search reveals that OJAH is exclusively dedicated to denouncing human-rights violations in Tigray, and only by actors other than the TPLF.

The full version of the study in The Lancet refers to the aforementioned BMJ-published quantitative survey by Kiros Berhane. Its own research is more qualitative in nature, looking at 305 medical records from “multiple health facilities in Tigray known to provide clinical services to survivors of sexual violence”.

It is ironic that the authors describe justice-seeking “relying on potentially biased national mechanisms” as “ill-conceived”, yet put their trust in the record-keeping of the TPLF-controlled healthcare system. But at least the 305 files were selected for scrutiny by the research team, and not by the regional government of Tigray. And it is, of course, fully plausible that 305 people and many more were raped in Tigray during three years with widespread lawlessness. Where the study is weak is in the identification of perpetrators. The dubious assumption is that victims, even genuine victims, would face no pressure to blame enemy soldiers given the political climate in the region. And according to the study, the supposed end of the conflict did not lower the rate of conflict-related sexual violence. It even says that “95 percent of conflict-related sexual violence experienced by children and adolescents under 18 years old occurred following the signing of the [Pretoria Peace Agreement]”. No explanation of this is attempted. In this period, the TPLF-controlled Tigray regional government has been in charge of law and order. It has indeed been criticized by other Tigrayans for heavy-handed policing of opposition rallies, and for arresting the victim’s friend rather than seek justice for the recent murder and attempted rape of 32-year-old Zewdu Haftu in Mekelle. Where the TPLF is no longer in charge, however, is in the territory consistently referred to in The Lancet as “Western Tigray” (notice the capital W). This also reveals a Tigrayan ethnonationalist bias.

Thus, The Lancet substitutes medical records for criminal investigations, and concludes that: “What is documented in PHR’s analysis points to the use of sexual violence by the military as a tactic to terrorize civilian populations.” It is hard to make sense of this now when the war is over. Surely, sexual violence against Tigrayans by outsiders is more likely to reignite the insurgency than to cow anyone.

Just a little sympathy with Ms. Houreld

I regret quoting emails in which Katharine Houreld did not know she was on the record. Samuel Kassa is not myself, but nor is he exactly who he pretended to be. This was not an honest method to fish for information. However, the public-interest defense is compelling, given the defamatory and inflammatory nature of her article. If Katharine Houreld has managed to read this thus far, she must be aghast. What looked like slam-dunk virtue-signaling as a champion of African women has come to seem more like reckless incompetence with a stench of racism in cahoots with forces out to sow division and frustrate reconciliation in Ethiopia.

Even so, I do sympathize with how she puts her trust in authority, as her email refers to: “…the Lancet and BMJ (both globally respected peer-reviewed medical journals that have published on the subject), and rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and UN investigators – all of whom have documented extensive rape during the conflict by all actors”. 

Until recently, I myself would have needed no more convincing than that. Today, however, my faith in such esteemed institutions has been replaced by scrutiny of their fine print and methodological notes. To understand what changed me, read my 50,000-word exposé of how so many of the great and the good of our media, academia, humanitarian work, politics and diplomacy demonized a friendly people and fueled a big war with dire mispredictions and shocking lies.

I never imagined myself writing such a fiery anti-establishment piece. Like Katharine Houreld, I am a run-of-the-mill centrist. However, unlike Katharine Houreld, I had the good fortune to live in Ethiopia, following its affairs closely since 2004. I was able to immerse myself into the society, familiarize myself with the mentality, learn to speak colloquially in the national language, observe day-to-day interethnic relations. Had I been sent to cover the recent war in northern Ethiopia without this background, I might have sullied myself as badly as Katharine Houreld. After all, a year into the war, I still struggled with denial about the scale of so many self-professed do-gooders doing bad, all retold in “GETTING ETHIOPIA DEAD WRONG”.

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