Ethiopia: Were rape and famine used as weapons of war?

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This is a brief take from Getting Ethiopia Dead Wrong by Veteran Horn of Africa Correspondent, Rasmus Sonderriis

They rank among the great and the good of our media, academia, humanitarian work, politics and diplomacy. Yet they demonized a friendly people and fueled a big war in Ethiopia, with dire mis-predictions and shocking lies. Who were they? How could they get away with it? What was the full picture that they so distorted? And why?

Was rape used as a weapon?

Rape is even more taxing on the human heart than murder. We feel both empathy with the horrified victim and revulsion that a mind could be so sick as to obtain sexual gratification, or whatever it is, from such a misdeed. So when a woman accuses a man of rape, we do not jump to the defense of the accused, but listen to the accuser. This is how it should always be.

Nevertheless, before judging whether a man is guilty or not, civilized societies will hold a trial. Even in countries with well-funded legal systems, rape is notoriously difficult to prove in the courtroom. The presumption of innocence gives the defendant the right to have his accuser cross-examined, and material evidence will usually be required, or certainly looked into. This precaution against miscarriage of justice is taken despite how little a rational woman would gain from sending someone innocent to prison. The appropriate standard of proof is a hotly-debated issue, but few would suggest there should be none at all.

When it comes to sexual violence in a war scenario, however, lying does not require a crazy or vindictive woman, but merely a cold political calculation. And rather than one person shouldering the burden of deceit, a propaganda department can be at hand to reward and organize it.

The Tigrayan populace had many friends and relatives among fellow Ethiopians of other ethnicities further south, as well as among Eritreans to the north. This was an obstacle to mobilizing the anger required for a “people’s war”. To overcome this, the TPLF knew exactly which buttons to push.

The 120k and 130k figure became widely megaphoned by activists. Nobody knows the exact number, but Der Spiegel ventured ‘tens of thousands’.

There is no doubt that rape was committed by soldiers, and yes, on both sides. The best way forward is to support Ethiopian civil society and legal practitioners in investigating cases and bringing them to trial. What we have seen thus far, alas, has not allowed for distinguishing between facts demanding justice and disinformation to dehumanize, let alone for determining the extent of this ugliest of crimes.

This does not hold back the BBC, which reports, in 2023, that “systematic rape” has been “documented by the United Nations, human rights organizations and journalists”. The meaning of ‘documented’ and ‘systematic’ is left unclear. The article adds its own case, an anonymous woman who testifies from Tigray “on a crackly phone line”. The fact is that, while Ethiopian courts have tried and convicted a handful of its own soldiers of sexual violence, the media’s concept of documenting a litany of rape horror stories has never gone beyond gathering evidence that an organization as resourceful as the TPLF could easily have fabricated. These are mostly the statements of women, doctors and aid workers on TPLF-controlled territory.

On this basis, in April 2021, Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand, who would seven months later put her name to the genocide alert in The Guardian, co-wrote an emotional piece in Foreign Policy about mass rape of Tigrayan women. The first few lines dismiss the problem of equating accusation with proof during an intense disinformation war: “It takes courage for any woman to speak about her experience of rape. In a conservative society such as Ethiopia’s, it takes special bravery for a woman to share the most intimate and agonizingly raw details about her ordeal.”

It is easy to foresee any qualification of this half-true statement being branded as a heartless apology for rape. So when a Tigrayan journalist deserting from Radio Dimtse Woyane (‘Voice of the TPLF’) testified on Ethiopian television (incidentally to a famous interviewer who is also Tigrayan) about Tigrayan sex workers being paid to pose as university students and tell rape stories to foreign NGOs, nobody in the Western media or human-rights circles would touch it with a bargepole.

There were, however, seven African UN professionals serving in Ethiopia in 2021, 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 AU, had used language such as “take it with a pinch of salt”. While the sensationalist press ignored it, it still caused a bit of a stir. Once again, one scholar had the guts to swim against the current.

It is precisely the heinous nature of rape that makes the accusation so incendiary, and no less so in a conservative society. There is a reason it was the Ku Klux Klan’s standard recipe for instigating lynchings of Black men in the American South. In the phrasing of her op-ed, Helen Clark was oozing benevolent concern, so it may seem harsh to say she was really being a KKKesque hate-monger. But, hand on heart, who thinks she would have applied no higher standard of proof for soldiers from Scandinavia?

Moreover, the title of Ms. Clarke’s article strikes a more demonizing tone than criminal indiscipline by individual soldiers: “In Tigray, Sexual Violence Has Become a Weapon of War.” This explosive accusation was repeated, for instance, by Declan Walsh and Simon Marks, who exemplified it with the case of Mona Lisa Abraha, an 18-year-old Tigrayan. According to her harrowing story in the New York Times, she was shot and had her arm amputated after fighting off a sadistic Ethiopian soldier, although it was a whole group of Eritrean soldiers who had attempted to rape her in the version published by Al Jazeera one month earlier.

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 federal 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. (…) The evidence we did find was that there were local thugs, affiliated to and ordered by the TPLF, wearing Eritrean and Ethiopian army uniforms and carrying weapons, who were involved in burning crops, raping women and knocking on doors claiming they were Eritrean forces.”

Until Mr. Mulueberhan’s evidence has been properly assessed, it is, of course, just another witness account that could also have been shaped for propaganda purposes. Whether one considers him a Tigrayan dove or a traitor, I recommend listening to his testimony in its entirety (subtitled in English). He makes a point of not passing judgement on what he has not investigated. Indeed, prudence calls for being alert to the sophistication of the TPLF’s disinformation, particularly in an area as emotive as sexual violence. Such healthy skepticism may, admittedly, do injustice to real victims. It also passes up many a gripping human-interest story and slam-dunk virtue-signaling opportunity.

Accordingly, the coverage of this conflict has not only featured close-up-and-personal interviews with rape survivors, but also insisted ad nauseum on using the broader term ‘rape as a weapon of war’. Amnesty International also called it an Ethiopian ‘strategy of war’.

But how does this work? Assuming that there is the mental capacity for such inhumanity, not just among some bad apples, but in the high command of decision-makers, what can possibly be gained by ordering soldiers to descend into depraved cruelty? Yes, rape is life-destroying to be at the receiving end of, and yes, it can indeed terrify a whole community. But it does not make an insurgent population roll over and surrender. Quite the opposite. The TPLF used it as its number one recruitment tool: ‘Either you join us to kill the rapists, or you let those monsters have their way with your mother and sisters.’ It appeals to men’s honor. In some cases, it also appeals, alas, to their dishonor, as when some TPLF fighters invoked ‘revenge’ as a motive for raping women in Amhara and Afar.

Yet, regardless of the side of the soldiers committing it, it is ill-suited to prevailing militarily and well-suited to undermining morale. The New York Times article tacitly conceded this point: “The sexual attacks are so common that even some Ethiopian soldiers have spoken out”. Why the word ‘even’? Of course, they will speak out! Ethiopian soldiers are human beings. Yes, sick bastards exist, and war can suppress their moral inhibitions and provide them with opportunities. But what is truly common is for human beings to abhor rape, including for soldiers on both sides of this war, many of whom were women.

To suggest otherwise is to dehumanize Ethiopians. A humanizing position recognizes that, while it is indeed in the mental-contortionist nature of our species to perceive reality as whatever suits our political biases, we want our own side to be the righteous side.

Thus, while ‘rape as a weapon of war’ works better as a shocking headline than as a meaningful strategy, how about weaponizing selective accusations of rape? How about weaponizing caring, compassionate, decent people’s gut desire to kill rapists? Yes, that sure makes a ton of sense.

Tony Magaña: From accused to accuser

Neurosurgeon and self-styled ‘Christian humanitarian’, Dr. Tony Magaña, was an American living in Mekelle, Tigray, when the war broke out. He was to be frequently rolled out as a truth witness, including to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, about such horrors as rape and its use as a biological weapon.

Outlandish, unfounded and incredibly claims of rape made by Tony Magana were intended to exacerbate the conflict.

It is no secret that the full real name of this US citizen is Ignacio Antonio Magana. In Florida, he was arrested as far back as 2002 due to a series of sexual-assault accusations from his female patients. He was also hung out to dry in 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 publicly discussed among Ethiopians on social media. He says he came to the country in 2012, and was recruited to work at Ayder Hospital in Mekelle, Tigray, “by leaders of the university, who were also members of the TPLF”. In a video from 2015, he presents his life story, minus the sexual-assault charges. While the war was raging, he said: “I know the TPLF leaders.” So how well did they know him? Since his sex-offender record was googleable and people knew about it on Facebook, the authorities at the time must have been aware of it, yet decided they could make him grateful, loyal and useful by taking him in.

To be fair, this Harvard graduate is probably an excellent neurosurgeon. He seems to have done some good work in Ethiopia. No complaint has surfaced that he molested women in Tigray. However, if he did, he is unlikely to go to Ethiopian prison, because the US embassy helped him leave the country early on in the war.

But such a character is clearly not a reliable truth witness. So did those august human-rights bodies believe in his testimonies? He has certainly been spreading the genocide narrative in graphic  and horrific detail, hyenas and all.

Since fleeing Ethiopia, Dr. Magana has featured as a medical authority on Tigrayan suffering in a newspaper as prestigious as the Spanish El País. He has also provided input to the Belgian academic and activist Jan Nyssen’s ‘estimate’ of a death toll by March 2022 of about half a million in Tigray alone (Professor Nyssen was never interested in casualties in other regions).

For lack of other reliable data, this number, essentially plucked out of thin air, became fabulously widely-quoted. It was described as a study by “researchers”, in plural, at the University of Ghent, as it was co-authored by Tim Vanden Bempt, who also takes an openly activist approach. El País even referred to “Estimates by European institutions and academics” about what seems to be just the work of Jan Nyssen, assisted by Tim Vanden Bempt and Tony Magaña, albeit echoed by countless other actors in a kind of feedback loop that turned it into a truism. It led to the frequent statement that this war was deadlier than the one in Ukraine. This could well be true, but it is safe to assert that the vast majority of deaths occurred on the battlefield.

The total death toll was gradually revised upwards in the media, although The Guardian, interestingly, ended up changing it into a more noncommittal “tens of thousands”. Politicians and supposed statesmen would throw this and higher numbers around without as much as indicating a source. Alex de Waal made it a million for good measure, saying this was “according to research published by academics in Belgium”.

But where was this research published? I searched for it in vain. So I went undercover online as a naïve journalist to ask Jan Nyssen for the original study. He was keen to help out. But all he had to show for it was an update of the original brief article on Martin Plaut’s website with the link to Tony Magaña’s blog. The first piece from March 2022 estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 Tigrayans had died from starvation alone, while in October 2022, this was revised upwards to between 228,398 and 356,102. In April 2023, Tim Vanden Bempt suggested a total between 248,753 and 555,082 fatalities, again from famine alone.

This represents terrifying carnage with emaciated bodies on a scale impossible to hide. So where was the evidence for it?

The right honorable Lord Alton uses the right dis­honor­able Tony Magaña as his truth witness as a variation from the usual “experts” Jan NyssenKjetil Tronvoll and Alex de Waal. One constant throughout the war became partisan voices bouncing off one another as sources of evidence.

Was famine used as a weapon?

Ever since the legendary 1985 Live Aid concert, with every good person singing along to “We are the world”, weaponized starvation in Ethiopia has been a huge cultural meme. And tapping into cultural memes is the number one effortless way to situate the public in a complex and little-known context.

Famine caused by Ethiopia starving Tigray on purpose was reported so many times, it turned into a truism. But was it true?
USAID chief Samantha Power parroted the famine as a weapon of war on occasion.
Former Prime Minister of Ne Zealand and Former administrator of UNDP Helen Clark also echoed the “Famine as a Weapon of War” call.

After the TPLF took possession of most of the nation’s heavy weaponry in the attack on the Northern Command, the Ethiopian government imposed a military blockade on TPLF-controlled territory. This was to prevent more weapons and cash from entering, as well as to control the flow of dual-use products, such as fuel. The need to smuggle in imports combined with the TPLF demanding, at machine-gunpoint, that all resources of little Tigray be dedicated to a big war. This crippled the economy and led to immense hardship among ordinary citizens throughout the Tigray Region, compounded by the degrading or the disappearance of public services, to which we shall return. The economy of Tigray sustained lives, but it also sustained a war machine that was taking lives.

This was the grim dilemma faced by Ethiopia. A brutal attack that posed an existential threat was the context in which to seek evidence for Ethiopia’s culpability, not just for extreme poverty, but also for a widely proclaimed man-made famine in Tigray. As it turned out, the burden of proof was simply pushed aside with the cultural meme.

I have subscribed for ages to The Economist, which has an admirable track record of challenging the consensus with empirical evidence and rational arguments. So it still had loads of credibility credit on my account when it wrote, 2½ months into the war, that “Ethiopia’s government appears to be wielding hunger as a weapon”, using that celebrated 1985 pop concert as the establishing shot. An accompanying article suggested that a million deaths were just a couple of months away. This was based on quoting an anonymous “Western diplomat”. At the time, I considered this worrying, yet implausible. Food crops are grown all over Tigray. And killing on such a scale has historically been committed by Utopian ideologues, not by liberalizing multiethnic coalitions.

Disturbingly, The Economist praised the EU for suspending aid to Ethiopia, making the case for even more financial pressure on its sputtering war economy, which was at odds with The Economist’s own reporting of government-appointed bodies that were seeking to address the humanitarian crisis. “It is possible that Ethiopia’s government is too incompetent to realise that its actions are likely to cause starvation. But it seems more likely that the authorities are deliberately holding back food in an effort to starve the rebels out”, said The Economist. The newspaper did not entertain the possibility that it could itself be too incompetent to see through the fog of war and comprehend the dilemmas involved. But at least its opinions at this point were littered with caveats, such as “if true” and “there are credible reports”.

Such doubt had been washed away by October 9, 2021, eleven months into the war, and three months after the fighting and misery had moved from Tigray to Afar and Amhara, with Addis Ababa looking exposed. Now The Economist leader was headlined: “No favours for killers: Ethiopia is deliberately starving its own citizens”. Among a string of terrifying claims, including the aforementioned one about the Axum massacre, was that more than 5m people did not have enough to eat, that 400,000 were facing catastrophic hunger, described as “the last step on the path to mass starvation.”

The other side of the story was presented thus: “Ethiopia’s government insists it is doing all it can to help the hungry in Tigray and, in particular, that it is letting aid pass through its blockade. Data from the UN tell a different story.”

What UN data? The UN is a vast organization, but one particular UN high-up became the source for the mass-starvation story that became a fixture in media big and small, namely the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, colloquially known as ‘the Relief Chief’.

Mr. Lowcock’s declared on June 10, 2021: “There is a famine now”, and “this is going to get a lot worse”. On BBC, Alex de Waal graphically described slow starvation death. For evidence, he referred to the “researchers” at the University of Ghent. He noted, however, that the technical report into the matter did not use the word famine, which he put down to it being “so politically sensitive – the Ethiopian government would object”.

Six days earlier, when Will Brown used Mr. Lowcock as the source for his piece in The Telegraph “Starvation used ‘as a weapon of war’ in Ethiopia”, he added that: “Senior observers have hailed Mr. Lowcock as one of the few senior UN voices speaking truth on the catastrophic situation on the ground.” Indeed, he was one of the few who said there was a famine. But the media and fellow high-ups from the aid world quickly decided to use him as the one and only authoritative voice of the UN humanitarian system.

To read the full story of Getting Ethiopia Dead Wrong: Click Here

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