Australia Reports of sexual violence, massacres in Ethiopia impact Australian diaspora community

01:00  24 march  2021
01:00  24 march  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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For the past five months, Abba Yohannes Kebede has monitored the situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia in horror.

The priest at the Hamere Noah Kidanemihret Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Adelaide said the ethnic Tigrayan community in Australia is reeling from reports of massacres and sexual violence amid civil conflict in Ethiopia.

He said many have not spoken to family members in rural parts of Tigray since November due to communications blackouts.

"I couldn't contact my cousins. I do not know if they are alive or not," he said.

"It [has] traumatised our community. Our hearts are broken."

The ABC previously reported concerns that dozens of Australian citizens were stuck in the Tigray region, where there had been a communications blackout and limited access to necessities like food and water.

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Greens Leader and Member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, told the ABC that many of his constituents have raised "deep concerns" about the situation in Tigray.

"It's heartbreaking to see so many people left not knowing if their friends and families in Tigray are safe," he said.

"The past few weeks have shown the strength of the community in Melbourne, but despite rallying together, pleas for peace have fallen on deaf ears."

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The Tigray Community Association in Victoria said that women and children in Tigray have been the victims of "weaponised rape".

A UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Pramila Patten, has cited serious allegations of sexual violence in Tigray, including "disturbing reports of individuals allegedly forced to rape members of their own family, under threats of imminent violence".

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Some women had been forced by military elements to "have sex in exchange for basic commodities", while there had been an uptick in demand for emergency contraception and testing for sexually transmitted diseases, Ms Patten said earlier this year.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet this month said that "deeply distressing reports of sexual and gender-based violence, extrajudicial killings, widespread destruction and looting of public and private property by all parties continue to be shared with us".

Ms Bachelet called for an independent investigation of alleged human rights violations "by all parties" amid reports of ongoing fighting in central Tigray, citing "blanket denials and finger-pointing".

A spokesperson for the Ethiopian Embassy in Canberra said that these allegations were "a matter of great concern" for the government and that it was investigating.

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Australian politicians 'need to do more'

Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said Labor is "deeply concerned" about the situation in Tigray.

"We have previously called for the Australian Government to make it clear that we expect humanitarian access to be granted, civilians to be respected and for the crisis to be resolved peacefully," Senator Wong said in a statement to the ABC.

"Unfortunately the violence has continued, and reports of atrocities and human rights violations are growing. Despite calls from the international community and from Ethiopian diaspora groups in Australia to end the hostilities, we have still seen no response from the Australian government.

"[Foreign Minister] Marise Payne's silence in the face of a growing humanitarian crisis in East Africa is unacceptable."

"Australia shares the grave concerns of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights over reported atrocities and serious human rights violations and abuses in Tigray," Senator Payne said in a statement.

"Australia has expressed its deep concern to the Ethiopian government about the conflict in the Tigray region and the humanitarian impact."

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"Australia has repeatedly engaged the Ethiopian Government on the urgency of ending the violence and has joined calls for independent investigations into allegations to hold perpetrators to account."

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it was providing consular assistance to a number of Australians affected by the conflict in Ethiopia, "including facilitating their return to Australia where requested".

The ABC understands DFAT officials have raised concerns with Ethiopian counterparts in Canberra and Addis Ababa.

Australia joined some 40 countries at the Human Rights Council in calling for human rights abusers in Tigray to be held accountable in February.

Mr Bandt said that "all representatives in parliament need to do more to draw attention to the situation in Tigray".

Tasmanian Liberal Senator Eric Abetz and independent MP Andrew Wilkie have both written to Senator Payne on behalf of constituents of East African descent to raise concern over alleged rights abuses in Tigray.

"The situation in the Tigray region is still grave, and I have raised my concerns on behalf of the Tasmanian Eritrean community to the Foreign Minister as I understand serious violations of international law have occurred, including possible crimes against humanity," Senator Abetz told the ABC.

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"Australia and the world must give every possible support to finding a solution that will end this humanitarian crisis."

Massacres in a holy city

International pressure on Ethiopia has grown in the wake of separate investigations by Amnesty International, the Associated Press, and CNN into mass killings of Tigray civilians by Eritrean troops in the holy city of Axum in late November and early December.

According to Amnesty, Eritrean soldiers deliberately shot civilians on the street and "carried out systematic house-to-house searches" before executing men and boys.

One victim told the Associated Press some 800 people were killed around the Church of St Mary of Zion — the country's most sacred Ethiopian Orthodox church.

"[The victims] are not soldiers. They are not trying to fight. They are praying in their churches," Abba Yohannes said.

"[Mr Abiy's government] are trying to destroy our history … Ethiopia is nothing without Tigrayan history."

in 2019 for ending a conflict with neighbouring Eritrea that lasted two decades.

But in November he ordered strikes on Ethiopian soil against  (TPLF) — a guerrilla movement-turned-political party that dominated the federal government for nearly three decades until 2018.

The Ethiopian Embassy told the ABC: "In the past three years, Ethiopia has undergone a dramatic political transformation."

"Changes that no Ethiopian would have dreamed to see in his or her lifetime have been happening under the reformist government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed."

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Observers had long raised the alarm about the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray amid the fighting — threatening to destabilise the whole Horn of Africa region — which Ethiopia's central government consistently denied.

But a statement from Mr Ahmed's office in the wake of the Axum massacre investigations said it was investigating "credible allegations of atrocities and human rights abuses".

Laetita Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said that: "Eritrean troops committed heinous killings in Axum with wanton disregard for civilian lives."

The UN, US and rights groups have demanded Eritrean troops leave Tigray.

"Here in Australia, we are calling on the Australian Government to do more," Mr Bandt said.

"That must include advocating for a peaceful resolution and a removal of the telecommunications blackout."

The International Federation of the Red Cross said in February that 2.6 million people in Tigray and adjacent regions require humanitarian assistance.

The UN said in February that the health system in Tigray was "nearly collapsing", citing looting of many health facilities.

In a statement to the ABC, Mr Wilkie's office said: "There is a strong prima facie case of attempted ethnic cleansing in the Tigray region and the Australian Government should use every diplomatic means possible to encourage the Ethiopian Government to cease military operations and allow humanitarian aid in."

"The Australian Government should also follow the lead of the EU and the US Government in pressuring the Eritrean Government to withdraw all military forces from Ethiopia."

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