Lucy Kassa on the dangers journalists face for uncovering truths in war
The Ethiopian reporter lives in exile because of her articles from Tigray
Source: The Economist
MORE THAN a year has passed since I first uncovered evidence of war crimes in the continuing conflict in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. Civilians have endured atrocities including sexual violence, ethnic cleansing, systematic massacres, unspeakable torture and starvation. The horror stories are endless. Yet Ethiopia’s government denies them.
All sides of the conflict have committed war crimes. A mound of evidence gathered by investigative journalists and rights groups suggests that Ethiopian government troops, allied soldiers from Eritrea and local Amhara forces have committed terrible atrocities against ethnic Tigrayans. These acts could potentially amount to genocide, as defined in international law. But troops affiliated to the Tigray forces have also committed shocking acts, including sexual violence and the extra-judicial killing of civilians, as they advanced in the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara.
The Ethiopian government blocks all communications and bars journalists from the conflict zones. This makes it extremely difficult to grasp the scale of the crimes and the gravity of the humanitarian crisis. Stories of atrocities often emerge two or three months after they have been committed. The communications blackout is exhausting. A story that would normally take me two weeks to research now takes a month.
It works as follows. When an allegation of an atrocity emerges, I find sources on the ground. I communicate from one person to another until I find the actual victims. My network helps bring them to somewhere in the area with internet, such as the offices of certain NGOs. (There is little petrol in Tigray so even finding transport can be extremely difficult.) I use the connection to interview them via secure messaging services. I ask the survivors to send me any footage or photographic evidence they have. To ensure consistency, I then check their testimonies against those given by other witnesses. I also work with experts to analyse satellite imagery.
My reports since the blackout have so far been limited to Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital, and its outskirts. Nobody really knows what is happening in rural areas. Whenever I uncover crimes committed by government forces, or report stories that don’t suit the government’s narrative, I fall victim to co-ordinated attacks, involving threats and online hate campaigns. Such efforts are designed to stop the atrocities from coming to light.
This harassment continued even after I was attacked at my home in Ethiopia in February 2021. Three security agents raided my home and threatened to kill me if I continued to dig into the war. They took evidence that I had gathered for an investigation into weaponised sexual violence involving Eritrean troops, in which a mother had been gang-raped and tortured by 15 Eritrean soldiers in a military camp.
I decided to carry on with the investigation because I couldn’t ignore the terrible stories I had heard. Days after my home was raided I published my investigation in the Los Angeles Times. Within hours officials released a statement saying I was not a legitimate journalist. The Ethiopian state’s media outlets and supporters tried to present me as a criminal. I was forced to flee the country.
I continue my investigations from exile. Two months ago I uncovered the massacre of 278 ethnic-Tigrayan civilians. Eritrean troops and local Afar forces who are allied to the Ethiopian army went from house to house shooting. Pregnant women and children were among the victims. More than two dozen girls reported sexual violence, too. Sometimes I feel a terrible sense of déjà vu in my work; patterns and repetition appear in the killing methods. All the more reason why journalists must continue to expose such horrors.
Foreign governments should put pressure on Ethiopia to allow independent international investigation, lift the communication blackout and, crucially, to allow journalists to do their job. The point of the hate campaigns against me and other journalists who defy the government’s narrative has been to keep these kinds of atrocities and other horrendous war crimes in the dark. The intention is to tire us through relentless bullying. The aim is for state propaganda to saturate news networks and social-media platforms to drown out the truth. But the truth can only come to light if journalists are allowed to do their work without harassment.
Lucy Kassa is an Ethiopian journalist.