Deputy UN chief left near tears by “TPLF” rape accounts in Ethiopia

Following is a transcript of UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed’s press conference on Ethiopia, held in New York today:

Thank you very much.  I did begin to speak with the press, for which I’m grateful, just as I left Addis [Ababa] — day before yesterday?  I’m lost on time.

I’m really just coming back from a country — it’s an incredible, amazing country that I was able to visit a fair amount of, but I think what was really heart-breaking for me was to see the social fabric of a part of that country so torn, and to witness the devastating effects that we have seen, with conflict and with drought.

My Ethiopia trip was, of course, to represent the Secretary-General at the AU [African Union] Summit, and his message there really was underpinning the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, the [Agenda] 2063 and our partnership with the African Union.

It was the first time we had leaders in person, and they were discussing, for the first time, agreeing on a common ground that would propel the continent forward on the socioeconomic impact after the pandemic.

Just before departing Addis Ababa, the opportunity that I had of speaking to the African Union leaders was helpful for us, particularly as we were looking at conflict across the continent, and you will know the conflicts in West Africa, conflicts in the Horn, our efforts in most of the countries that we are in, either with our missions or the political support that we are giving.  That really was very useful, useful with the African Union Commission itself and the Chairperson, [Moussa] Faki, on that.

Having left the AU premises, I went to four regions in Ethiopia — Tigray, Amhara, Afar and Somali — and I had the opportunity there to meet and listen to families, communities, leaders, and you will know that this area is about 70 per cent of our Ethiopian population.

What I can say and the message all the way along was that there was no finger pointing for me.  It was to say that, at this stage, with the conflict and the tragedies — horrendous at that — that no one wins, and that peace really is indispensable.

For the burden that it has put on the shoulders of women and girls — this is quite unacceptable and really the cessation of hostilities was an emergency.

Our discussions really did focus on how to get to that path to peace — the humanitarian access, the cessation of hostilities, in some cases, the lifting of the siege in Tigray — but, most importantly, the efforts they were making now at the national dialogue, and how to get to that with the parties that were concerned.

In my visits to two of the regions, I went with, of course, our team here from the UN, at HQ, but with the President of Ethiopia [Sahle-Work Zewde] on two of those visits, to Afar and to Somali.  In each case, the leaders of those regions and the leaders at the federal level, all the discussions stressed that the UN would continue to support Ethiopia with impartiality, real demands for humanitarian access and for the cessation of hostilities.

In the regions, I would say that everyone is asking me in which place did I see the worst possible of the outcomes of the hostilities.

Ethiopian women, writ large, were affected in a way that is unimaginable.  In your worst nightmares, you cannot imagine what has happened to the women in Ethiopia.

And this is not by region — this is across the regions.  I listened to women who had, I don’t know how they managed to tell us again the stories of the atrocities that were committed against them, whether they were gang rapes or rapes of women that had just come out of caesarean sections or had had these rapes in front of their children, I don’t know how they managed to tell us that.

In some cases, we found, not just us, in a really bad place swallowing hard and holding back the tears, but even the translators could not do it.

So, it is a tragedy.  It is going to be a lifelong healing process for many, many women and children in Ethiopia.  For that alone, the Ethiopian leadership and the international community need to lean heavily forward in making sure that that path to peace happens sooner rather than later.

Having visited and spoken with many women, girls in the hospitals, where they are in dire need of essential medicines and support, I did go to Somali.  Somali was a different kind of a tragedy, that is of course climate change and drought, where they are seeing 50 degrees Centigrade in temperatures that are obviously not possible.  Their livestock, women that we met there, the only ask they had of us was water and a way to save their livestock.

But this is a region that has known conflict for a very long time and has had now a few years of peace and you can see how the leadership there is trying to protect that peace and what they do is they point north and say, well, we can tell them why not to continue with this conflict because we’ve been through it and why peace is worth investing in and, to do that, the development and resources that are needed for it.

So, much, much more.  The good thing about Somali was that, if there was a good thing out of the drought and the suffering, is that we can find the solutions, we do have them, we can bring the resources to that.

As insurmountable as the challenges, which are very complex across the regions and with the people in Ethiopia, I still think that I left with, perhaps one of the last visits with a group of Ethiopian women, feeling very hopeful, because, in parts of Ethiopia, there are women who are engaging with the business community and doing so in a way that you can see Ethiopian peace can come back to where it was before, joining the international community and seeing their economy grow and young women participate — inspiring young women.

But finally, maybe what I would say is that, for me, trust has been broken in Ethiopia and we need to find ways to support the country, the leadership, the people, find that pathway back to rebuilding that trust and, therefore, rebuilding peace for their people.

Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General:  Great.  Thank you very much, DSG.  We’ll start with Sherwin Bryce-Pease.

Question:  DSG, welcome back to New York, and, on behalf of the UN Correspondents Association, thanks for coming to speak with us.

Let me pick up on your remarks about no finger-pointing, right?  The press statement issued after your visit to Ethiopia makes no reference to the atrocities and the need for justice and accountability.  You’re quoted as saying, “When we find peace, we can begin the journey back to economic recovery and the restoration of dignity and livelihoods.”  It’s a very humanitarian-centric statement, zero reference to the atrocities.  And in addition, the questionable treatment of UN staff during this conflict, some would argue it’s a rather blithe statement.  Does it accurately reflect your conversations with the leadership in Ethiopia?

Deputy Secretary-General:  No, it doesn’t actually, and now that you say that, I was in two minds whether to give that press briefing or not.  I was actually getting on a plane that doesn’t belong to the UN; it’s Emirates, so I really had, and was it, do we speak to the press at all, or do we just go?  How could you possibly have gone to a country that has so much conflict and concerns to the international community and not say anything?

Absolutely not.  I think, without a shadow of a doubt, justice and accountability have to be had.  I think that’s very much part of, up-front centre of the national dialogues.  They cannot achieve any lasting peace without reconciling and being held to account the atrocities across the country.

And so, when I say no finger-pointing in that region, there is everyone to blame if you want to blame them.  They were committed across the borders and the regions that were there, and accountability must be had.

Yes, I did speak with the leadership about UN staff.  UN staff have stayed and delivered in the most difficult of circumstances.  They are still there.  We still have three that have not been released, and so we did speak with the leadership about that and the urgency on two levels:  first, to speak to our partnership because what they say matters to the people on the ground and how they react to our people who were there saving lives and contributing to the livelihoods, particularly where so many women have suffered.  And the response was that they were doing the best that they could, and they were continuing to release our people, but they were being investigated.

So, we’ve pushed, and we continue pushing daily.  I think our voice added to that.  Hopefully, we will see the last of our three colleagues released, but that the relationship with the people, there’s one thing for the leadership to say something in Addis Ababa, but the reaction of the people on the ground in other regions is of concern to us, and unless they start to speak to this partnership and to the role of the UN and what good that we do and what we accompany them to succeed with.

Spokesman:  Thank you.  Edie?

Question:  Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Secretary-General.  I have two questions.  First, we were told yesterday that there have been no humanitarian aid getting into Tigray since December 16th.  Did you make any headway on that issue?

And you said at the start of your briefing that one of your main goals was to try to work toward a ceasefire.  Did you actually make any headway on that?  We know that you spent time with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.  Thank you.

Deputy Secretary-General:  Thank you, Edie.  On the humanitarian aid, there is aid getting through to Tigray.  I was there, and we were told by the doctors in the hospital that aid had got through.  It is absolutely insufficient and inadequate — it’s a trickle.  So, and that, you know, it came in from ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], it came in from other donations, but it was insufficient.

The one passage that there is into Tigray is blocked because of the hostilities that are happening between the regions.  This is not government hostilities, this is between the two regions.  And what we are asking the Government is, well, if you can’t get in through there, then why can we not use other means, whether by air or otherwise, to get that in?

We did broach that, and we continue, as the Secretary-General does and as I did — we need to increase this.  The volumes need to get in there because people are suffering.  So yes, there is some.  It’s inadequate, grossly inadequate, and we continue to press them to find other ways of getting those, humanitarian aid in.

I did visit the dry port in Afar where there is, I mean, the aid is there.  It’s just waiting to move, either by road or, as we said, perhaps we can find other means of doing so.

It’s the cessation of hostilities, a ceasefire between one side and another, but this is various sides.  There are various communities where these hostilities are just as tragic and horrific, and they all need to stop.  So, it is not a ceasefire that I saw between one and the other, and that’s why we said they all needed to stop, whether it was in Amhara, across the border to Tigray or Afar, across the border to Tigray.

Spokesman:  Thank you.  James and then Michelle.

Question:  You talked about the need in the path for peace, the way forward, about the national dialogue, but excluded from the national dialogue are the TPLF [Tigray People’s Liberation Front] and the Oromo Liberation Army.  They are currently proscribed as terrorist organizations.

So, in order to get direct talks going, and I assume you think direct talks are a good idea, how important is it that they are no longer considered terrorist organizations and, in fact, that the state of emergency is lifted?

Deputy Secretary-General:  Well, the state of emergency, certainly, we have pushed for, in fact, I understand that the Ethiopian Government had lifted the state of emergency.  Yes, so, in the case of who is chosen for representing them at that dialogue, I think that’s really an Ethiopian issue, and they have taken that to Parliament.  They have 42 seats there that they have been negotiating.

I believe that people of Oromo and the people of Tigray are in that representation.  Whether it applies to these two organizations, that’s something that we did not discuss, but certainly representation of the people from each region.  And for us, we pushed for as many women to be in that representation as possible.

It is ongoing.  I understand that they have just concluded one phase going with another, but you do have the African Union Envoy, former President [Olusegun] Obasanjo, who is also speaking to this.

Question:  Those two organizations you mentioned aren’t just minor organizations.  They are very, very key to this conflict, and if those people are excluded and those leaders are excluded, do you not feel that this will just reignite?

Deputy Secretary-General:  I believe everyone should be included.  This is a conflict between the Ethiopian people in whatever guise that they come, and so they need to find a way to include every voice.

Spokesman:  Michelle Nichols.  Michelle?

Question:  Thank you, Deputy Secretary-General.  A couple of questions.  Last year in June, the assessment was made that several hundred thousand people were suffering famine conditions.  What did you, evidence did you see of that?  Has it worsened?  What’s the situation?

When you met with the leaders in, Tigray leaders, can you tell us more about that conversation?

And is there any, you’d mentioned what the women have been through.  Is this recent, or are these crimes that happened back towards the start of the conflict?  And is there anyone particular story that has stuck with you?

Deputy Secretary-General:  Three really difficult questions.  I saw famine, certainly from the women and the men and children that gathered as we met with them, either in town hall but along the way, as well.  There were IDP [internally displaced persons] camps where people have moved 500, 600 kilometres because of it.

There’s clearly malnutrition, many, many diseases of the children, and they just were talking about the water and the livestock that they had lost, so first-hand conversations with many who were suffering from the drought.

There has, of course, been a lot of effort by the UN and its own staff to make sure that we address that.  It’s insufficient, and we need much more, and it’s going to get worse.  It’s not getting better.  This is a time when they expect rains.  In some places, it’s happened, but it’s not, no rains in Afar and in Somali.  The rains that they were supposed to have did not happen, and that was clear from where we visited.

In the case of women, well, I mean, I’m still trying to digest what I heard because it was just incredibly emotional.  I heard from one young woman who had a 3-, 4-year-old, who was raped in front of her son and is still, and, of course, they’re outcasts, right?  They’re thrown away by their husbands, by their family.

There are, fortunately, some really good initiatives that the UN has been able to put, UNFPA [UN Population Fund], and the safe houses.  So, these are temporary structures and facilities, and they were just asking to get on with their lives and their livelihood, and they needed to move past it.

Staying in the situation they found themselves was, I think, further psychological torture.  It’s just not possible.  You just look to the faces — one lady may have told me her own experience, but the others that were there to say to you, well, these are the ones that we have.  I mean, they had them on the camera.  I mean, it’s horrible what has happened.  You cannot imagine it, as I say, in your worst nightmare.

I certainly won’t forget — she, in a very calm way, she’s refusing to be a victim.  She wants to be a survivor.  She wants to move on with her child.  She knows that, if she doesn’t get past it, she lives in a living memory of hell.

In Tigray, I met with two young women and, I mean, hundreds of women went through that centre with, I don’t know how that nurse survives mentally just dealing with all of that, but she does.  I think they have a lot of faith in that country.  They seem to lean on God an awful lot.

But these two women, I mean, the first woman to tell me about the gang rapes — it wasn’t once, it was over and over again — are moving from place to place to have, and she just wanted to move on.  She didn’t want to be in a safe house anymore.  She wanted us to find, how could she have her livelihood and still a survivor, not a victim, because, from all of that, she has a 5-month-old son.  And she’s just trying to survive and take her son with her, because the society, again, has thrown them away.

And this is something that I mentioned to all the leaders that I met, and I did meet the leader in TPLF, and just to say that when men go to war, they come back and they’re heroes, doesn’t matter any injury that they have, right?  But women have been injured, injured in a way that is unimaginable, and yet they’re not coming back heroes.  They’re just outcast.  That has to stop.

Now, that wasn’t in every region.  The region that I experienced where the men were outraged because of what had happened to their women, and that was in Afar.  There is some unspoken cultural, whatever you like to call it, where men just don’t touch women in war.  They are, that’s the code of conduct, if you would, for it.  But here, where they had witnessed their women being killed and being harmed, this was something, I think, they’ll find very difficult to get over.

So, the different, the different aspects of where people feel the pain of this war, it has to be taken into that conversation of national dialogue, the accountability for it, some reconciliation.

This is, of course, not the first conflict that we have seen in Ethiopia, but perhaps, we can learn from this and maybe we, in the international community, to really speak to what is unacceptable today.  It’s unacceptable that one human being would do that to another.  And that, I think, was what I took away from this and the messages that I gave to the leaders across the board.

Question:  And was there, you mentioned the 5-month-old baby.  Is that child as a result of rape?  Is there an issue, is there an issue we’ve seen in other countries where there’s a lot of children born of rape?

Deputy Secretary-General:  Yes, I mean, this is some of what happens, is that children are born of rape.  We saw that in Boko Haram in north-east Nigeria, many.  And for those children, what the future holds if they are, if they’re brought back into their communities, that would be something else, but we know that, culturally and otherwise, it’s very unlikely.  They need, they would move on.  If they stayed, they would have a life that would be incredibly difficult.

Question:  And your conversation with the leaders in Tigray, I mean, are you getting the sense from all the leaders you spoke to that there’s a way out of this?

Deputy Secretary-General:  Yes, I think so.  I think that they are hopeful.  I mean, look, first and foremost, the message to me from all of them was that this was going to be done the Ethiopian way, and they were going to find an Ethiopian solution to it.  They did not exclude that they would not have mediation from Africa or from the United Nations, but they were very fixed on finding the end to their problems themselves in all cases.

They, certainly from the TPLF side, what they wanted humanitarian assistance to come through, the lift of the siege, the cessation of the hostilities, and then the ability to engage in the national dialogue.

Spokesman:  Thank you.  We’ll go to the screen.  Margaret Besheer, Voice of America.  Maggie?

Question:  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yes, we can.

Question:  Hi, Deputy Secretary-General.  Thanks so much for speaking to us.  Just building on what Michelle asked you about, an appetite for peace among the leaders that you met, did you get that sense also in Addis Ababa from the Federal Government that there, it’s time to stop and it’s time for a real ceasefire?

And you spoke about trust being broken.  What about between the UN and the Ethiopian Federal Government, particularly over the treatment of your staff there?  Has trust been broken between those, between yourselves and the Government?

Deputy Secretary-General:  Well, I mean, between us and the Government, we continue to stay as we do, to work with the Government and for the people of Ethiopia.  So, I think we have been stunned by the response that we have had from the Ethiopian Government, but I do think that it’s on the mend and that the perceptions from the Ethiopian people that we cannot be trusted must be corrected, and leaders have to, the leaders in Ethiopia have to start to help us do that.

I think my visit and the number of engagements that I had, I was very clear and visible about every visit that I had with every leader, from the President to the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and to different parts of the Ethiopian community, Presidents in the regions.  I hope that that has helped to show that we aren’t going anywhere and that we are loyal to our commitment in supporting the people of Ethiopia and that we are very well aware that we are guests of the Government of Ethiopia, and so we try to work in very difficult circumstances.  Not the only country that we try to do so, but I got a sense from all the leaders, the leaders certainly in Addis, that, yes, there is more, not just more hope, but more effort to try to find that peace, and certainly, we’re in a different place when I was there this week and over the weekend than we were even just a couple of months ago.

It’s how to sustain that and how to accompany it, how to put pressure to, on the momentum for peace and not to have it unravel, which it could.  It’s very fragile.

Question:  DSG, could I just follow up?  Did you ask to see or speak to the three remaining UN staff who were in detention?

Deputy Secretary-General:  No, I didn’t.

Spokesman:  Great, thank you very much.  DSG, thank you, and thank you to all of you, and have great weekend.

Deputy Secretary-General:  Thank you.

UN Press Conference

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