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Sister Kahsa Hagos: A tale of heroism, hope for survivors of Gender-Based Violence in Tigray

Addis Abeba  When the Tigray war began in November 2020, Sister Kahsa Hagos was serving as the coordinator for the Maternity and Childcare Unit at Adigrat Hospital in the Tigray region. As the conflict intensified, she witnessed a significant increase in cases of gender-based violence (GBV), with survivors enduring both physical and psychological trauma. The accounts of gang rape, torture, and a justice system failing to provide any relief were particularly harrowing.

Recognizing the urgent need for safe spaces, Sister Kahsa Hagos initiated the establishment of a waiting home, known as the One-Stop Center, in Adigrat in 2021. This center provided shelter and basic services for survivors of GBV, despite the considerable security risks involved. Nearly 400 deeply traumatized women, with no other place to turn, found refuge at the center.

In an interview with Addis Standard’s Molla Mitiku, Sister Kahsa detailed the dire conditions that compelled her to take action. She cited a critical shortage of medical supplies and the constant threat from Eritrean security forces, which occupied the city during that time, as major challenges. She also emphasized the severe food shortages and the ongoing risk of violence they faced.

For her unwavering dedication to securing medical and psychological care for these women, Sister Kahsa was recently honored with the Women, Peace, and Security Civil Society Leadership Award. This award, presented on 14 May, 2024, in Mekelle, was organized by Global Affairs Canada and UNFPA to recognize individuals and organizations making exceptional contributions to advancing peace and security for women in fragile or conflict-affected regions.

In this interview, Sister Kahsa emphasized the profound significance of this recognition for the people of Tigray. She stated, “The recognition I received holds great significance for the people of Tigray,” and “it signifies that their suffering is not in vain and that they deserve justice, support, and the opportunity to rebuild their lives.”

She further emphasized the need for concrete steps from the international community to ensure accountability for the perpetrators of these atrocities.

Excerpt from the Interview:

AS: Could you describe the circumstances that prompted you to assist sexually abused women in Adigrat?

Kahsa: The Eritrean occupation of Adigrat subjected the city to unimaginable horrors. Women endured a brutal wave of sexual violence, arriving at the hospital severely injured and bleeding. Lacking access to proper medical care and facing homelessness, these women, particularly those with children or who were pregnant, found themselves in a dire situation.

Recognizing the seriousness of their situation, I sought assistance. The Adigrat Women’s Association agreed to subsidize shelter for six months. Additionally, I approached the Catholic Church in Adigrat, where the bishop was committed to providing food and supplies. However, he expressed concerns about the safety of the women, given that local and international media were reporting on the mass sexual assaults and killings perpetrated by Eritrean soldiers, with women being particularly targeted.

Despite the security risks, we managed to provide shelter for nearly 400 deeply traumatized women who had no other place to turn. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) generously provided further assistance. This included offering confidential shelter and facilitating communication with loved ones abroad and in Addis Ababa through phones and internet access.

AS: Considering the size of Adigrat, how did you manage to conceal 400 women from scrutiny?

Kahsa: Ensuring the women’s safety was of utmost importance. Media exposure by local outlets such as Dimtsi Weyane, which highlighted the horrific sexual violence and killings based on the women’s accounts, made them targets for Eritrean security forces. These forces searched hospitals and clinics specifically for these women.

Despite this significant danger, we offered refuge to approximately 400 women who were most severely injured and had nowhere else to go, including some who were pregnant or had children. We provided them with confidential medical and psychological care for up to two years.

While the number of women who experienced sexual harassment far exceeded 400, some were able to rejoin their families or relatives after initial support. The operation’s secrecy placed everyone involved at considerable risk, but we persevered to protect these vulnerable women.

AS: What was your primary role in assisting these deeply traumatized women within the shelter?

Kahsa: My primary focus was to secure shelter and basic necessities for the women who had suffered severe physical and emotional trauma. I accomplished this by liaising with the women’s association and the Catholic Church.

Women were violated in front of their husbands.”

As the sole medical professional at the shelter, I provided both medical care and psychological support. Furthermore, I assumed the critical role of coordinating their overall needs and ensuring they received necessary medical treatment and other essential services.

AS: Given the Eritrean security forces’ active pursuit of these women, did you not experience apprehension for your own safety? What factors compelled you to undertake such a perilous responsibility?

Kahsa: The circumstances were indeed horrific. Numerous innocent civilians, including women who had witnessed the sexual abuse inflicted upon them by Eritrean soldiers, were brutally murdered. The killings were indiscriminate. Young people were slaughtered in the presence of their parents, and women were violated in front of their husbands.

Consumed by a potent desire for retribution, some young women residing in the shelter ventured forth to confront their attackers. While some returned unharmed, others sustained injuries or even perished. The gravity of the situation weighed heavily on me; however, I refused to succumb to paralysis by fear. I was unwavering in my resolve to assist these women, regardless of the personal consequences.

Violence had become commonplace, with killings occurring daily throughout the city. Remaining at home did not guarantee one’s safety; young people were being murdered indiscriminately. Therefore, I made the resolute decision to utilize my skills to the benefit of my people for as long as possible, even if it entailed facing a potentially fatal outcome.

Despite the inherent dangers and the fact that we were operating within territory occupied by the enemy, I felt an overwhelming sense of obligation to act. The repugnant atrocities, harassment, and murders perpetrated against the Tigray people demanded a response.

I was determined to contribute whatever skills I possessed. Consequently, the suffering endured by the women was unimaginable. I refused to allow fear to paralyze me. I was unwavering in my determination to do everything within my power to alleviate their pain and provide a safe haven for them to heal.

On 14 May, 2024, Sister Kahsa Hagos received the Women, Peace, and Security Civil Society Leadership Award during a ceremony held in Mekelle. This event, co-hosted by Global Affairs Canada and UNFPA, recognized individuals and organizations making significant contributions toward advancing peace and security for women in conflict-affected and fragile regions (Photo: UNFPA)

AS: What were the most significant challenges you encountered during this period?

Kahsa: During this time, we faced two critical challenges. The first was a severe lack of medical supplies due to the imposed blockade on the region. This significantly limited our ability to provide adequate care for the injured women.

The second challenge was the constant threat of discovery by Eritrean security forces who patrolled the area where we sheltered the women. The fear of betrayal by someone within the community added another layer of complexity.

Furthermore, food shortages were a constant struggle, and there were days when the women simply did not have enough to eat. Undoubtedly, the most heartbreaking aspect of this experience was witnessing the women’s suffering.

AS: Could you expand on the award you were recently presented with and its broader significance?

Kahsa: The recognition I received holds great significance for the people of Tigray. Professionally, it serves as a validation of the Canadian government’s acknowledgement of the invasion of Tigray, the associated atrocities, and the abuses inflicted upon the region’s women.

More importantly, it offers a beacon of hope for achieving justice for these women. It signifies that their suffering is not in vain and that they deserve justice, support, and the opportunity to rebuild their lives.

 I refused to allow fear to paralyze me.” 

This recognition serves as a public acknowledgement of the atrocities committed in Tigray and, even more importantly, offers a glimmer of hope for achieving justice for the victims. Their suffering is undeniable, and they deserve to have their experiences recognized as they rebuild their lives.

AS: In the face of such immense suffering, your courage and compassion are truly inspiring. Is there a message you would like to convey to the international community?

Kahsa: While I deeply appreciate your kind words, my actions pale in comparison to the immense suffering endured by the Tigrayan people. The fight for justice for these victims continues.

The international community must take concrete steps to ensure accountability for the perpetrators of these atrocities and provide unwavering support to the people of Tigray as they rebuild their lives. My unwavering motivation remains the pursuit of justice. The women who have suffered unimaginable abuse deserve more than just recognition; they deserve to see those responsible held accountable.

Therefore, I implore the international community to take meaningful action to ensure that justice prevails for the people of Tigray. AS

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