Bearing witness

Anna Politkovskaya Award winner Lucy Kassa on the horrors of the war in Tigray and its legacy of injustice

Bearing witness

Photo courtesy of Lucy Kassa

Granted annually since 2008 by the international organisation Reach All Women in War, the Anna Politkovskaya Award was won by Ethiopian journalist Lucy Kassa in 2023. The prize is named after Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose groundbreaking coverage of the Second Chechen War for Novaya Gazeta tragically ended with her 2006 assassination.

Lucy Kassa reports and writes about the plight of women in the war in her native Ethiopia for news outlets including The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and The Telegraph, and in 2022, she won the Magnitsky Human Rights Award for her investigative reporting on atrocities carried out during the war in Tigray.

In announcing Kassa’s win in October, the award committee cited Kassa’s “courage and determination in informing the world about the brutal treatment of civilians” and her “standing up for peace and justice for the women of Tigray.” Kassa will be presented with the award in Athens on Saturday, as part of the 2024 Women of the World festival.

As well as discussing her work with Kassa, Novaya Gazeta Europe is including the traditional letter written to Anna Politkovskaya by each year’s award winner.

NGE: Lucy, what does the concept of “women at war” or “women in war” mean to you?

LK: I work as an investigative journalist, so I normally investigate atrocities and human rights violations during war. Over the past two years, one of the terrible human rights violations, war crimes, that was taking place in Ethopia was weaponised sexual violence. My experience reporting on those women and girls that were gang raped during the war is that they didn’t get any justice, there’s no hope for justice.

NGE: In your letter to Anna Politkovskaya, you wonder what she would say about what is happening in your country. Can you tell us more about that?

LK: The Tigray conflict — which is really a war — lasted for two years. More than 100,000 women and girls were gang raped by soldiers [and] they were also tortured and mutilated. Terrible things happened against women and girls during these two years of conflict.

[The UN] established a commission to investigate these abuses, but the member states didn’t extend the mandate of the human rights commission. So, at this time, after everything I have reported, after everything these women and girls experienced, they are just forgotten.

And the abuses haven’t stopped in Tigray. There is still ongoing conflict in Ethiopia in the northern region. The Ethiopian government does not allow independent journalism. So, it could be that war-related sexual violence is still occurring but it is not investigated. Maybe there are women and girls still being raped because these soldiers have been repeating the same patterns of mass killings, the same patterns of war crimes.

It’s also difficult because of the stigma around sexual violence. There are women who have been gang raped who have husbands and families. It is very difficult for them to say “I was raped.”

Many women didn’t say anything until the [pain] became unbearable and they went to the hospital — then they said they were gang raped. If it hadn’t been for the beatings and other related abuses, [the rape] could have remained hidden because of the culture. There is a stigma around rape and there is a stigma around sexual violence.

NGE: What is the role of journalists, especially female journalists? What can journalists do?

LK: Journalists can uncover these abuses … [they can] collect evidence and expose hidden atrocities and war crimes. As women journalists, we should take the initiative and investigate, verify, and expose.

We don’t hear much about conflict-related sexual violence. But it can be found in many wars across history. There is also a war in Sudan where there is also conflict-related sexual violence. But it doesn’t get that much coverage. Compared to killings and other abuses, it is underreported.

So women journalists can play a huge role in this by investigating and verifying those cases because it is difficult for men to do that work. These victims have a fear of talking to men. They don’t talk to them. It is easier for us women journalists to do this kind of investigation.

NGE: Do the human rights situations in Russia and Ethiopia have anything in common?

LK: I have heard about conflict-related sexual violence in Russia. I have read reports on it. But one thing to make clear is that the scale is very different. Conflict-related sexual violence occurs in almost all wars, but weaponised sexual violence is different, because it is systematic and its scale is large. It is used as a weapon to exterminate some societies, it can even be used as a means of genocide. So not all conflict-related sexual violence amounts to weaponised sexual violence.

But there are some things in common. I have seen reports of little girls raped in Russia. I’ve read about gang rapes. And when I read those reports I see a similarity.

There are also some similarities [between what is happening in Ethiopia] and the mass killings happening in Gaza — the violations are common. The scale might be different, the nature can be different, the aim and intention can be different, but you see common things.

For example, when I read reports about Russia or crimes committed by the Russian government or what is happening in Gaza, it reminds me of what is happening in Tigray. For me as a journalist, I can see the patterns. It is a very traumatising thing for me.

NGE: How will you continue your work? What will you do next?

LK: I always become affected [by my work]. I am not someone who can mechanically tell stories and forget them… it affects you as a human being. It affects your mental health. So I have been suffering from trauma. The stories haunt you. It is very difficult if there’s no justice. At some point, I asked myself what was the point in me spending a lot of time verifying evidence of terrible things if at the end of the day, there will not be any justice. You just get exhausted. You get tired. I’ve been asking myself a lot —what am I doing? What is the point of my journalism? So it is very difficult.

Editor in chief — Kirill Martynov. Terms of use. Privacy policy.