In the recent Ethiopian armed conflict the most helpless victims are found to be the elderly women. Although armed conflicts claimed civilian lives, most of them are old women. It is, however, too early to have a statistical breakdown of victims in every category. There can be no doubt that older women pay a heavy toll. During armed conflicts, the proportion of civilian casualties is high. This is due primarily to the existence of new methods and means of warfare which have indiscriminate effects. There may be conflicts that are pitting regular armies against guerrilla groups. In this situation civilians, particularly old women, are inevitably caught up in the fighting. They may be accused by both the fighting sides of supporting the adversary. Consequently they are subjected to reprisals by any side.
The Geneva Convention has provisions which expressly mention the protection of the elderly in a war. The Convention envisages legal protection to civilians and hence to the elderly during war. The fall of any fighting side leads to enormous political problems and to profound economic and social changes to elderly women. This is what happened to them in the Amhara and Afar regions of Ethiopia. In these contexts these women become vulnerable to any shocks. Globally, there is protection for the elderly under international humanitarian law. This protects all persons who are not taking part in the hostilities. This protection covers civilians and persons who are no longer taking part in the fighting such as the wounded, sick, combatants and prisoners. The humanitarian law also takes into account the particular vulnerability of elderly persons. The law provides special protection for women and children and it contains provisions relating to the elderly.
The law, however, does not mention any particular age at which an individual is considered elderly. The law protects the elderly as persons not participating in hostilities. This means that they enjoy protection from abusive behavior on the part of the party to the conflict under whose power they are. They are persons protected by the 4th Geneva Convention. The elderly, including elderly women, benefit from all the provisions set forth by the principle of humane treatment. As civilian they benefit from the rules which uphold the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants. This prohibits attacks directed against the elders, including the elderly women. They also enjoy special protection because of their weakened condition, which renders them incapable of contributing to the war effort of their country.
Although, the principle of equality of treatment is enshrined in several Constitutions and provisions of humanitarian law, these do not allow for exceptions whereby more favorable treatment is granted in certain groups and circumstances. All protected persons are treated equally by the “warring parties” who captured them irrespective of their ethnicity, religion or political opinion. They are treated without prejudice to their age, sex and health. The humanitarian law provides that in time of peace and after the outbreak of hostilities, the concerned parties may establish in their own territory and in occupied areas, hospitals and safety zones. These institutions of health are organized to protect elders, including the elderly women, from the effects of war. Priority is given to the wounded, sick and elderly persons, children, expectant mothers and mothers.
Humanitarian laws provide that the parties to a conflict shall conclude agreements for the removal of wounded, sick, infirm, children, women and aged persons from besieged localities. Also, pastors, medical personnel and equipment should be covered by the agreements. The international communities have also been concerned about the plight of the elderly women. Such concern has led to a number of resolutions adopted by various international conferences of humanitarian institutions. Those who subscribed to these resolutions have taken their respective actions. Despite the legal provisions, the fate of Ethiopian elderly women has become precarious in the battle fronts. It has been further aggravated by the armed conflicts that have broken out and are still raging in the Amhara and Afar regions. Considering this victims on International Women’s Day celebrated today (March 8) as a timely and essential agenda is a matter of humanity.
Despite the conduct of hostilities, every effort is made to spare the life, protect and respect the elders with particular protective measures for women and groups with special vulnerabilities. But, the TPLF junta could not allow the international community to help the elderly women in localities engulfed with armed conflicts. The junta has shown no respect for humanitarian law and agencies that implement the law. For several decades, the junta has not opted for discretion as a working method. It has broken the rules of conduct and remained silent about violations of the law that it should observe as a party to a war in Ethiopia. The international community has been forced to report the horrendous situation they observed.
The international reports submitted to the higher authorities on the conduct of the various parties to the conflict in Ethiopia seemed to have no effect at first. The international agencies continued to keep the concerned parties informed about their findings. They submitted their reports with recommendations aimed at improving compliance with the international law on conflicts. But, all these efforts yielded no results and the agencies felt duty bound to defend the interests of the victims, particularly those of the elderly women under any conditions. On the basis of their mandate, the role of international agencies has been to spread knowledge of international humanitarian law; protect the civilian population; and visit persons deprived of their freedom.
Since the defeat of the TPLF junta, its domestic and external allies have made considerable changes in their commitment. Due to the collapse of its armed network, its supporters have been reserved in supplying resources needed in the battle front. Moreover, the required resources dwindled or even stopped altogether. This left the old persons, including the elderly women in the battle fronts in a state of utter destitution. At the same time, poor elders that live in other parts of the country are not in a better position to help those residing in the war torn zones. The resulting vulnerability is further exacerbated by renewed conflicts and old people often find themselves alone.
The elderly people are reported to have lost touch with their relatives during the conflict. They stayed behind in their war torn villages as they do not want to be uprooted from the places where they were born. In addition, they may suffer from some physical handicap. The elderly are not only left without any means of subsistence but may also be subjected to all sorts of abuse including looting, destruction of their property, threats, physical violence, rape and sometimes murder. They are attacked as they live in remote villages or isolated places. Armed groups that control the areas where the elderly women live often follow a deliberate policy of driving out all of them as undesirable persons or enemies.
The international agencies provide emergency medical and food aid and rehabilitation services to the elderly residing in conflict zones. They supply medical facilities, support health services, provide safe water, shelters, hygiene and agricultural tools and vaccines to livestock. They also engage in restoring contact between separated family members and facilitate family reunification. These agencies do everything they can to bring protection and assistance to the old people in conflict zones, who depend largely on humanitarian aid for their very survival. These agencies try to protect and assist the elderly as they do in the case of all conflict victims. They also resolve the specific problems facing the elderly women to meet their special needs, taking their age into account.
A considerable number of elderly women are defenseless and exposed to dangers of conflicts. They remain out of contact with their young relatives that out migrated from the war zones of Amhara and Afar regions. It has been difficult to make arrangements for elderly people to rejoin their families in these regions.The war has paralyzed their means of survival as farm lands have been occupied by warriors. Such paralysis has affected the regions with repercussions on the entire people that have been left without external aid. It is primarily old people living in urban areas, where they could not grow their own food, who suffered the greatest adversity and destitution. Initially these people benefited from relief programs, and all those who wanted to leave were able to do so.
In rural areas where relief programs aimed at the most needy, some of the elderly people received complete food aid and medical services. In the towns the elderly are provided with meals and clothes. Some aid programs targeted needy families, enabling old people to remain within the family unit in their place of origin. In some regions old people are in an extremely difficult situation owing to the collapse of social services due to conflicts. Their purchasing power being very limited, elderly persons living in the regions could not afford to buy food items. Food aid and other basic necessities are not regularly provided to the elderly people. Some of them received aid only as a supplement. Also specialized institutions, including those supporting the household of the old people provided basic necessities and medical supplies through the concerned local agencies.
As mentioned earlier, thousands of elderly women living in isolation are unable to flee from areas of military operations or conflicts. Their number may not be ascertained until the conflict is over and the TPLF junta is totally annihilated or controlled within Ethiopia. In its last days the junta may be in a desperate situation and create havoc to the lives of the elderly women in rural areas. Since the elderly people are regarded by the junta as vulnerable and invalid, it may go on a killing spree without any restraint in isolated corners. In areas that are inaccessible to the junta, the elderly women have enjoyed a combination of assistance and protection.
In the regions of Amhara and Afar, where elderly women have no access to humanitarian aid, they have been subjected to inhuman treatments that had never occurred anywhere in the country in the past. A septuagenarian nun has been sexually abused by the TPLF junta in front of young unarmed neighbors. The shameless junta took the news as a “love story” that should not surprise anyone. It is a great disgrace and dishonor for future generations to come in that part of the country. The question is how historians write such scandal of ignominy and humiliation in their books. What lessons do they derive and inform the readers of Ethiopian history wherever they are. In the past, Ethiopia has been known for its religious proclivity and respect for human dignity, pride and poise. But, the truth should be told that drugged TPLF junta committed the sexual abuse against the elderly women during armed conflicts.
Editor’s Note: The views entertained in this article do not necessarily reflect the stance of The
BY GETACHEW MINAS
TUESDAY 8 MARCH 2022