Washington — Lucy Kassa never expected to be a war correspondent. Working for a Norwegian magazine, the freelance journalist wrote about issues related to development and the economy in Ethiopia.
But then fighting broke out in her home region of Tigray, in Ethiopia’s north.
“I had a different dream for my life. It was never my plan to get into all of this,” she told VOA.
When Lucy began receiving disturbing reports of atrocities in late 2020, she started to document witness and survivor accounts of gang rapes, killings and other human rights abuses.
She was reporting from the capital, Addis Ababa, at the time, and media access to the region was blocked. So, she relied on contacts with old sources in the region, alongside tools such as geolocation to verify accounts.
But, Lucy said, more independent investigations are needed to uncover everything that has happened.
Two years of reporting on the war has taken a toll.
“I have put so much energy into documenting war crimes. I have sacrificed a lot, even I risked my life,” Lucy said.
In 2021, three unidentified armed men forced their way into her home and knocked her to the ground. They questioned her and searched material she had collected for a story. They left with her computer and pictures.
Soon after, Lucy left Ethiopia. She now lives in Europe with the support of an international organization. For safety reasons, she does not share specific details about her life or whereabouts.
“I have security here. The organization here provides me security, but I don’t have a social life with the Eritrean, Ethiopian, and even the Tigrayan community at all,” she said.
Lucy is not alone when it comes to journalists harassed or imprisoned for their coverage of the war in Tigray. Authorities in Ethiopia also blocked internet and mobile phone use in certain regions.
“The situation in Ethiopia is quite horrendous. We are extremely concerned about the safety of journalists,” said Kiran Nazish, founding director of the Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ), in a written response to VOA.
“Over the last year, we have come across multiple journalists sharing stunning stories of censorship, where journalists do not feel free to report without fear of government reprisal,” Nazish said. “Meanwhile, we have witnessed a year where arrests escalated dramatically.”
Often, she said, authorities give no reason for an arrest.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a report in August showing at least 63 journalists detained or briefly held since November 2020 after covering stories about the war or politically sensitive topics.
“Since the civil war [in Ethiopia’s Tigray region] started two years ago, we have had many journalists who have been detained for periods, often without charge,” Angela Quintal, Africa program coordinator at CPJ, told VOA.
VOA contacted the Ethiopian Media Authority, which regulates journalism in the country, and the office of the prime minister for comment. Neither had responded before the time of publication.
The work of journalists has been essential in uncovering abuses on all sides of the conflict that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions in Tigray and the Amhara and Afar regions.
A team of United Nations investigators say they found evidence of war crimes committed by Ethiopian federal forces, Tigrayan forces and soldiers from neighboring Eritrea.
The team was denied access to the region, so it collected evidence based on interviews with 185 individuals, including survivors of attacks.
Ethiopia’s government rejected the report for “exceeding its mandate,” The Associated Press reported.
Lucy said a lack of access to conflict areas was used as a way to try to discredit her work or to question the authenticity of the accounts that survivors and witnesses shared with her. But those interviews are etched in her memory, along with the videos and images she has sifted through in the process of verifying accounts.
“To see that humans can do all these things and get away with it creates some kind of hopelessness in you,” Lucy said. “I was asking myself what’s the point of this? What’s the point of me being consumed in this work if it’s not going to bring anything?”
But Lucy’s work, including how rape was weaponized, has been recognized internationally.
More recently, she received the Magnitsky Award for investigative journalism. The human rights awards are named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in pre-trial detention in a Moscow prison after working to expose government corruption.
Catherine Belton, a journalist who for several years was Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, called Lucy “a true journalistic hero.”
“She’s one of the bravest journalists I’ve ever met,” Belton said in a speech during the award presentation.
Lucy said she was in a dark place when the award was announced. She still has trouble accepting recognition.
“I was terribly depressed by the pressures from all sides. I was so frustrated by the fact that there’s no accountability to the war crimes committed by all sides,” she told VOA. “I remember talking to a father who had a good life [prior to the war] and that he couldn’t feed his baby anymore because he was out of work.”
People find it hard to ask for help, she said. “They don’t want to say, ‘I didn’t eat food,’ or they don’t want to say that I’m hungry. And that breaks my heart.”
Lucy hopes her work will eventually pave the way to justice for the subjects of her reporting.
“As a journalist, all I care about is finding evidence and verifying the accounts. But I’m also a human being. As a human being, you expect some kind of justice,” Lucy said.