Trauma and PTSD take a toll on journalists amid the Tigray war

Editor’s note:

This is a long article, initially written as an academic manuscript. The content might be modified in the future if more data become available. Comments are welcome.

Authors: Woldegiorgis Gebrehiwot, Daniel Zemchal and Mebrahten Gebremariam

As the war on Tigray continues, now in the form of a brutal siege and devastating blockade, journalists in Tigray find themselves close to death, both literally and figuratively. 

After having repeatedly covered unspeakable atrocities committed by the warring armies against civilians, the cruelty of the man-made famine meted out on children, and the indiscriminate drone strikes that continued for several months across Tigray, a journalist told his manager: “I often think that the only way out of this suffering is to commit suicide.”

The atrocious and dynamic nature of the Tigray war attracted the attention of local and international media, though all who did not echo the government’s narrative would be denied access. It was the top global agenda for 16 months, until it was replaced by the Ukraine war in February 2022. As international media organizations were refused entry into Tigray, the responsibility of covering the developments of the war was – if not solely – that of local media.

Reporters working under normal circumstances are among the high-risk population for trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This article focuses on how journalists in Tigray, located in the war-torn Horn of Africa, continue to be confronted with traumatic experiences as a result of their assignments to cover violent scenes of war and the effects of the siege.

On-the-job Trauma Experiences

Between 20 and 29 April, 2022, several interviews were conducted with 15 reporters who had covered various events, including the aftermath of battles, sexual and gender-based violence, famine, and drone attacks and other atrocities committed against civilians throughout Tigray.

Five media managers and editors, responsible for the strategic leadership of their respective institution and coordination of daily news desk assignments, were also interviewed.   

War Correspondence Changing the Meaning of Life

In mid-November 2020, the state-run Tigray Mass Media Agency assigned Haileselassie Gebremikael and his colleagues to cover the aftermath of a battle that had taken place around the town of Zalambesa in the Eastern Zone of Tigray. 

He says: “… Shocked! … first time I had ever seen dead bodies except in movies, when we reached Zalambesa.

“We were informed by survivors that Eritrean soldiers had entered the town in the middle of the night, massacring civilians from door to door, vehemently saying every Tigrayan male above seven had to be killed.”

The day the crew reached the town, the allied Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers had withdrawn from the area, following an effective counteroffensive by the Tigrayan forces. He remembers: “As the people were fleeing Zalambesa, we were capturing the bodies scattered over the main street.

But there was continuous shelling directed towards the town.”

“One of the shells exploded close to us. My colleague from Amharic News Desk got shocked, and had to discontinue her interview.”

Shortly after that, the crew left Zalambesa. The towns of Zalambesa and Fatsi were being shelled continually, so they decided to go to Adigrat, but found the town was not safe, either. They then left for Freweini, driving 30 km to the south. The colleague in shock was taken to Mekelle and replaced with a standby reporter. 

Later, the crew learned that civilian residents, including Eritrean refugees sheltered in the Adigrat Polytechnic College, had been targeted in the shelling, and they had to go back to cover the casualties. 

In the early morning of November 21, 2020, they arrived at Adigrat Hospital. There, Haileselassie and his crew were confronted with a “stream of blood coming out of the emergency room”. A woman whose leg had been chopped off was screaming. Bodies were lined up, covered with pieces of clothes. Children were howling with the pain of serious injuries. Physicians were faced with the impossible dilemma of whether to continue discharging their professional responsibilities or flee to save their own lives.”

While Haileselassie and the Amharic Desk reporter were filming and reporting from the hospital, the Eritrean Army surrounded half of the city. They were informed that the main root was under their control. “We quickly and sneakily escaped through the other side of the city.

“Our shock sank in later, when we learned that it was a matter of minutes that we managed to escape from the soldiers.” 

One thing has particularly stayed with Haileselassie, he says. “The crying of a two-year-old child I saw, cradled by its mother, heavily injured on both her legs, still haunts me.” 

Weldemhret Gezae, a reporter at DW International, had trying times when he reported from the front lines that stretched from Mekelle to Adet. 

“The first day I saw dead bodies, I was stunned, and turned away”, he recalls. 

“Somehow, I managed to produce reports of scenes with graphic content, even next to the dead, as the war got worse.” 

Weldemhret states that he would report violent scenes like a robot, as the war intensified between December 2020 and February 2021.   

Afewerki Gebrehiwet, a journalist at the Tigray Mass Media Agency, is best known for his report from Shewate Higum, one of the deadliest front lines. He remembers being confronted with situations that would test his humanity, and changed his “meaning of life”. 

On May 12, 2021, he and his team passed Koraro, in the vicinity of Hawzen. There, he witnessed horrors, when Eritrean soldiers massacred 31 civilians in the area. 

“They slaughtered a mother with her newborn baby girl, 30 days old, and four other children.

“I saw a total of five bodies of the same family.” The last person in the family, says Afewerki, “was a child I found having survived injured.” 

He states that massacres were prevalent in the Tigray war. “What still troubles me most is the image: the mother and the kid, slaughtered with bayonets.”  

Afewerki also met a “widowed bride”, after Eritrean soldiers shot the bridegroom along with his five friends. Her love, her hope and her dreams – all swiftly snatched away. Yet she must bear the hope and the burden of a child. He finds this particularly painful, as he thinks about the longer-term effects of the war.   

Certainly, the fighting at Shewate Higum was devastating, and Afewerki describes it as “the event when I truly hated my human nature.”

“On my way to the reporting scene,” he recalls, “I found a minimum of fifty soldiers at every checkpoint I passed.  

“What surprised me was not the numbers, but rather the super-imposed dead; the wounded, and the screaming over each other.” He says that day, the difference between life and death was obscured for him. “Death was as easy as these mass of bodies, and life was as hard as those who were screaming in agony from the deadly injuries.” 

These and other faces of the war have changed Afewerki’s view of the value of life. He now considers “selfishness, despicableness and stupidity the keywords in the meaning of life.” 

While most parts of Tigray were under the control of the allied forces of what was left of the Ethiopian National Defense Force, Eritrean Army and Amhara militias, journalists at the Tigray Mass Media Agency and 104.4 Radio FM Mekelle were in an increasingly difficult situation. They were prevented by administrators of the interim government from reporting on the suffering of the people.

Hiwet Birhane, a producer at the Tigray Mass Media Agency, states: “I had visited victims of gang rape, extrajudicial killings, civilians who had survived massacres by Eritrean soldiers. But I was ordered not to even mention the involvement of the Eritrean Army, let alone revealing the atrocious reality.” 

In effect, a reporter at 104.4 Radio FM Mekelle, Adanech Gebregzabher, describes her job under the Tigray Interim Administration as full of immoral dictation, in order to hide the pain of the public, which left her “stressed and depressed, because I didn’t voice the anguish of my people, the lived experiences on the ground.”    

Hiwet Birhane says the purpose of the daily dictation from the newly assigned media managers was to portray the Ethiopian Army as saviour of the people of Tigray, to deny that chemical weapons were being used against civilians and that Eritrean soldiers were in Tigray, and to denounce reports of sexual violence as TPLF’s propaganda. 

“On top of the horrific pain of injury and trauma that I share with my interviewees, the censorship in the media made me anxious and unstable for months.” 

‘Erasing memories may take Decade’ – Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

As her programme on DW International continues to be aired weekly, Ngsti Kinfe reports: “I learn new perspectives about the extent and severity of the SGBV and of course the intentions of the perpetrators. 

“The agonising stories of rape survivors have made me sleepless, absent-minded and stressed for eight months.

“I fight with my mind. Sometimes I feel I should quit the programme, but I persist, to be the voice of my sisters’ pain.

“I feel the world is unjust, as I understand the perpetrators continue to rape women in western Tigray with impunity.” 

Tears trickling down her cheeks, Ngsti says: “I can’t shoulder the imploding stress I am experiencing anymore. Oh … You can’t understand how a physical injury is much simpler than the anxiety I face. With a physical injury, I may be bleeding or have some wound to show; I now have nothing to show you, but I am bleeding inside.”             

Selamawit Kahsay has produced reports on more than twenty cases of gang rape perpetrated by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers as well as Amhara forces for the Tigray Mass Media Agency. 

”One of the rape survivors I interviewed was captured by Eritrean soldiers while fleeing Irob, and gang-raped by 15 of them for half a month.”

She continues after taking a deep breath: “When she was back home after treatment, she found her husband and children massacred, their home burnt.”

Selamawit describes life as unjust and frivolous, and says she has been “sleepless for several months”. 

“Another survivor from north-western Tigray” she spoke to was gang-raped when she tried to bring food to her children hiding in the mountains to escape the shelling. 

“She now has cervical cancer, awaiting death; there is no medicine.” 

“If you ask me when such stories might be erased from your mind,” Selamawit says tearfully, “I am afraid to say: ‘After this or that decade’.” 

‘Unable to open eyes and edit the video’ – Reporting Deadly Drone Attacks

The frequent drone attacks in Mekelle also left journalists deeply traumatised. On October 18, 2021, Hiwet Birhane fainted while witnessing the aftermath of a drone attack that had targetted civilians at Harena, a village on the outskirts of Mekelle. On her arrival, she was confronted with a gruesome sight: a farmer collecting the body pieces of his three children, victims of the deadly attack. 

“Covered with blood, the poor farmer was rushing here and there, collecting the scattered parts of the bodies of his children into a card board box. He would find and collect a hand here, a leg there. The smell of burnt flesh … always in my mind.” 

Traumatised by the stories of war that she covered, Hiwet has received treatment, but continues to experience debilitating headache, distress and feelings of futility.

Weldemhret Gezae was assigned to cover the drone attack that took place on November 28, 2021, targeting a residential area locally known as 05 kebele, in Mekelle City. The attack killed 21 civilians in the neighbourhood, including an entire family. Nevertheless, the Ethiopian government announced, through the state-owned media it now fully controlled, that the drone attack had achieved its target. 

But still, there was more to come. Weldemhret witnessed the search of bodies from the wreckage. He says: “Our crew captured the chopped bodies collected from the demolished houses, the survivors at Ayder Hospital, and dead bodies at the forensic room of the hospital.” 

In his rush to produce the news, Weldemhret faced a challenge. “The technical editors were unable to open their eyes to preview and edit the video; I did it myself, but they were ordered to do so because their final say was needed before dissemination. 

“Even the senior editors and news desk assigners were shocked by that graphic video, let alone the more junior reporters, the cameraman and technical editors.”  

Based on his lived experiences, Weldemhret says: “Not only the assigned crew, but everyone involved in the news production process, from the reporter to the head of the news desk, is a victim of the traumatic effects of the violent media contents we deal with.”  

‘When I see my daughter, I see that starving child’

Among the crowd of IDPs sheltered in Mekelle, a tiny two-year-old caught the attention of  Hareya Gebreanenya. 

“With dry skin, bony posture, and hardly enough energy to walk, the kid pleadingly looked at me”, says the Assistant Producer at National Radio DWET.

“But I could only cuddle her, I had no other means of expressing my sympathy. 

“Now, whenever I see my daughter, who is the same age, I recall the pleading look on that starving child’s face. 

“I feel guilty. I could not help her.” 

Sometime later, Hareya tried to reach out to the child, but says she couldn’t find her again. This added to Hareya’s distress and worry. “She is on my mind, even after four months.”   

Visibly distressed, Mache Debesay, agricultural journalist at the Tigray Mass Media Agency, reports what he observed in Bora Slawa district. 

“The self-sufficient farmer I interviewed three years ago is now needy. His beehives were looted by Amhara forces, his cattle and produce were taken by Eritrean soldiers, leaving him with nothing to eat. They stole his future.”  

Mache compares the traumatic situations that many journalists, himself included, have been facing with what happened to the award-winning South African photo journalist who, in the 1990s, photographed a child starving to death in Sudan, while vultures lurked nearby. 

“We did nothing to reduce harm, to feed the starving interviewees we routinely encountered. But that is not because we don’t understand humanity, it’s because we have nothing for ourselves.” 

‘I’ve been treated for Trauma’ – Atrocities of the warring armies

Correspondents based at zonal offices around Tigray face even more difficult circumstances; covering the plight of the local population has become their primary duty. 

Mezgebe Goiteom is DW International’s correspondent for the Eastern Zone of Tigray. While reporting atrocities in October 2021, he witnessed an incident for which he would be treated for trauma. 

“I saw burnt bodies of people in Hadnet, in the vicinity of Atsbi Endaselassie, after Eritrean soldiers had chained three civilians under a heap of straw and set fire to it.”      

He was unable to cope with the effects of covering such traumatic scenes; he became sleepless, troubled and lonely. Mezgebe had to see a doctor. 

“I have been treated for trauma,” he now says, and adds: “I had no clue about what trauma even is.” 

After the treatment, “I now sleep for a maximum of three hours a day, which is an improvement from not sleeping at all, or just an hour for four months.”  

Another reporter at the Tigray Mass Media Agency, Yemane Hiluf, remembers the hardship one of his interviewees in an IDP camp in Mekelle now faces. 

“A woman from Mai-Kadra, who had 300 sheep, 50 cattle, a car, and many different kinds of produce, which was all looted by Fano militias and Eritrean soldiers, and destroyed by the Fano vigilante group in the mayhem of the massacre, is now unable to get medicine for her blood pressure.

“She escaped the massacre, but she still doesn’t know what happened to seven of her children, as the communication blackout continues.” 

“Eleven months since salaries and banking was cut”, says Yemane, “coupled with the existential threat I am facing; these traumatic experiences amount to being one side of a  double-edged sword.”      

Institutional Settings for Trauma Management 

Most journalists state that they did not have enough awareness about the psychological effects of reporting in traumatic settings. 

When they were first exposed to traumatic experiences, their reaction was one of shock. As they repeatedly reported on the violence of this continuing conflict, their response to the traumatic situations manifested itself as distress, sleeplessness, disgust, sadness, pessimism, nightmares of the traumatic incidents, guilt, depression, absent-mindedness, and continuous negative emotions. 

Although traumatic experiences have the most direct effects on the field crew, they are also ‘spiralled’ into the news desk, because the established editorial system demands the work of many experts in the news production process.

Amharic News Desk Coordinator at DW International, Angesom Abraha, says: “Many journalists in my department were off work for many days; they were exposed to traumatic experiences in the field as well as user-generated content on the internet.”  

Most media professionals, however, did not formally report what happened to them, or their mental state. 

Ngsti Kinfe describes a complex situation: “The professionals in this institution have their own respective stories of traumatic experiences, which have resulted in various changes of character; people became noisy or calm, hyper-interactive or lonely. So, who am I supposed to report to?” 

Many others did not report at all, be it for reasons of privacy, fear of being perceived as weak, or either denial or bravado

Manager of the Tigray Mass Media Agency, Teshale Bekele, recalls: “A journalist who hadn’t been exposed to hardships before approached me to express the odd feeling he had.” 

After having frequently covered terrifying atrocities committed by the warring parties against civilians, the brutality of the state-sponsored famine on children, and the indiscriminate drone strikes that continued for several months across Tigray, the young journalist told his manager: “I often think that the only way out of such suffering is committing suicide.”

The traumatic and post-traumatic mental health problems have reached “the extent of suicidal thoughts and attempts”, says Teshale, “but most of the traumatic experiences are not institutionally reported, but just informally shared among colleagues.”     

The media organisations in Tigray did not institutionalise training or coaching protocols for their media professionals, before dispatching them to cover traumatic events. 

But the Tigray Mass Media Agency soon reacted to the fact that media professionals reported showing traumatic symptoms. It organised an awareness-raising session about traumatic experiences among media professionals.           

With weaponised famine, extreme atrocities and indiscriminate drone attacks having been a regular feature of this war, “journalists are becoming familiar to death. They go, count the dead bodies, and report on the scene; many are becoming numb or non-reactive of the traumatic events”, reports Angesom Abraha. 

Sometimes the employees were frightened, because media institutions themselves must be assumed to be targets of drone attacks. The Manager of Tigray Mass Media Agency says 

“We were unstable when there was a series of drone strikes around media institutions.” 

Teshale adds: “We understood that professional healing treatment is vital for the psychological and emotional suffering our media professionals are facing in silence.”   

Most journalists describe having reported from violent scenes repeatedly. 

Weldemhret Gezae says: “The frequent and repeated assigning of the same person to cover different traumatic scenes aggravated the consequences on the assigned reporters.” 

What has made the situation even worse is that the media institutions in Tigray did not provide any post-traumatic experience treatment, as is usually done in order to mitigate the mental health effects on reporters during war or humanitarian crises.

‘Switching off the media I work for’: Coping Mechanisms

Media professionals used various ways of reducing the psychological effects of their traumatic experiences. Some of the practices may be symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.    

One journalist reports: “At home, I switch off TV channels that frequently disseminate violent content, including the channel I work for.” 

Many journalists try to avoid content that might trigger memories of traumatic experiences. This may be classified as avoidance symptoms, characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder. But, according to them, these avoidance tactics mostly fail; they experience nightmares, flashbacks, fear in the dark and distressing memories, which are intrusion symptoms, typical for post-traumatic stress disorder. Others keep reading their favourite books as a means of distracting themselves.    

One journalist says: “When I eat, I often think of the starving child. Then I stop and hate myself.

“I ask myself: ‘Am I human’?” 

Significant numbers of media professionals have already developed a pessimistic view of the world. This falls under negative cognition, characteristic of PTSD

A significant number of journalists anonymously disclosed that they are considering leaving the profession as a sustainable way out of the mental health effects of traumatic experiences. 

“I can’t concentrate to write a script”, says one journalist. Another reiterates: “Repeatedly being confronted with traumatic content is a headache that even makes me consider quitting the profession.”     

Over the last months, media professionals have developed different, personal techniques to escape the suffering, such as avoiding triggering content and memories of traumatic experiences, reporting against all odds, leaving their job, reading books, or even going into exile.        

Selamawit Kahsay says: “The psychological effect of the violent scenes has dominated my mind, and not just for days and weeks. It is more a transitive headache and imploding distress, even for decades to come.” 

Yemane Hiluf believes the public should not be exposed to continuous traumatic scenes through different media, as their own lives are already filled with traumatic events. He prefers presenting “solutions of the public to end the deadly siege, and ideas for the future of Tigray, to protect the public from the post-traumatic stress disorder that we journalists must deal with.”