Selamawit Kelbessa: Survivor of an Acid Attack Tragically Passed Away

Selemawit Tefera Kelbessa was a former Ethiopian Airlines hostess who moved to Maryland, United States in 2016, due to social unrest and conflict in Ethiopia. She then began working multiple jobs, one of which was at an Ethiopian Restaurant. “She was a caring and kind person who always wore a bright smile on her face” said a loved one. Another friend on Facebook said, “Selam was a beautiful person inside and out. She was my hero. She taught me a lot.”

In 2018, Selemawit lived with four Ethiopian male roommates in Hyattsville, Maryland. After finishing her shift on a Saturday evening, Selamawit returned to her house. She then entered the kitchen, where she came across one of her roomates: Bekre Abdela. Abdela was holding a container of sulfuric acid. He splashed the acid on her face and body. She stayed in a hospital for several months after suffering second and third-degree burns. According to a VOA news article, police haven’t identified a motive. However, according to Selamawit, the reason for the attack is clear: “I think this happened to me because I am a woman.”

Before Selamawit took her own life on April 12th, 2019, she was hospitalized for nearly a year and had undergone numerous skin grafts. She had permanently lost sight in her right eye. Her left eye had a chance of recovering, restoring parts of her vision, which was a good news for her as she planned to study Information Technology. She was planning to have reconstructive surgery, however, the funds were hard to come by. That was, until people began to raise funds for that, her living expenses and other medical bills.

Acid attacks are rare in the U.S. However, they are more common in countries and communities where gender inequality is highly prevalent. In Ethiopian communities, acid attacks perpetrated by men are becoming common. Most victims know the perpetrator. They had dated them, lived with them, married them. A splash of acid and their faces and future were changed forever. This brutal attack is designed to isolate victims and strip them of their dignity and power. They are seldom fatal, but they cause lifelong: physical, psychological and financial harm.

In August 2018, Setaweet, a feminist movement based in Ethiopia, started a petition to Stop Acid Attacks in Ethiopia. The petition was regarding Chaltu Abdi. Abdi died of complications following an extended hospital stay due to a third-degree burn from an unidentified flammable liquid. She sustained this after being raped repeatedly by her employer in Harar, Ethiopia. Although under police custody, her assailant has yet to be charged with any crime.

The Ethiopian community also raised funds for another acid attack victim recently, Atsade Nigese. She survived a brutal act of domestic violence after her husband poured acid all over her face and body. She is now blind with scarred skin. Her body is disfigured and even her own son initially rejected her, saying that he knew her by her voice but could not identify anything else about her.

#MeTooEthiopia believes the Ethiopian government needs to create a strong legislation pertaining to gender-based violence by providing appropriate legal consequences. In addition to creating law, the government must put effort enforcing laws, training police officers and changing female perceptions in our communities. Based on the countless stories we receive on a regular bases, such issues happen frequently because there is little to no notable consequences for perpetrators. Victims and survivors have shared their lack of trust in the legal system’s ability to bring assailants to justice. #MeTooEthiopia will continue to raise awareness about such issues. We must end the physical, psychological and social trauma of sexual assault and gender based violence in the Ethiopian community. This is an urgent matter and  immediate action must take place.

Edited by Lisa Ayenew (IG@Lisaaye80) & Lidya Ayenew (IG: @Lidyagetafilm)

Art by Betremariam Tebebe (IG: @bitutebebe)