Women report being abducted and systematically attacked as conflict in the region intensifies

Doctors say victims of conflict-related sexual violence are seeking emergency contraception and HIV prevention drugs in northern Ethiopia

By Lucy Kassa and Anna Pujol-Mazzini

27 March 2021

Hundreds of women are rushing to Tigray’s hospitals in northern Ethiopia for emergency contraception and HIV prevention drugs after being systematically raped, often gang-raped, by Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers fighting in a brutal civil war.

Dozens are seeking abortions, medical care and psychological support in overwhelmed hospitals, many of which have been destroyed by a five-month conflict between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Thousands more are thought to be suffering in silence as they fear reprisals by security forces and rejection from their families, survivors, doctors and aid workers told the Telegraph.

In one of the first in-depth investigations of allegations of rape as a weapon of war in the conflict – which would constitute a war crime – the Telegraph has spoken to dozens in the region to uncover the true extent of what is happening.

One video, which was widely circulated on social media and has been verified by the Telegraph, shows a surgeon in Adigrat hospital removing long nails and pieces of plastic from the vagina of one woman after she was raped and tortured.

Melat*, 20, was at home in Wukro with her elder brother Danayi* when Ethiopian federal soldiers came in, she said. “When five Ethiopian soldiers came to our house to rape me, Danayi tried to defend me from them. ‘I cannot let you rape my sister,’ he said to them. The soldiers shot my brother in the head and took turns raping me,” Melat recalled, still in shock. “They raped me beside the corpse of my brother.”

Aid workers warn that rape is being used as a weapon of war and as a scare tactic in Tigray CREDIT: Reuters

Like many Tigrayan women, she is now pregnant from the attack. Many others have contracted HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases.

Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have for months been battling troops loyal to the former Tigrayan regional government in a war that has left thousands dead and millions on the brink of starvation. The resulting humanitarian disaster has left 4.5 million people in need of emergency assistance.

A coalition of Tigray’s political opposition recently stated that more than 50,000 people might have died since fighting began on November 4. Survivors, doctors, aid workers and experts speaking to the Telegraph all pointed to rape being systematically used as a weapon of war by Ethopian and Eritrean forces despite being harassed and threatened by soldiers in a bid to prevent them from speaking out.

“It’s absolutely ethnic cleansing, rape is being used as a weapon of war, it is being used as scare tactics,” an aid worker who has just returned from Tigray, who asked to stay anonymous, said.

Selam, a 26-year-old coffee seller in Edaga Hamus, 100km away from Tigray’s capital of Mekelle, said she was abducted by Eritrean soldiers with 17 other women in January.

“They took us into the forest. When we arrived there, there were around 100 soldiers who were waiting for us. They tied the hands and feet of each one of us. And then they raped us without mercy,” she told the Telegraph as she fought through tears.

“We stayed that way for three days. After three days the soldiers killed five girls who had been tied with us. They poured [alcohol] over our wounds. They danced standing over us.”

By the time she was taken into the forest, she had already been raped several times by men she recognised as Eritrean soldiers. After the first attack, her abusers were waiting for her as she returned to her house from the hospital with contraceptives and post-exposure HIV drugs.

“Why the hell did you want this? We want you to be sick. That is what we are here for. We are here to make you HIV-positive,” Selam recalled one of the men as saying.

A doctor working in the sprawling Hamdayet refugee camp at the Sudanese border also said several women had reported being raped by Amharan soldiers who told them they planned to ethnically cleanse Tigray.

“The women that have been raped say that the things that they say to them when they were raping them is that they need to change their identity – to either Amharise them or at least leave their Tigrinya status… and that they’ve come there to cleanse them… to cleanse the blood line,” Dr Tedros Tefera told CNN.

“Practically this has been a genocide,” he added.

Sexual violence is reportedly worsening in the conflict between Ethiopian and Eritrean forces and troops loyal to the former Tigrayan regional government CREDIT: Nariman El-Mofty/AP

The systematic nature of the sexual violence and its reported use as a deliberate weapon of war could constitute war crimes under international law.

Abrha Desta, who heads the social affairs department of the Tigray interim government, declined to comment on the worsening sexual violence in the conflict between Ethiopian and Eritrean forces and troops loyal to the former Tigrayan regional government.

However, earlier this week Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed acknowledged the abuses. “There were atrocities that were committed in Tigray region… reports indicate that atrocities were being committed by raping women and looting properties,” Mr Abiy said, without attributing the incidents to particular groups.

“Any member of the national defence who committed rape and looting against our Tigrayan sisters will be held accountable,” he added.

In response to the Telegraph’s specific allegations, Mr Abiy’s spokeswoman Billene Seyoum said the prime minister had “sufficiently addressed this” in parliament. “The government does not condone sexual violence or any form of violence against citizens,” she added.

Eritrea’s minister of information Yemane Ghebremeskel told the Telegraph the accusations were “sad and revolting”. “Eritrean soldiers have never been accused of rape. All the fabricated stories – which are alien to our culture and laws – are peddled to cover up the crimes of the TPLF which started the war.”

The governments’ statements followed condemnation from top UN officials including UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet and WHO director Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who called for an independent investigation into conflict-related sexual violence in Tigray.

One doctor in Adigrat hospital in northern Tigray, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, said 111 women had come to get abortions in the past two weeks alone after reporting being raped by soldiers. Since early December, major hospitals in Tigray have recorded 512 cases of sexual abuse by soldiers, most of which are gang rapes.

But doctors and nurses from two Tigray hospitals who spoke to the Telegraph on condition of anonymity said the real figures could be significantly higher as a majority of the cases go unreported. “Every woman who comes here says there were 20 and more women with her, who get no chance to make it to hospitals,” Goytom*, a doctor at a hospital in Mekelle said.

Many hospitals have been destroyed in the fighting, leaving survivors struggling to access medical care and psychological support. “Only one facility provides the full range of services for clinical management of rape survivors, and emergency contraception is fully available in less than half of the facilities assessed,” the UN chiefs statement said.

Hospitals can also become places of danger for women who speak out about their experiences. “Soldiers enter hospitals as they like. They cross wards and threaten patients, nurses and doctors. There were recently seven raped women from Zalambessa who disappeared from their beds after seeing soldiers in the hospital,” said Abraham*, a doctor in Adigrat hospital.

Rahel*, a nurse at a rehabilitation centre for survivors of sexual violence said officials from the transitional government in Tigray had threatened to shut down the centre. “They believe it is these centres which are making the stories of sexually abused women known to the world,” she said. “They don’t want these stories out.”

Dr Denis Mukwege, the Nobel-peace price winning Congolese gynaecologist, told the Telegraph rape as a weapon of war must be banned wherever it is reported. “When rape is used, the world has to stand up and say no to rape as a weapon of war. But the world is not doing it strongly, it is not standing up.”

*Some names have been changed. Additional reporting by Will Brown

Source: The Telegraph