When the 19-year-old student regained consciousness, she was in the forest. She remembered running there to escape the fighting in her hometown in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia.
Dazed and confused, she saw blood flow from her nose and genitals. Around her were the four Eritrean soldiers who had raped her. “They were all laughing,” she sobbed. They continued to rape her over the next five days.
“They appreciated my pain. They didn’t think I was a person. Every time I tried to stop them, they told me to “shut up”, “shut up”, “shut up” and beat myself, ”she said. They accused her of being a courier for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, which is at war with Ethiopian and Eritrean forces.
Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, launched the so-called law enforcement operation against the TPLF, an organization which has ruled the country for 27 years and which he described as a “criminal clique”, in early November.
As Abiy declared the conflict over, fighting continues and Ethiopia, the region’s economic powerhouse and Africa’s second most populous country, is in crisis. Since coming to power in 2018, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate has said he wants to unify a country marked by ethnic faults. He blamed the TPLF for the divisions in the country.
But the brutality of some of the attacks on the Tigrayans has only exacerbated separatist sentiment. “I’m just Tigrayan now, not Ethiopian, if we were Ethiopians the government wouldn’t let us be raped by soldiers,” the 19-year-old, who didn’t want her name published, said. Financial Times. hiding place, the end of its white Netela scarf drenched in tears.
She is not the only one in Mekelle, the regional capital, to express such feelings. A 16-year-old girl recounted being raped “repeatedly” by an Ethiopian soldier. “He did this to me because he hates us Tigrayans, period, because their goal is to destroy us.”
Tip of the iceberg
Five months after the start of the war and allegations of sexual violence involving neighboring Ethiopian and Eritrean forces – a longtime enemy of Tigray whose soldiers help Abiy fight the TPLF – are widespread, say doctors, nurses, doctors aid workers and even members of the interim administration that was appointed by Addis Ababa. The Tigrayan forces have also been accused of atrocities.
The UN declared at the end of March that sexual violence in Tigray “Raised in conflict affected areas”. He noted at least 516 cases – but warned that this was likely just “the tip of the iceberg.”
At the main hospital in Mekelle, nurses and prosecutors detailed testimonies of “critical cases”: a woman raped “day and night” for a week by ten Ethiopian soldiers; another was raped by a “commander” who threatened to kill her two-month-old baby; another was reportedly raped by 15 Eritrean soldiers, women raped in front of their husbands and children. One of the alleged victims was only six years old.
“Violence against the civilian population, in particular sexual violence. . . seems to be a feature of the conflict, ”said Dominik Stillhart, chief of operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Debretsion Gebremichael, hidden leader of the TPLF, accused his enemies of having raped the Tigrayans. But Eritrean officials have denied that their troops have committed atrocities. A spokesperson for the Ethiopian federal force did not respond to a request for comment, but the Ethiopian military has in the past denied committing such crimes.
Last month, Michelle Bachelet, UN Human Rights Commissioner, spoke of “deeply distressing reports of sexual and gender-based violence” and other atrocities by all sides.
His office, alongside the legally autonomous Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, is to investigate “human rights violations and abuses allegedly committed by all parties”. Tigray militias are said to have killed hundreds of people in the town of Mai-Kadra. Officials in the interim Tigray administration said the TPLF was using civilians as “human shields”.
“Regardless of the exaggerated propaganda of the TPLF, any soldier responsible for the rape of our women and the looting of communities in the region will be held accountable because their mission is to protect,” Abiy told parliament last month.
Filsan Abdullahi Ahmed, Ethiopian Minister for Women, said that a working group on sexual violence “unfortunately the established rape has taken place conclusively and without question”.
“There is a reluctant acceptance that horrible things are happening,” a senior foreign diplomat said in Addis Ababa. “Even if only 10% of atrocity stories are true, that’s enough, it’s too much.”
Abiy’s pan-Ethiopian dream
The alleged brutality could also challenge Abiy’s pan-Ethiopian vision, a key part of his ambitions for a country with 80 ethnicities and nine ethnically defined states. When he became Prime Minister in 2018, Abiy emphasized Ethiopia’s national identity based on the concept of companion, or come together through diversity.
The Tigrayans, who make up just 6% of Ethiopia’s population of 110 million, dominated the national government for 27 years but were sidelined when Abiy, who comes from the much more populous Oromia region , took office. Critics said Abiy’s comments about pan-Ethiopianism threatened state autonomy in the country’s federal system.
People close to the Addis Ababa government said the war galvanized national support for Abiy.
Girmay Berhe, leader of the Party for the Independence of Tigray, which had previously opposed the TPLF, retorted that he had galvanized the Tigrayans, because “it is the worst period in the history of Tigray. It is not the TPLF that is dying, it is the ordinary Tigrayans who are dying ”.
Getachew Reda, a senior TPLF official, said his movement was not leading a TPLF army but “a Tigray army.” It is an army which has in its fold those who are not members of the TPLF and even those who oppose the TPLF ”.
Even senior officials in Tigray’s interim government admit that the conflict has heightened separatist sentiment. They say the Eritreans control a strip of northeastern Tigray and the Amhara, one of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups, control western Tigray. This has created resentment among Tigrayans who “today do not want to be part of Ethiopia because of the crimes that have happened, everything is believed, they want an independent Tigray”, a senior government official told Mekelle.
Some in Addis Ababa argue that the brutality of the TPLF’s long rule has prompted retaliatory attacks. “There was so much hatred towards the TPLF for being so cruel that it sparked atrocities,” said a senior federal government official. “The TPLF encouraged ethnic politics. . . We are here now because of their perverse divisive policies. “
The danger is that these latest atrocities challenge not only Abiy’s pan-Ethiopian dream, but also the very cohesion of the state itself. Radical Oromo groups have also called for an independent state. Asked whether Ethiopia can remain united, Mulu Nega, the interim president of Tigray appointed by Abiy, replied “I hope” while warning that “in such a crisis, anything is possible”.
“ Being Ethiopian doesn’t mean anything to me ”
Anger is evident in a side street in Mekelle, where a young man was shot in the back of the neck as an execution, medics say, after breaking curfew. The man’s body was still on the ground ten hours later. Residents present blamed the Ethiopian soldiers.
In an area near old faded billboards praising the former Tigrayan rulers, Meseret Yitbarek, who owns a store on a bombed-hit street, said: “We all want an independent Tigray now more than ever. We do not want to be occupied by Ethiopia or Eritrea. “
In the city’s largest hospital, Ayder, Kibrom Gebreselassie, the chief clinical director, has been caring for the war-wounded for months – children with their feet blown up by bombs, women gang-raped, men blinded by Gunshots. “The situation is highly polarized, which is a catalyst for violence,” he said, describing the rape of Tigrayans “as a weapon of war”.
The 19-year-old rape victim is currently staying in Mekelle. She believes that the sexual violence against the Tigrayans is an effort “to harm us, it aims to destroy us, there is no other explanation,” she said. “In all respects, they have divided us. Now, being Ethiopian doesn’t mean anything to me anymore.
Battle for Tigray
April 2, 2018
Abiy Ahmed takes office as Prime Minister of Ethiopia, ending 27-year reign of TPLF in EPRDF coalition
October 11, 2019
Abiy wins Nobel Peace Prize for role in ending 20-year conflict with neighboring Eritrea
September 9, 2020
Tigray, led by TPLF, continues regional elections against will of central government
November 4, 2020
Abiy sends troops to Tigray after attack by Tigray troops on federal army base
November 29, 2020
Abiy says Ethiopian forces ‘completed and ceased military operations’ in Tigray after taking control of Mekelle
March 23, 2021
After months of government denial, Abiy admits presence of Eritrean forces in Tigray