The Sexually Violated Women of Tigray Demand Justice

In northern Ethiopia, recent victims of mass rape and other war crimes call on the international community to hold perpetrators to account

The Sexually Violated Women of Tigray Demand Justice
Tigrayan demonstrators protest the war in Tigray in Birmingham, England, in October 2022. (Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

The rehabilitation center in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, is full of wounded soldiers who sustained extreme injuries during the brutal two-year conflict in Ethiopia’s northernmost regional state. Young veterans in wheelchairs and with broken legs, lost eyes and limbs are common. Among these injured fighters are women.

Abrehet Tesfay turned 19 in April. She lost both of her legs while fighting on the battlefield.

When the war broke out, she was a high school student in the Tigray town of Wukro. Her dream was to attend university and study accounting. But the war changed her life. In a telephone interview, Tesfay told New Lines:

What forced me to join the war was the unspeakably terrible abuses the Eritrean and Ethiopian forces had been committing in my hometown. Watching them raping, torturing and killing my neighbors and friends, I could not sit quiet. I did not go to war to defend any political agenda or political party. My sole agenda had been bringing an end to the terrible abuses against my people. When I decided to join the war, my age was below the enlistment age. I lied about my age in order to join the battle.

Despite losing both legs, Tesfay has no regrets:

I fought for dignity and freedom. I don’t have regrets at all. Instead, what I feel is pride. I consider myself privileged to be alive. Many of my female and male comrades have sacrificed their precious lives on the battlefields. Like me, most of them were motivated to go to war because of the abuses against their mothers and sisters.

Ethiopia’s Tigray War, fought from November 2020 to November 2022, was one of the deadliest wars of the 21st century.

The bloody conflict initially began as a political controversy between the federal government of Ethiopia and the Tigray regional government’s ruling party, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). But soon after the start of the war, multiple reports emerged of ethnic cleansing, large-scale massacres, systematic mass detentions, weaponized sexual violence and weaponized starvation by the Ethiopian government, targeting ethnic Tigrayan people in the Tigray region and elsewhere in Ethiopia.

Despite the signing of a peace deal between the TPLF and the federal government, Tigrayans in Ethiopia are seeking international accountability for what they call a genocidal war that aimed to exterminate their ethnic identity.

The majority of the Ethiopian population expressed support for the war against Tigray in huge pro-war rallies. Gaslighting, justifications of rape and denial of the plight of ethnic Tigrayans were widespread. This fueled a deep resentment among Tigrayans and a desire for an independent Tigrayan state.

Like many Tigrayans, Tesfay and her friends no longer call themselves Ethiopians, because the term reminds them of the rapes and massacres carried out by Ethiopian troops and their allies.

Alongside the federal government, regional militias from the Ethiopian state of Amhara and troops from the neighboring country of Eritrea also participated in the war. Eritrea’s repressive government and record of gross human rights abuses and rampant corruption have earned it a reputation as the “North Korea of Africa.”

Both the TPLF and the Ethiopian forces and their allies are accused of human rights violations and war crimes. Notably, several reports indicate that, in the first seven months of the conflict, months during which the federal forces and their Eritrean allies occupied the Tigray region, they carried out weaponized sexual violence, sexual slavery, mass killings, torture, ethnic cleansing and mass starvation against thousands of civilians. Yet efforts to attain restorative justice remain unsuccessful, despite attempts by the U.N. to investigate the atrocities.

On June 28, 2021, the Tigrayan rebels defeated the federal forces and recaptured most of the region, with the exception of Western Tigray. Following months of guerrilla fighting, the TPLF returned to its former position of ruling Tigray. But the war did not stop there. The Tigrayan rebels advanced south to the neighboring region of Amhara and then east to Afar. During their advance, they committed reprisal killings and sexual violence, and indiscriminately shelled civilians.

Multiple reports and well-documented evidence suggest that Eritrean troops committed the most horrendous, large-scale and systematic abuses against thousands of civilians in Tigray. In August 2021, the U.S. sanctioned Filipos Woldeyohannes, the Eritrean army chief of staff, because of serious war crimes committed during the Tigray War. Three months later, sanctions were also imposed on the Eritrean military and other entities for their role in the conflict.

Throughout the war, the U.N., U.S. and EU urged the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray. But it was only when the Tigray rebels held the upper hand and liberated their region in June 2021 that the Eritrean troops were forced to withdraw from most territories in the region.

By all accounts, the war in Tigray was among the deadliest of the 21st century. As many as 500,000 civilians were killed in Tigray in 2022 alone, according to researchers at Ghent University in Belgium. About 6 million people in Tigray — including 2.3 million children, according to UNICEF — experienced a humanitarian crisis as the Ethiopian government placed the region under a deadly siege for two years. All basic services were cut off, including banking, electricity, medicine, transportation and communications. Famine was used as a weapon by the Ethiopian government against the population of Tigray.

Multiple reports suggest that brutal and large-scale war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing were committed in Tigray. Despite meeting many times to discuss this, the U.N. did not approve any condemnation resolutions throughout the Tigray conflict, in notable contrast to its response to Ukraine. Except for repeatedly voicing their concern, the U.N. and the international community took no meaningful action to stop the atrocities. This inaction emboldened the perpetrators to commit more atrocities with a sense of impunity.

Throughout the Tigray War, there was little to no coverage of the conflict in most Western media outlets. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the war in Tigray was almost forgotten, with Western media shifting focus to Ukraine.

In a press conference in April 2022, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, said that the crises in Tigray, Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan were not receiving a fraction of the attention given to Ukraine and criticized the Western media for its lack of reporting on Tigray, telling a roomful of reporters:

I don’t know if the world really gives equal attention to Black and white lives. I need to be blunt and honest that the world is not treating the human race the same way. Some are more equal than others. And when I say this, it pains me. Because I see it. Very difficult to accept, but it’s happening. What’s happening in Tigray is a tragic situation. People are being burned alive. I don’t know if that was taken seriously by the media.

Much of the burden in the fight to uproot Eritrean and federal forces from Tigray fell on the shoulders of women. In the aftermath of the widespread sexual violence and massacres by Eritrean and federal troops, tens of thousands of Tigrayan women joined the war.

Senayt Mehari is a 28-year-old woman who voluntarily joined the fighting in April 2021. She lost her right eye on a battlefield in northwestern Tigray. Due to heavy fighting at the time and lack of access to health care, she was provided with only basic battlefield surgery. In defiant tones, Mehari told New Lines by phone:

When the war broke out, I had been working as a civil servant. I had never imagined I would be a fighter. I planned to establish a family and have kids. The reason I joined the war is because at the time that was the only way to ensure justice. There was no other option. Occupying our land, the federal forces and their Eritrean allies had been gang-raping our mothers and sisters. They were killing innocent civilians. They wanted to dehumanize and exterminate us as people. So, I became a fighter to liberate myself and my people from those cruel troops. I fought for the sake of justice. I was ready to die. Losing my eye in this war is in fact a badge of honor for me.

Other veteran women fighters in the rehabilitation center in Mekelle share similar sentiments to Tesfay and Mehari. Some had joined the war with their sisters, brothers and other family members.

Melete Gebremaryam, 22, joined the war with her three sisters and one cousin. One of her sisters was killed in the battle. Melete is currently receiving treatment related to knee amputation. Gebremaryam told New Lines in a telephone interview:

I had been shot five times. But it was a must that I participate in the war. It was a very dark and hellish time when our enemies controlled our region. We needed to fight to regain our peace and freedom. If I did not go to the battlefields, perhaps I might have been gang-raped or killed like many others. I am saddened that my sister is no longer alive to see the peace right now. But I am happy with our decision to go to war. It was much better to die in the battlefields than to wait until our enemies knock on our doors and rape us. We had cause to fight. It was to defend our rights.

Hewan, 20, another veteran fighter receiving physiotherapy, said she joined the war after witnessing the extrajudicial killings of her brother and after she survived a brutal gang rape:

It happened on Jan. 17, 2021, in our hometown of Mai Dearo. Eritrean troops were looting and burning crops. They had been terrorizing villagers. They would round up women and girls and gang-rape them. They would kill the men and rape the women in the street. That day they came to our neighborhood and killed my 15-year-old brother alongside other male neighbors. They were all innocent civilians. A month later as I was trying to flee to a relatively safe village of my relatives, another group of three Eritrean soldiers stopped and gang-raped me. After that incident I could not bear living in terror. It was a hopeless situation. At the time I was so full of anger and grief that I badly wanted to die killing at least one of those soldiers. That is how I decided to join the war. My wish is to see them prosecuted.

According to figures obtained from the Tigray health office, 1,772 cases of sexual violence were received by major hospitals in Tigray between the start of the war in November 2020 and June 2021. The majority of these cases were reported as cases of gang rape. All age groups — from young girls to the elderly — have been indiscriminately targeted. Some of the rapes were carried out in public. The rape and sexual violence cases resulted in frequently irreversible physical and psychological trauma, unwanted pregnancies, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and the decimation of ethnic identity. Doctors believe most cases went unreported because of active fighting in rural areas at the time and a lack of support from the international community. Victims face local stigma and many hurdles in overcoming and healing from their trauma.

Fasika Amdeslasie, a medical doctor at Ayder Hospital in Mekelle, told New Lines:

It was not safe for the women to walk a long way to come to our hospital amid active fighting. In some cases, there were incidents where the victims would be raped again during their journey to the hospital. Roads were frequently blocked. So they had to walk on foot. Because of the stigma in our culture, the rape victims would not come to the hospital to report their cases unless they undergo health complications.

An Amnesty International report released in August 2021 documented that Tigrayan women and girls had been subjected to a horrendous array of widespread atrocities, including gang rape, sexual slavery, sexual mutilation and other forms of torture. The report also stated that the pattern of these acts — consistent with the international definition of weaponized sexual violence during an armed conflict — was intended to terrorize and humiliate the victims and their ethnic group. According to the report:

Sexual violence, along with other grave human rights violations, has been a defining element of the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region since its outbreak in November 2020.

Amnesty’s findings indicate that the scale and level of brutality of the sexual violence perpetrated in the Tigray region are shocking. Women, including those who were pregnant, endured sexual violence at the hands of soldiers who often used sharp objects to further torture and mutilate their victims.

“It’s clear that rape and sexual violence have been used as a weapon of war to inflict lasting physical and psychological damage on women and girls in Tigray. The severity and scale of the sexual crimes committed are particularly shocking, amounting to war crimes and possible crimes against humanity,” Amnesty Secretary General Agnes Callamard said at the time.

Crimes against humanity are defined as large-scale and systematic crimes against civilians, including torture, sexual violence, massacres and enforced disappearances.

In March 2021, a graphic video emerged from a hospital in Adigrat, a city in Tigray, that shows the extent of the armed troops’ cruelty.

The video shows a surgeon removing long nails, stones and pieces of plastic from the vagina of a 27-year-old woman. The woman had been gang-raped by 23 Eritrean soldiers who held her captive as a sex slave for 11 days and inserted the material before abandoning her. She was found unconscious by villagers and taken to hospital.

One woman, a mother of three children, was gang-raped by four Amhara militiamen in March 2021. They then inserted a hot metal rod into her genitals and burned her uterus. The victim recounted that when she begged them to stop, the militiamen told her that “a Tigrayan womb should never give birth.”

Other victims shared similar ordeals and accounts of torture with New Lines through telephone interviews, such as the burning of genitals after rape and acts intended to make women infertile. They said that their abusers had told them that, by raping them, they were cleansing their Tigrayan blood — a sentiment consistent with organized sexual violence in other armed conflicts, where the goal is to end the reproductive prospects of an ethnic, racial or sectarian “enemy.”

The U.N. stated in January 2021 that it had received reports of widespread sexual violence in Tigray.

“There are disturbing reports of individuals allegedly forced to rape members of their own family, under threats of imminent violence,” Pramila Patten, the U.N.’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, said at the time.

Mothers who shared their testimonies with New Lines recounted how severe the abuses were and how they motivated them to play their role in the fight to stop the violations.

Kidan Gebregiorgis, 68, lost her 21-year-old son to the war. She told New Lines:

As a mother I am heartbroken to have lost my son in the war. But I am also aware that if it was not for such sacrifice, people here would not be free from the brutality of the Eritrean and federal forces. Now everybody can walk freely without fearing arbitrary killings and rape. I am breathing the air of peace and freedom because of my son’s sacrifice. That comforts me.

Other mothers told New Lines they had encouraged their sons and daughters to go to the battlefields and had supported them by providing food.

“When the enemy forces were in our lands, I know some mothers who had to shave the head of their daughters and dress them up like boys to prevent potential gang rapes. I have seen three wars in my age. But I never saw and heard of anything in our history comparable to the evil acts during this war,” said 58-year-old mother Letebirhan Atsbha.

Throughout history, conflict-related sexual violence has occurred in almost all wars. During the 1994 Rwanda genocide, which involved genocidal rape, around half a million women and children are estimated to have been raped and mutilated. Testimonies of some Rwanda survivors suggested they were deliberately infected with HIV.

Similarly, in Tigray, many rape survivors have testified to such deliberate infections. Others were mutilated.

In Ukraine, there are increasing reports of alleged war crimes, including sexual violence by Russian troops. According to a U.N. report, victims as young as 4 and as old as 80 have been targeted. The report details cases, including rapes in front of family members. In one of these cases, two Russian soldiers raped a wife and her husband in their house and forced their 4-year-old daughter to perform oral sex on one of the soldiers. The patterns identified in the U.N. report are similar to many of the patterns of gang rapes described by victims in Tigray.

In Haiti, gang violence has included sexual violence against girls and boys as young as 10 as well as elderly women. There are harrowing reports of rape in front of parents and children by more than a dozen armed men.

During the Darfur genocide in Sudan, tens of thousands were estimated to have been systematically raped. Like cases in Tigray, all age groups were targeted and most cases were gang rapes. Mutilations and rapes in front of family members were carried out.

During the Uyghur genocide, the Chinese government has used forced sterilization on Uyghur women.

The term “genocidal rape” was introduced after the Rwandan genocide. It is characterized by mass rapes, used as a tool to cleanse or exterminate an ethnic group or a community and not just to terrorize the enemy force. Genocidal rape aims to mutilate women to make them infertile or force them into a rape-caused pregnancy.

Experts have identified patterns to distinguish between rape as a weapon of war and other unsystematic conflict-related sexual violence by rogue troops or reprisal rapes. The common patterns in weaponized rapes are that the rapes include all age groups, that they are accompanied by torture and other shocking violence and that they are regularly carried out in front of family members and in public.

“These acts are related to instilling fear and forcing the enemy to retreat or the targeted group to leave a territory. It is not just for having sex. Its aim is to cause more pain. Because of the element of humiliation associated to sexual violence, the armies find it very effective to destroy a community, install fear, terrorise and force enemies to leave,” Katrien Coppens, executive director of the Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation, told New Lines by email. Founded by the Nobel Peace Prize winner of the same name, the foundation is an international nonprofit human rights organization that works to end weaponized rape.

In November 2022, a peace deal was finally signed between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF in Pretoria, South Africa, ending the bloody two-year conflict. Communications have now been restored to Tigray after two years of blackout. However, the issue of accountability for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the war, particularly the weaponized rapes of thousands of women and children, remains unaddressed.

Allegations of continued rape and torture have emerged from Tigrayan towns controlled by Amhara militias, even after the signing of the peace deal.

In December 2021, after a year of resistance by the Ethiopian government, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution to establish an independent investigation into all human rights violations during the conflict by all warring sides. The Ethiopian government objected to the resolution, calling it “an instrument of political pressure.”

Despite these objections, the resolution passed, with 21 states voting in favor, 15 against and 11 abstentions. Among those voting against were Russia and China.

The International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia was established to launch a one-year investigation. The Ethiopian government vowed not to cooperate and unsuccessfully attempted to block funding. The government has refused to allow the U.N. experts to travel to the locations of alleged violations and collect evidence from the ground or to speak freely with survivors of sexual violence.

In its preliminary report released in September 2022, which was gathered remotely while the Tigray region was under a communications blackout, the commission stated that it had found reasonable grounds to believe that parties to the conflict had committed war crimes and human rights abuses. The commission’s term has been extended.

The Coalition for Genocide Response (CGR) has been pushing for accountability for war crimes in Tigray, as well as for an assessment of sexual violence. The international organization has also been calling for a U.N. mechanism for evidence collection and preservation that would focus in part on the issue of sexual violence in its mandate. Like other investigators, the organization has faced challenges.

“One of the biggest challenges has been access to information. For two years, the information on atrocities in Tigray was severely suppressed, because of internet and telecommunication shutdowns. Now that this access is possible, the amount of data is overwhelming,” the co-founder of CGR and human rights advocate Dr. Ewelina Ochab told New Lines in a telephone interview. According to Ochab, most of the data on the atrocities has not been preserved correctly and would be deemed inadmissible in court.

But calls to hold the perpetrators accountable are gaining momentum in Ethiopia.

Filsan Abdi is a former minister for women, children and youth in the Ethiopian government. She resigned more than a year ago in protest against the sexual violence perpetrated by her government during the war. She says that when she was a minister, her superiors tried to suppress any mention of rape by government and Eritrean troops.

Now, six months into the peace deal, the victims of weaponized sexual violence have found no justice and no closure with regard to the atrocities they faced. Reports from the region suggest that many rape victims have committed suicide or have been forced into sex trafficking.

For Tesfay and her friends, hope seems to endure, at least for now. They are relieved that the ceasefire is holding and they have started to make plans for a future that they believe has a place for them and their dreams.

“I want the peace to sustain. I want to continue my education, start it from where I stopped,” Tesfay said.

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