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Ethiopia's Tigray war survivors hope for a better future

Ximena Borrazas in Tigray | Edgar Gutierrez in Tigray
June 17, 2024

Many survivors of Ethiopia's devastating Tigray war remain optimistic despite the scars left by the conflict.

A woman sits on a bed looking out a window.
The war in Tigray might be over but many survivors have to cope with the traumaImage: Ximena Borrazas

Warning: This article includes graphic accounts of sexual abuse which some people may find disturbing. Please exercise caution before reading on.

Before the outbreak of war in Tigray, life was quite different for 42-year-old Kebedesh and her family in the northern part of Ethiopia. She ran a small hotel and was also involved in small-scale agriculture. Everything was going well for her.

Then, in November 2020, fighting between the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (FDRE) and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF)broke out. The war — which lasted two years — later saw Eritrean forces and Amhara militia joining hands to support the Ethiopian government forces.

Rape as a weapon of war

A week after the outbreak of the conflict, as Kebedesh and her 8-year-old daughter were walking through Kafta, a rural area near the Eritrean border, five soldiers intercepted them, four from the neighboring country and one from the central government.

"They aggressively asked me, 'Do you have a man at TPLF?' — I said no," Kebedesh recalled.

The five men gang-raped her. At the same time, they stabbed her daughter and poured boiling water on her stomach to silence her cries for help.

After the soldiers left, Kebedesh gathered all the strength left in her and took her seriously wounded child to an Ethiopian military base to receive medical assistance.

Kebedesh was among the estimated 120,000 people subjected to sexual violence during the war in Tigray, according to the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute for the Parliamentary Group on International Law, Justice and Accountability (APPG).

"Some of them have committed suicide because of the stigma," Yirgalem Gebretsadkan, head of the Violence Against Women unit of the Tigray Genocide Commission of Inquiry, told DW.

A young girl sits alone inside an empty classroom.
Kebedesh's young daughter dreams of becoming a doctor to help her fellow EthiopiansImage: Ximena Borrazas

Life at the IDP camp

After this incident, Kebedesh and her daughter's lives became uncertain. For three months, they lived in an internally displaced persons (IDP) center in Adwa.

Adwa, located 160 km (99 miles) north of Mekele, has a population of about 40,500 people. The Adwa Women's Affairs Office states that it has recorded 1,374 cases of rape; 86 of those cases were HIV positive, 72 of whom are children.

But then Kebedesh's life improved after she was picked to be part of a program run by the Don Bosco Mission for victims of sexual violence. Since then, she has been sharing a compound of five rooms with ten people who are also survivors of sexual violence.

Tigray: Sexual violence continues despite peace deal

Dealing with the trauma and stigma of sexual assault

When her little daughter, who just turned 11, lifts her T-shirt, it is impossible not to feel distressed. A visibly huge scar compounds the stomach problems she carries from the stabbing,

The girl attends a private school that is paid for by the Don Bosco Center.

According to her mother, she has no friends. "Sometimes she is afraid when she walks to the student center [where classes take place], she is afraid that someone will attack her again."

On top of all the experiences endured over the past four years, they suffer from stigmatization. 

Now, both mother and daughter live in the shadow of suffering, afraid to speak out because of the stigma and harassment that society tends to impart on survivors of sexual violence. They fear being pushed into a corner and forced to leave the city.

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A family separated by war

Kebedesh's husband fled at the beginning of the war, leaving her in charge of four children. He was never heard from again until recently when news came that he had died during the conflict.

Kebedesh shares her room at the compound with three of her four children, the eldest of whom is in Sudan fighting with the TDF (Tigray Defence Force).

"After the signing of the [Tigray] peace agreement (in November 2022), I received a letter from him, so I know he is alive", Kebedesh said with a tone of relief.

A Tuk Tuk rides on a street in Tigray as a man and woman converse in the background.
Adwa in northern Tigray has become a refuge for many who fled the violenceImage: Ximena Borrazas

Hope for a better future in Tigray

Despite deep physical and psychological wounds, Kebedesh and her children remain hopeful.

"I dream of setting up my own mini-market and sending all my children to study," Kebedesh said.

"My daughter dreams of becoming a doctor to help herself and her people," she added, smiling.

Tigray endured one of the bloodiest wars of the 21st century, with at least 600,000 people killed and more than one million internally displaced.  All sides have been accused of escalating the conflict, but the most sustained violence was suffered by Tigrayan women.

Despite a peace agreement signed by TPLF and Ethiopia's federal government in November 2022, the situation in Tigray is still uncertain. Meetings for dialogue between Abiy's ruling Prosperity Party (PP) and the TPLF are ongoing.

Currently, Tigray faces severe famine and extreme poverty, with tens of thousands of civilians living in internally displaced people camps.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu and Thomas Mösch