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In Ethiopia's Tigray war, rape is used as a weapon

Mariel Müller
March 17, 2023

Sexual attacks on women and girls have continued since last year's peace deal between Ethiopia’s government and Tigray leadership, witnesses told DW.

A woman stands in a metal sheet room that was damaged by shelling, in Humera, Ethiopia
Image: EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

On the day that Ethiopian government forces reached a truce with rebel Tigrayan forces, 16-year-old Hadas was at home with her mother in a village near the Tigrayan town of Adwa. She heard someone banging on the door and then an Ethiopian soldier demanded to be let in.

Hadas, whose name has been changed to protect her from stigmatization and reprisals, described to DW how her ordeal unfolded on that day, November 2, 2022. It was a day which was supposed to bring peace after two years of conflict that killed approximately 600,000 people, displaced millions and left millions more hungry due to a de facto blockade of the Tigray region.

"He entered the house alone. He carried a stick with him," Hadas told DW. "There was another soldier with a gun waiting outside. He tried to take me to the bush, but I refused. He told me that he had a knife and a handgun. Then he beat me with the stick."

She started screaming. Neighbors came and tried to save her, but the soldiers threatened them, Hadas said. So they went back to their houses.

Hadas recalled how she started then to cry.  

A person looking at a basin
The 16-year old girl says she was raped multiple times by an Ethiopian soldier on the same day the peace deal was signedImage: privat


"He asked me for my age," she said. "I told him I was 14, but he said 'You are a liar. Don't you have breasts?' Then, my mother started crying."

He raped her multiple times over the course of several hours. The attack left Hadas bleeding heavily. After he left, she sought treatment at a nearby hospital but because of a lack of supplies, they could only provide basic care, Hadas said. 

Hadas still has nightmares about what happened to her that day and needs psychological help. She also wants the man who did this to her brought to justice.

"He should be held accountable," she insisted. "They should be held accountable not only for me, but for all the other victims of rape."

Human rights organizations have documented sexual assaults, rape, gang rape and other forms of sexual violence committed by Ethiopian soldiers and their allies, like the Eritrean army and local militia throughout the war.

Doctors told DW that many cases went unreported. And health workers confirmed to DW that rapes and other forms of sexual violence have continued well after the peace deal was signed.

A request for comment sent to Ethiopian government spokesperson Legesse Tulu went unanswered.

Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Meskel denied any wrongdoings by Eritrean soldiers in Tigray in a response to DW.

Medical workers and patients at Mekelle General Hospital
More than 500 victims of rape were treated at Mekelle General Hospital over course of the two-year war in TigrayImage: privat

Medicine shortage

Despite the peace agreement, the hospital can only provide a fraction of the medication required by its patients.

Doctor and director of General Hospital Mekelle, Dr. Filimon Mesfin, told DW that he and his colleagues struggled to provide care during the conflict.

"We don't have any emergency medication or medication for chronic diseases, like hypertension, diabetes, HIV and psychiatric medications — we are out of all this. We can only provide 10% or 20% of the medication these patients need," he said.

He described having to turn away most patients. The most he and his colleagues could do was to write a prescription in the hope that the patients could somehow find the necessary medication somewhere else. 

Mesfin told DW that medication is urgently needed. "These patients cannot wait. They are dying every day," he said.

Preventable deaths

He had hoped that things would change for the better after the peace deal was inked in November, but the aid and deliveries of medical supplies that are reaching his hospital is not enough.

"It's been almost four months since the agreement has been signed. I would have expected these things to be provided by now," Mesfin said. "These patients, they cannot wait. They are dying every day, they are having so many complications every day."

And those who make it to the hospital are just the tip of the iceberg, Dr. Mesfin said, because few can afford the transport costs.

Doctor and director of General Hospital Mekelle, Dr. Filimon Mesfin
Hospital Director Mesfin had to turn away most patients due to lack of medical suppliesImage: privat

Clinic for rape victims

At the start of the Tigray war, Dr. Mesfin established a unit especially for survivors of sexual violence at his hospital.

Over the two years of the conflict, he and his colleagues treated more than 500 victims.

"There were so many gang rapes, so many foreign materials inserted into their genitalia," Mesfin said.

Dr Mesfin wrote down accounts of rape to apply for NGO funding, he said, adding that especially those committed by Eritrean forces were particularly agonizing to hear.

"These were not 'normal' rapes," he said. "Without exaggeration, I have literally cried writing some of the stories."

He said that, as a medical doctor, it was very difficult to see what these people have been through, let alone as a human being. 

Hospital workers tend to patients in Mekelle, Tigray, Ethiopia
A new unit had to be opened because of overwhelming numbers of rape victims streaming in during the warImage: privat