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In Ethiopia’s Tigray, a horrific military cooperation: weaponized rape
“They raped me in front of my father. I was too scared to even make a sound. They threatened to kill us both.” – A 24-year-old Tigrayan woman
By Lucy Kassa
“They raped me in front of my father. I was too scared to even make a sound. They threatened to kill us both,” said a 24-year-old Tigrayan woman, Simret*, who now lives in Qadarif refugee camp in Sudan.
Before the war in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray began, she lived in Humera, a town located in contested territory between the Tigray and Amhara regions. In early 2021, when she was attacked, Humera and the rest of Tigray were under the joint control of Ethiopia’s federal government, militias from the neighboring Amhara region and Eritrean allied forces.
In November 2020, following months of tension between the national ruling party, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and the Tigray region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Tigray’s regional government rebelled against the federal government. Their efforts were largely unsuccessful, and their soldiers were routed out of the area after a few weeks of war with the Ethiopian national army and its allies.
Between February and April 2021, when the state was in control of the Tigray region, over 1,288 cases of sexual violence were registered in the regional health facilities, according to Amnesty International. Many survivors, however, told Amnesty that they had not visited health facilities, suggesting these figures represent only a small fraction of rapes in the context of the conflict. The Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) contacted Amnesty to request additional data about sexual violence in Ethiopia, but the organization could not provide it.
In this investigation, CCIJ also interviewed Dr. Fasika Amdeslasie, who was head of the Tigray health bureau during the early months of the war. He says his office received 1,772 sexual violence cases between Nov. 3, 2020 (the start of the war) and June 10, 2021.
Sites of reported rapes by Ethiopian government forces, Amhara militiamen and/or Eritrean troops in 2021
The uptick of sexual violence survivors coming to hospitals for care was the first indication that the soldiers who were running the town were raping women on a massive scale. Since then, evidence has only mounted in reports by the media, human rights groups and a UN commission formed in December 2021.
The Ethiopian government says it has held some of its soldiers accountable for rape and other war crimes in the conflict, even though it minimizes the scale and systematic nature of the sexual violence. “[D]ozens of our soldiers have been sentenced to serious, serious penalties, some including to life in prison,” Gedion Timothewos, attorney general of the Ethiopian government, told the BBC in August 2021.
He did not say whether the prosecuted included members of the regional Amhara militia who fought on the government side. In CCIJ interviews with more than a dozen survivors and witnesses, Amhara militiamen and Eritrean soldiers – in addition to federal government soldiers – were accused of rape in western Tigray.
Timothewos also minimized the scope of the sexual violence perpetrated by government soldiers. He said the Ethiopian government had conducted its own investigations on the ground and did not agree with the conclusion that the rapes were systematic.
“There are sensationalized reports – very exaggerated and unsubstantiated,” he told the BBC.
A UN Commission of Human Rights report on Ethiopia found that, among many other abuses, sexual violence had been committed on a “staggering scale.” Before the commission’s report, the federal government’s own minister for women, Filsan Abdi, had resigned over what she called official efforts to suppress her ministry’s findings about abuses by the government and its allies.
The perpetrators were not only fighting for the Ethiopian government, however. CCIJ found even Tigrayan fighters committed retaliatory acts of sexual violence that amounted to weaponization of rape in other zones of this complex conflict.
Each group of perpetrators thus far has acted with near total impunity for the lasting damage they have inflicted on victims ranging from 13-year-old adolescents to elderly mothers. And although military hostilities appear to have ended with the November 2022 signing of a peace treaty by the Ethiopian government and the TPLF, the accord contains no calls for accountability from the rapists or resources to help rape survivors heal.
A 50-something mother, who was gang-raped along with her daughters in February 2021 by men she believes to be Amhara militiamen, said that their “lives are ruined.”
“We don’t have the same social life we had previously,” she added, before lapsing into a long silence.
“They were about to leave, taking the jewelry, but then three of them suggested rape.
I begged them to do whatever they wished to me, but to leave my daughters.
They took turns raping my daughters, who are 25 and 19 years old – and then on myself.– A 52-year-old Tigrayan mother
The completely unaccountable perpetrators
Ethiopia’s reluctant admission and limited prosecution might almost look like justice if compared to another state actor in the conflict: Eritrea. By many accounts, Eritrean soldiers led the charge in weaponizing rape in the conflict in Tigray.
Of the 13 survivors interviewed by CCIJ in this investigation, five said their rapists were Eritrean soldiers – compared to two who pointed to Ethiopian soldiers. Yet the former are accountable to neither the Ethiopian government nor the international community from which their country, often called “the North Korea of Africa,” is isolated.
Simret says her attackers wore the uniform of the Eritrean army. “They did not hide their identity in the first place. They presented themselves as Eritreans,” she explained.
Another person who fled Humera in those months, a 17-year-old girl who was raped by nine soldiers, said, “I clearly remember… There were five Eritrean soldiers.”
The identity of the other four was unclear to her — she was not fully conscious during part of the ordeal. “Like a bad dream, I can only remember there were four, and [they] spoke Amharic [the official language of Ethiopia],” she recounted.
She said the attack happened in early February 2021 after the soldiers ordered her to walk to their camp. “I was scared they would shoot me. So I obeyed. When we reached the camp, they ripped my clothes and took turns gang-raping me,” she said.
The girl alleges that in mid-April 2021, she and other displaced people from Adi Goshu in western Tigray reached Humera.
“They stopped us, let others go and ordered me to stay. Then they forced me into a nearby house – and that is when they raped me.”
Back in Adi Goshu a few days earlier, a 31-year-old woman was returning home from a local church when she was accosted by five soldiers she identified as Eritrean.
“They were stationed in our neighborhood,” she explained. “They forced me into a house and gang-raped me.”
Reports by human rights organizations and other observers also prominently name Eritrean soldiers as major perpetrators of sexual violence in Tigray. One in three of the Tigray sexual violence incidence reports logged on the humanitarian data exchange, a data repository run by the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, names the Eritrean Defense Forces soldiers as perpetrators. The incidents reported in this repository are collected from open source, public reports and do not represent the total number of all sexual assaults in Tigray.
“The [federal] soldiers were going from house to house, searching for supporters of the TPLF.
I explained to them I am not a supporter and even showed them my office ID.
They slapped my face and then took turns raping me.”
– A 37-year-old former employee of the Ethiopian government
Vendetta in a decades-long hostility
The circumstances that led to Eritrean soldiers fighting a war between the Ethiopian federal government and one of its own provinces are rooted in a decades-long relationship between Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and the TPLF.
It dates back to Eritrea’s armed struggle for independence from Ethiopia, which the TPLF supported – although their alliance was on and off even then. Together, they defeated Ethiopia’s socialist regime in 1991. Eritrea broke away and, leading an alliance with other Ethiopian rebel groups, the TPLF took power in Addis Ababa.
Prior to secession, the boundaries between Eritrea and Tigray were of little consequence, since both were administrative regions of Ethiopia. Post-secession, Afwerki laid claim to an area called Badme, which the TPLF saw as part of its home turf – Tigray.
With the military might of the Ethiopian government it now led, the TPLF went to war with Eritrea in the 1998 Eritrea-Ethiopia border war, setting off years of hostility between the two former allies.
The Algiers agreement, signed in 2000 between the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments, ended active hostilities. The territorial issue was forwarded to the Hague boundary commission, whose ruling favored Eritrea. Yet the TPLF-led Addis government refused to hand over the territory ruled for Eritrea.
Under the pretext that this impasse left the possibility of war with its neighbor ever present, Afwerki, who is still ruling Eritrea, indefinitely extended military conscription for men in his country.
Ethiopia’s current prime minister won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for normalizing relations with Eritrea, but when what he initially called a “law-and-order operation” in Tigray escalated into full blown war, Eritrean soldiers joined the war.
Their battlefield conduct would look a lot more like a long-term political vendetta than routine law enforcement.
Eritrea engages in armed struggle for independence from Ethiopia.
TPLF aides Eritrean military.
Eriteria and TPLF defeat Ethiopia's socialist regime.
Eritrea gains independence from Ethiopia, and Isaias Afwerki begins rule of Eritrea.
Ethiopia becomes a federal state under a coalition called the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which the TPLF dominates.
Dispute over border territory between Eritrea and Tigray begins.
TPLF-dominated Ethiopian government goes to war with Eritrea.
Ethiopia and Eritrea sign the Algiers agreement, ending the two-year border conflict.
The Hague boundary commission determines Badme belongs to Eritrea.
The TPLF-dominated government refuses to hand over the territory.
The EPRDF elects Abiy Ahmed as prime minister.
Though Abiy is not a member of TPLF, he had served as top official in the EPRDF.
Ahmed wins the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for normalizing relations with Eritrea.
The Ethiopian government goes to war with the TPLF in Tigray.
Eritrea enters war on the side of the Ethiopia.
The first ceasefire is reached between Tigray rebel fighters and the Ethiopian federal government forces and their allied forces.
There is a resurgence of fighting.
The second ceasefire is reached.
“Some of the victims say while they gang-raped them, the soldiers would say to them they are cleansing their Tigrayan blood.”
– Lewam Gebreslasie, Qadarif refugee camp nurse
Rape as a weapon of war
Multiple reports have emerged of Eritrean troops subjecting women and girls to sexual violence, but one incident, in particular, highlights the brutality of their alleged crimes.
In March 2021, a video of a young Tigrayan mother, who had reportedly been raped by 23 Eritrean soldiers, circulated widely on social media. It showed doctors removing long nails, pieces of plastic and stones from her body.
Chouchou Namegabe, a Congolese campaigner who has urged the International Criminal Court to classify rape as a weapon of war, recognizes the extremity of the sexual violence inflicted on the woman in the video. They are sending “a message to the enemy – they want to show victory in the woman’s body,” she says.
“In Congo, at first, we thought it was for a sexual need. But later we saw it was not,” Namegabe explains. “They [the perpetrators] want to inflict as much suffering as possible.”
Katrien Coppens, the executive director of Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation, a foundation formed to end rape as a weapon of war, has identified common patterns which help distinguish between weaponized rape – a war tactic which uses rape to humiliate and destroy enemy forces – and rape by rogue troops.
In weaponized rape, she says, there are victims of all ages – including the elderly and children. The rapes are usually gang-rapes and carried out en masse. They also include a disturbing level of violence, such as cutting of breasts or other private parts of the body.
The rapes may include an element of torture. They often are carried out in front of family members or in public areas. And the perpetrators routinely use ethnic or otherwise derogatory slurs.
Coppens says, “Unfortunately, in almost any war, sexual violence is used as a weapon, because it is effective in causing terror and because of the shame associated with it in almost all cultures.”
“The trauma,” she adds, “lasts for generations.”
During interviews with CCIJ, we learned the victims in Tigray were subjected to many of these same patterns of weaponized rape. The testimonies in this investigation reveal the troops had targeted women and girls of all ages – from 13 to 65. Of the 13 victims interviewed, 12 of them said they were gang-raped. Four victims said they were gang-raped in front of their close family members.
Amdeslasie, who was head of the Tigray health bureau, also confirmed that whether committed by Eritrean soldiers or others, the sexual violence that happened in Tigray during that period had the hallmarks of weaponization.
“Almost all of the cases were gang-rape. The targets were women and girls in all age groups, from 6 years old to very old women. Religious groups, including monks and nuns, were targets. The abusers used ethnic slurs,” said Amdeslasie.
“There was also sexual slavery. A group of soldiers would hold captive dozens or more women in their military camp, repeatedly gang-rape them for weeks and then throw them [out] or kill them when they got very sick,” he added.
“Some of the victims say while they gang-raped them, the soldiers would say to them they are cleansing their Tigrayan blood,” Lewam Gebreslasie, a nurse treating rape survivors in Qadarif refugee camp in Sudan, told CCIJ.
This investigation was produced with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy and originally published by the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ).