A toddler hangs on his mothers skirt at Ayder Hospital in Mekelle, the largest city in the northern Ethiopian state of Tigray. The little boy doesnt want to let his mom out of his sight. Theres panic in his eyes every step his mother takes.
Her child was never that shitty. Until he witnessed how she was raped by two Eritrean soldiers, his mother Rose tells. “He tried to push one of the men away from me but was beaten away.”
Rose sought help in a clinic next to the local hospital for victims of sexual violence. Thats where Nurse Mulu Mesfin writes her testimony. Since the war began more than six months ago, she claims to have seen more than 500 women, half underage and 95% raped by soldiers. “The youngest victim was 4 years old and the eldest was a nun of 80.” The medical director of the hospital Kibrom Gebreslassie confirms that number. The UN reported last month that it was aware of 500 cases in five health institutions.
Before the war, Nurse Mulu also saw raped women, but nothing compared to now, she says. The horror of the stories also grabs her. “I dont eat and sleep anymore. Often its a matter of group rape by soldiers. Many women not only come here with psychological damage but also suffered injuries or an STI from the rape.” A gynecologist from the hospital says that she has already treated women with plastic and nails put into the vagina.
Women will tell about their experiences in this video:
The rape has also increased the number of abortions in this hospital, the doctors say. Before that, Letai, who is only 19 years old, is in the hospital. A doctor examines her tummy. Letai claims to be pregnant with an Ethiopian soldier who entered her house and raped her when she was home alone. “How can I see this child I carry in me as mine?”
The testimonies that come out of sexual violence by men in uniform are numerous and often tell the same story; of troops taking villages, lingering after battles, pillage houses, burning crops and appropriating women. But it goes further, thinks Nurse Mulu. “They want to destroy us Tigreeans.”
Thats also what Medical Director Gebreslassie says. In this hospital, they believe that rape is targeted to break the women of Tigray, as part of the strategy of the fighters. “This is systematic and ethnic cleansing.” The victims designate Ethiopian, but especially Eritrean soldiers as perpetrators.
There was a long-running war between Ethiopia and Eritrea that was fought in this border region. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy made peace with Eritrea three years ago. Now the Eritrean forces at his side are fighting against the troops of Tigray rebels from the TPLF. According to Gebreslassie, Eritrean troops would make civilian casualties out of hate because they still have a bone to pick with Tigray. He calls the Eritrean military undisciplined and devastating.
In Parliament, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy recently acknowledged that crimes have been committed in Tigray and that those who raped women and committed other war crimes are held accountable. Last week, the prosecutor in Ethiopia reported that three Ethiopian soldiers have been convicted of rape during this conflict and 25 more have been charged for rape and sexual abuse. What the punishments were, was not disclosed.
And although violence is recognised by all parties, the government also says that the number of victims is exaggerated. The testimonies would have been partly manufactured by the TPLF to get the population and the international community on their hands.
“ We really see a lot of raped women and civilians who have been injured here,” says Medical Director Gebreslassie in response to that accusation. “And what we see here is probably just the tip of the iceberg. A lot of victims cant come to us right now. Roads are closed and sometimes its too unsafe. And seeking help locally is difficult. A large number of hospitals in Tigray have been looted and ambulances have been stolen by Eritreans.”
Letais not going to wait quietly. After her abortion, she wants to fight with the rebels. Something the young woman could never have imagined before her rape, she says. She was a virgin and only focused on her schoolwork. But now shes belligerent. “I want revenge.”
Shes not the only one. The violence on civilians means that more and more young people want to join the war of the old rebels and that this conflict creates new deep divisions. “When Abiy came to powerI believed in one Ethiopia,” says a twenties in Mekelle. “We youngsters were not very happy with the TPLF, because they have not done enough for our region. But now that I hear whats happening to our sisters, wives and mothers, I want to defend myself and feel like Tigrean. Many of my friends have already picked up the weapons.”