When the 19-year-old student regained consciousness, she was in the forest. She remembered running there to escape fighting in her home town in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia.

Dazed and confused, she saw blood pouring out of her nose and genitals. Surrounding her were the four Eritrean soldiers who had raped her. “They were all laughing,” she sobbed. They continued to rape her over the next five days.

“They were enjoying my suffering. They didn’t think I was a person. Every time I tried to stop them, they told me to ‘shut up’, ‘shut up’, ‘shut up’, and beat me,” she said. They accused her of being a courier for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, which is at war with Ethiopian and Eritrean forces.

Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, began the so-called law and order operation against the TPLF, an organisation that ran the country for 27 years and that he has labelled a “criminal clique”, in early November.

A woman walks in front of a sign depicting the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT
A 19-year-old woman says she was raped by Eritrean soldiers © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT

While Abiy has declared the conflict over, fighting continues and Ethiopia, an economic powerhouse in the region and Africa’s second most populous country, is in crisis. Since coming to power in 2018, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has said he wants to unify a country scarred by ethnic faultlines. He has blamed the TPLF for the country’s divisions.

But the brutality of some of the attacks on Tigrayans has only heightened separatist sentiment. “I am only Tigrayan now, not Ethiopian, if we were Ethiopian the government wouldn’t let us be raped by soldiers,” the 19-year-old, who did not want her name to be published, told the Financial Times from her hideout, the end of her white netela headscarf soaked in tears.

She is not the only one in Mekelle, the regional capital, to voice such sentiments. A 16-year-old girl described being raped “several times” by an Ethiopian soldier. “He did this to me because he hates us, Tigrayans, period, since it is their aim to destroy us.”

The tip of the iceberg

Five months into the war and allegations of sexual violence involving forces from Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea — a longstanding enemy of Tigray whose soldiers are helping Abiy fight the TPLF — are widespread, say doctors, nurses, aid workers and even members of the interim administration, which was appointed by Addis Ababa. Tigrayan forces have also been accused of atrocities.

The UN said in late March that the sexual violence in Tigray was “high in areas affected by the conflict”. It noted at least 516 cases — but warned that this was likely to be only “the tip of the iceberg”.

At the main hospital in Mekelle, nurses and prosecutors detailed testimonies of “critical cases”: a woman raped “day and night” for a week by ten Ethiopian soldiers; another raped by a “commanding officer” who threatened to kill her two-month-old baby; another one raped allegedly by 15 Eritrean soldiers, women raped in front of their husbands and children. One of the alleged victims was just six years old.

“The violence against the civilian population, especially sexual violence . . . seems to be a feature of the conflict,” said Dominik Stillhart, head of operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Debretsion Gebremichael, TPLF leader-in-hiding, has accused his foes of raping Tigrayans. But Eritrean officials have denied that their troops committed atrocities. A spokesman for the Ethiopian federal force did not reply to a request for comment, but the Ethiopian army has in the past denied that they committed such crimes.

Last month, Michelle Bachelet, UN human rights commissioner, spoke of “deeply distressing reports of sexual and gender-based violence” and other atrocities by all parties.

Her office, alongside the legally autonomous Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, is to investigate “the human rights violations and abuses allegedly committed by all parties”. Tigrayan militias are alleged to have killed hundreds in the town of Mai-Kadra. Officials in the interim administration in Tigray said that the TPLF was using civilians as “human shields”.

“Regardless of the TPLF propaganda of exaggeration, any soldier responsible for raping our women and looting communities in the region will be held accountable as their mission is to protect,” Abiy told parliament last month.

A prosecutor covers a woman who says she was raped by an Ethiopian soldier © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT

Filsan Abdullahi Ahmed, Ethiopia’s women’s minister, said that a task force on sexual violence “unfortunately established rape has taken place conclusively and without a doubt”.

“There’s a grudging acceptance that horrible things are happening,” said a senior foreign diplomat in Addis Ababa. “Even if only 10 per cent of the stories of atrocities are true, it is enough, it is too many.”

Abiy’s pan-Ethiopia dream

The alleged brutality could also challenge Abiy’s pan-Ethiopia vision, a key part of his ambitions for a country with 80 ethnicities and nine ethnically defined states. When he became prime minister in 2018, Abiy stressed Ethiopia’s national identity based on the concept of medemer, or coming together through diversity.

Map showing Mekelle in the Tigray region of Ethiopia

Tigrayans, who account for just 6 per cent of the Ethiopian population of 110m, had dominated the national government for 27 years but were pushed aside when Abiy, who comes from the much more populous Oromia region, took office. Critics said Abiy’s talk of pan-Ethiopianism threatened the autonomy of states in the country’s federal system.

People close to the government in Addis Ababa said the war had galvanised national support for Abiy.

Girmay Berhe, leader of the Tigray Independence Party, which has previously opposed the TPLF, countered that it had galvanised Tigrayans, because “this is the worst time in the history of Tigray. It is not the TPLF dying, it is ordinary Tigrayans dying”.

Getachew Reda, a senior member of the TPLF, has said that his movement is leading not a TPLF army but “a Tigrayan army. It is an army which has in its fold those who are not TPLF members and even those who oppose TPLF”.

Even senior members of the interim government of Tigray admit that the conflict has heightened separatist sentiment. They say Eritreans control a strip of northeastern Tigray, and the Amhara, one of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups, control western Tigray. This has created resentment among Tigrayans who “today don’t want to be part of Ethiopia because of the crimes that happened, everything is raw, they want an independent Tigray,” a senior government official in Mekelle said.

Some in Addis Ababa argue that the brutality of the TPLF’s long reign prompted retaliatory attacks. “There was so much hatred towards the TPLF for being so cruel that this has unleashed atrocities,” said a senior federal government official. “The TPLF fostered ethnic politics . . . We are here now because of their divisive, evil politics.”

The danger is that these latest atrocities challenge not only Abiy’s pan-Ethiopia dream, but also the very cohesion of the state itself. Radical Oromo groups have also called for an independent state. Asked if Ethiopia can stick together, Mulu Nega, the interim president of Tigray appointed by Abiy, replied “I hope” yet warning that “in such a crisis anything is possible”.

‘Being an Ethiopian means nothing to me’

Anger is evident on a side street in Mekelle, where a young man was shot in the back of his head, execution-style, doctors say, after breaking the curfew. The man’s body was still on the ground ten hours later. Locals present blamed Ethiopian soldiers.

Nurses help a patient wounded by shrapnel in Ayder hospital in Mekelle © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT
Meseret Yitbarek, 39, says: ‘We all want an independent Tigray now more than ever’ © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT

In an area close to old, faded billboards praising the former Tigrayan leadership, Meseret Yitbarek, who owns a shop in a street that was hit by shelling, said: “We all want an independent Tigray now more than ever. We don’t want to be occupied neither by Ethiopia nor Eritrea.”

In the city’s largest hospital, Ayder, Kibrom Gebreselassie, the chief clinical director, has for months been tending to those wounded in the war — children with their feet blown up by bombs, gang-raped women, men blinded by gunshots. “The situation is highly polarised, which is a catalyst for violence,” he said, describing rape of Tigrayans “as a weapon of war”.

The 19-year-old rape victim is, for now, staying in Mekelle. She feels that sexual violence against Tigrayans is an effort “to damage us, this is aimed at destroying us, there is no other explanation,” she said. “In all respects, they have divided us. From now on being an Ethiopian means nothing to me.”

Battle for Tigray

April 2 2018

Abiy Ahmed takes office as Ethiopia’s prime minister, ending the TPLF’s 27-year rule as part of the EPRDF coalition

October 11 2019

Abiy wins Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending a 20-year conflict with neighbouring Eritrea

September 9 2020

Tigray, ruled by the TPLF, presses ahead with regional election against the wishes of central government

November 4 2020

Abiy sends troops to Tigray after Tigrayan troops attack a federal army base

November 29 2020

Abiy declares that Ethiopian forces have ‘completed and ceased military operations’ in Tigray after taking control of Mekelle

March 23 2021

After months of government denial, Abiy admits the presence of Eritrean forces in Tigray

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article