Youth seeks revenge after testimonies of horrific rapes in Tigray

English Translation of a broadcast article on NOS (Dutch television)

Published on: May 31, 2021

A toddler hangs from his mother’s skirt at Ayder hospital in Mekelle, the largest city in the northern Ethiopian state of Tigray. The little boy doesn’t want to lose sight of his mama. There’s panic in his eyes every step his mother takes.

Her child was never that scared until he witnessed her being raped by two Eritrean soldiers, his mother Rose says. “He tried to push one of the men away from me but was knocked away.”

Rose sought help at a clinic next to the regional hospital for victims of sexual violence. That’s where Nurse Mulu Mesfin writes down her testimony. Since the war began more than six months ago, she says she has seen more than 500 women, half of them minors and 95 percent raped by soldiers. “The youngest victim was 4 years old and the oldest a nun of 80.” The medical director of the hospital, Kibrom Gebreslassie, confirms that number. The UN said last month it was aware of 500 cases at five health facilities.

The names of the victims are fictitious to protect their identities.

Before the war, Nurse Mulu also saw raped women, but nothing compared to now, she says. The horror of the stories also affects her. “I don’t eat or sleep anymore. Often it involves gang rape by soldiers. Many women not only come here with psychological damage, but also have injuries or an STI because of the rape.” A hospital gynaecologist says she has already treated women who had plastic and nails in the vagina.

Rape is used as a weapon of war in Tigray

The number of abortions in this hospital has also increased through time because of the rapes, the medics say. Letai, who is only 19 years old, is also in hospital for this. A doctor examines her abdomen. Letai says she was pregnant with an Ethiopian soldier who invaded her home and raped her while she was home alone. “How can I see this child I carry in me as mine?”

The testimonies that emerge of sexual violence by men in uniform are numerous and often tell the same story; about troops who conquer villages, linger after fighting, loot houses, burn harvests and own the women. But it goes further, says Nurse Mulu. “They want to destroy us Tigrayans.”


That’s also what medical director Gebreslassie says. In this hospital, they believe that rape is purposefully used to break the women of Tigray, as part of the armies’ strategy. “This is systematic and it is ethnic cleansing.” The victims point to 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 eritrean troops on his side are fighting the TPLF’s Tigray rebels. According to Gebreslassie, Eritrean troops would cause civilian casualties out of hatred because they still have a bone to pick with Tigray. He calls the Eritrean soldiers undisciplined and devastating.

Violence in Tigray began in November after troops from Ethiopian state clashed with the federal army.

In parliament, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy recently acknowledged that there have been atrocities in Tigray and that those who have raped women and committed other war crimes are held accountable. Last week, the prosecutor in Ethiopia reported that three Ethiopian soldiers had been convicted of rape during the conflict and that 25 more had been charged with rape and sexual abuse. The punishments were not disclosed.

And while violence is acknowledged by all parties, the government also says the number of victims is exaggerated. The testimonies are said to have been partly fabricated by the TPLF, in order to get the population and the international community on their hands.

What we’re seeing here is probably just the tip of the iceberg. A lot of victims can’t come to us right now.

Medical director Gebreslassie

“We really see a lot of raped women and civilians who have been injured here,” medical director Gebreslassie said in response to that accusation. “And what we see here is probably just the tip of the iceberg. A lot of victims can’t come to us right now. Roads are closed and it is sometimes too unsafe. And seeking help locally is difficult. A large part of the hospitals in Tigray have been looted and ambulances have been stolen by Eritreans.”

Letai’s not going to wait and see. After her abortion, she wants to join the rebels. Something the young woman could never have imagined before her rape, she says. She was still a virgin and focused only on her schoolwork. But now she’s combative. “I want revenge.”

She’s not the only one. The violence against civilians is causing more and more young people to join the war of the ‘old’ rebels and that this conflict creates new deep divisions. “When Abiy came to power, I believed in one Ethiopia,” says a man in his 20s in Mekelle. “We young people were not so happy with the TPLF at all, because they didn’t do enough for our region. But now that I hear what’s happening to our sisters, women and mothers, I want to defend myself and feel Tigrayan. Many of my friends have already picked up the weapons.”

The United Nations also says it fears that rape will be used as a weapon of war. They are now investigating this together with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. They look at human rights violations by all parties; Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers, Amhara militias and the TPLF rebels.

Meanwhile, Eritrean troops are still there, despite Prime Minister Abiy previously indicating they would withdraw. Thousands of civilians are estimated to have been killed, hundreds of thousands have fled and 5.2 million people are in need of humanitarian aid.

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