The troops of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his allies are deploying rape and famine in their war in the Tigray region. The violence is horrific, and women are bearing the brunt of it.
By Fritz Schaap und Daniel Etter (Photos)
In a classroom with dirty walls in the Tigray highlands, a woman is leaning against a blackboard. She is crying. Beneath her wraparound skirt, she is wearing an underskirt on which a red patch is slowly spreading. It is lighter on the margins, but dark in the middle. Blood is running down her legs and soaking into the shimmering white fabric. She is staring at the wall, her right hand pressed against the blackboard. With her left hand, she is stroking the romper of her six-month-old daughter.
She then turns around and leans against the wall. Her expression is desolate. Every movement is painful. Meaza’s abdomen has been inflamed ever since Eritrean soldiers attacked and raped her. “They did it over and over again,” she says with a brittle voice.
Outside the window, hungry people walk through the camp, the dusty ground crunching under their feet. Thousands of refugees have sought shelter in a former school in Shire, a town in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia. Laundry has been hung up to dry on the walls of an unfinished building. An old, emaciated man lies on his deathbed in a tent. “I can’t stay here. I need help,” implores Meaza.
The Tigray Region, in the far north of the country, has been beset by war since early November, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive against the regional government under the leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). For months, the Ethiopian government closed off access to the region, with not even aid organizations allowed in. They are still unable to reach many of those in need of help.
This Monday, following heavy losses, the Ethiopian government announced a unilateral ceasefire. It is unlikely that the Tigrayan Defense Forces will go along with it. Rather, they may continue what a lot of Tigrayans now see as war of independence.
Famine as a Weapon
Tigray is one of 10 regions in Ethiopia and has a population of around 7 million, the vast majority of whom belong to the Tigray ethnic group. The fighting in the region has escalated into a brutal conflict involving the neighboring countries of Eritrea and Sudan – with tens of thousands of traumatized women, starving children and around 1.7 million displaced persons.
The United Nations warns that 350,000 Tigrayans are already suffering from catastrophic food shortages. Mark Lowcock, the UN emergency relief coordinator, said recently that the hunger will “get much worse.” Last week, USAID said that the number of people living under famine conditions had risen and now stands at up to 900,000 people. The war in Tigray is one in which rape and starvation are both being widely deployed as a weapon against the civilian population.
The roots of the conflict reach back to 2018, when Abiy Ahmed, who was 41 at the time, became prime minister. Abiy promised reform, released political prisoners and negotiated a peace deal with archenemy Eritrea within just a few months. Many people were initially hopeful about his leadership. In 2019, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
His rise also marked the end of almost three decades of Tigrayan rule over Ethiopia. For years, they had led a coalition government in Addis Ababa, appointing allies to key positions and controlling the country with an iron fist.
Abiy formed a new unity party without TPLF participation. Soon, anti-Tigray propaganda began emanating from government circles, referring to them as “daylight hyenas” or a “cancer.” Media outlets fueled the campaign. Tigrayans were removed from the army and government services and were also increasingly discriminated against in day-to-day life.
Abiy promised to hold parliamentary elections in summer 2020, but suspended the vote due to the coronavirus pandemic. In Tigray, though, the TPLF decided to hold regional elections nonetheless, whereupon Abiy cut financial support to the region. In November, the conflict between the Tigrayans in the north and the central government in Addis Ababa broke out into the open. According to a new report from the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, it was Abiy’s troops who launched the war in the early morning hours of Nov. 4.
The delayed national elections were finally held on June 21. The results have not yet been announced, but it is considered a certainty that the incumbent prime minister will emerge victorious – in part because many opposition candidates boycotted the election or are currently in prison.
A DER SPIEGEL team was able to travel from the regional capital of Mekelle to Shire, in the heart of Tigray in late May. Burned out tanks, military trucks and buses lined the roads. In the towns and villages, survivors tell stories of looting and executions. If they had protested, they say, they would have been killed as well.
The scent of incense wafts into the room in Shire where Meaza is leaning in pain against the wall. She’s still crying. Meaza is not her real name: She asked that we use a pseudonym for her protection. She is from Mai Kadra in western Tigray, where she used to run a shop selling coffee and sugar. Her income was enough for her, her husband and their three children.
Then, the war began. Militias from the neighboring state of Amhara descended on the town last November after Tigrayan fighters had attacked Amhara residents. Meaza fled to the east, until she ran into five Eritrean soldiers. The men, Meaza says, pulled her into a forest and ripped off her clothes. They raped her, one after the other, over and over again, for an entire day. Right on the hard ground between the trees. Then, according to Meaza, one of them said: “It’s not enough to rape you Tigrayans. She says that they then inserted a hot metal rod. “You should never again have children,” they said. Since then, Meaza hasn’t been able to sit or lie down. When she rests, she hunkers over on all-fours, on her knees and elbows. She hardly sleeps at all.
Plundering and Executions
Her account is difficult to verify, but it is consistent with the stories told by numerous other women. You hear stories like the one told by Meaza frequently in Tigray.
A trip through this region gripped by war and suffering is also a journey into the heart of fear. Along the main roads and in the larger towns, in places where life looks completely normal at first glance, people everywhere have pretty much the same stories to tell. They speak of executions, massacres, gang rapes and imprisonment – of how Eritrean troops have ransacked entire cities and villages.
The Ethiopian army, after all, isn’t conducting the fight in the north on its own. Because the country’s troops are unable to bear the burden of fighting in Tigray on their own, Abiy Ahmed has formed an alliance with Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki, the former archenemy of Ethiopia. Now, it’s not just Ethiopian troops terrorizing the region, but also – especially – those from Eritrea. One Eritrean soldier who deserted recently told Ethiopian expert Alex de Waal that he and his comrades had been ordered to “crush” the Tigray. Eritrean troops, he says, were encouraged to steal, burn, rape and kill.
The large roads in Tigray are lined by factories and shops that have been plundered. The buildings have been partly destroyed and the machinery taken across the border into Eritrea as war loot. People can be seen crying at the graves of their children, who were forced to help transport the goods and were then executed.
Most of the hospitals have also been plundered and destroyed. Back in March, the aid organization Doctors Without Borders warned that only 13 percent of all health-care facilities in the region were able to function normally.
The Eritrean troops don’t just ransack factories, hospitals, schools and universities, they don’t just block or steal aid deliveries. They also burn food stores in addition to stealing or killing livestock. They even take the plows from the fields, making it impossible for farmers to plant their crops. Or they forbid farmers from working and threaten them with penalties if they disobey.
The famine that is developing in the region is intentional. Starvation, warns UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Lowcock, “is being used as a weapon of war.” The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that around 90 percent of the entire grain crop has been destroyed or stolen.
On our trip through Tigray, it becomes clear that Nobel laureate Abiy Ahmed is waging a war that he won’t be able to win in the long run. Peace, say the people of Tigray, is only possible when the people are able to determine their own fate. And for an increasing number of them, that means leaving Ethiopia. A growing majority of the Tigray populace is apparently in favor of seceding from the rest of the country and becoming independent.
Back in the old school in Shire, a second woman walks into the classroom. We’ll call her Rozina. She, too, is from western Tigray, where militias from Amhara have driven many thousands of Tigrayans from their towns and villages. The Amhara, who are fighting hand-in-hand with the Ethiopian military, claim western Tigray as their own. And they are using the war to brutally make that claim reality. Observers have described the campaign as widespread “ethnic cleansing.”
“I Couldn’t Keep Up”
Rozina’s story is similar to that told by others who have been driven from the region. When she tried to flee in November, she was locked away with thousands of other Tigrayans in an old warehouse. Over and over again, she says, young men were taken away by Amhara militias and executed.
Rozina is a thin, 28-year-old. She pulls at the white cloth she has wrapped around her face and smooths her blue skirt. She was able to escape the warehouse and then tried to flee to Sudan with others. “But I didn’t have any shoes,” she says rapidly. “I couldn’t keep up on the rocky ground.”
She and another woman lost their way and ran into a group of Amhara men with machetes. They suspected the women of being spies and took them prisoner, Rozina says. “Some said: ‘Kill them.’ Others said: ‘They know something. Let’s interrogate them.'” Rozina pauses briefly and looks out the window, her eyes filling with tears. She gazes out the window.
A donkey brays outside. A thin stream of water drips out of the faucets where children have lined up. All of the residents of the camp in Shire complain of hunger. They eat the breadcrumbs given to them by town residents, carefully storing them in plastic bags. Sometimes, they grow moldy. They complain of the indiscriminate arrests of young men. Many of them sleep on the hard, concrete floor or in the dust outside.
“They took us to a police station,” says Rozina. “Tortured us with electric shocks and beat us with cables.” The men forced them to undress and rammed their hands into their vaginas, allegedly to search for hidden papers.
Then, they loaded the two women onto a truck with other prisoners and drove them to the east. Up to 150,000 Tigrayans were being systematically displaced around this time, according to estimates from independent observers in the country.
“They wanted to execute us,” Rozina says. When they ran across members of the Ethiopian Red Cross, the militia fighters left them behind.
She says that they walked until they reached a small village, where they found the Eritreans. “They saw me and raped me,” Rozina says. Afterward, the women of the village hid her in a house. She was able to listen in when the Eritreans returned, asking: “Where is the girl?” They then took the sheep belonging to the villagers before going on to ransack the entire village. “They took everything: animals, grain, furniture.”
When she left her hiding place after two weeks, she says, she was again raped by soldiers. “They said: ‘We should turn Tigray into a desert and kill as many of you as we can.'”
Before the war, Rozina had a small restaurant. She wanted to go to high school and learn bookkeeping to give her daughter a better life. That was her dream. Now, she says: “I don’t know what the future will bring. I have seen too many dead people, too much destruction. The Eritreans and Amhara steal everything. I only see hunger and death in the future.”
This week has now seen a potential turning point in the war. On Friday, June 18, Tigrayan troops launched Operation Alula, an offensive that has seen them push into the regional capital of Mekelle and other cities in the north of Tigray. Following the arrival of the troops, the Ethiopian government on Monday declared an “immediate, unilateral” cease-fire in the Tigray region until September, claiming it was a humanitarian gesture. In reality, though, Abiy’s troops appear to have been suffering such great losses that they couldn’t have continued fighting. The Tigrayan leadership then vowed to take back all of Tigray.
It is still not fully clear how Eritrean troops will respond to the announcement. Eritrean dictator Isaias’s primary interests in Tigray are revenge and the destabilization of Ethiopia. The Tigrayans were in charge in Ethiopia when the country waged a brutal border war against Eritrea from 1998 to 2000, a conflict that cost the lives of an estimated 70,000 people. That is the foundation of Isaias’s deep hatred of the Tigray people. For years, he has sought to instill in his people the idea that Eritrea’s neighbors to the south are responsible for all of their suffering and poverty. That could help explain the brutality deployed in Tigray by the Eritrean army. His troops seem to be retreating now, too, but are still holding territory in the north.
Back in April, Mark Lowcock of the UN noted that sexual violence was being used as a weapon of war in Tigray. But his warning did not lead to any consequences.
Gang Rape and HIV
For a long time, the regional capital of Mekelle was home to the only facility in the state dedicated to helping rape victims. Now, at least, there are a handful of them in the region, where women are provided medical and psychological care in the so-called One Stop Centers, and they can hide in safe houses.
Since the beginning of the war, Mekelle-based nurse Mulu Mesfin has watched as the number of victims has grown. And every day, Mulu continues to lose weight. She says she hardly sleeps anymore and only rarely eats. The suffering of the women in Tigray is eating her up. “I no longer take care of my own children. I no longer take care of myself. Everyone here is losing weight. But we have to help,” she says. Then she starts to cry. Every day, 10 to 15 women are coming to her center alone, she says. “And the numbers keep rising.”
Mulu knows hundreds of stories like those told by Meaza and Rozina. She has registered more than 500 women at her centers, and the total is more than 1,500 for all centers together. The true number, though, Mulu estimates, is surely 20-times higher. Dutch expert Mirjam van Reisen of the University of Leiden, who has been closely following the region for years, believes that estimate is credible. In a UN report released in April, the number of survivors of sexual violence was estimated at 22,500.
“Frequently, woman come to us with stories of 20 or 30 other cases in their villages. Women who never make it to our facility,” Mulu says.
The girls and women who are able to escape are between the ages of four and 80. Around half of them are minors. Many arrive with broken bones, some are suffering from organ failure.
And a number of them have been infected with HIV, says Mulu. At Mulu’s facility, they have repeatedly heard stories of soldiers who tell their victims that they were sent to Tigray because they are HIV positive. Such claims are difficult to verify. Mulu says: “All gang rape victims who arrive here are HIV positive.” And most of the rapes, she says, are gang rapes, with groups of up to 30 soldiers attacking the women. “There are cases in which the number of rapists is so large that the women can’t count them anymore. In one instance, a group of 15 girls was loaded into a minibus and take to a military camp. Once there, they were raped by entire divisions,” Mulu says quietly. “For an entire week.”
The perpetrators, Mulu says, are careful to hold their victims captive for long enough that emergency HIV treatment is no longer possible. That is allegedly what happened to a nun in a nearby convent. The woman, Mulu says, was raped by soldiers for 10 days, and now she is HIV positive.
“Often, they force the families to watch,” Mulu says. Mothers, fathers and brothers. Sometimes, says the nurse, they will then kill the families.
The physical injuries suffered by the women she is treating, says Mulu, are shocking. The rapists frequently insert trash or filthy towels into the women. Sometimes even acid. Mirjam van Reisen, who has been researching sexual violence in Eritrea for 12 years, says she has heard such stories before – from people who have escaped Eritrean prisons or camps.
Almost half of the women who come to nurse Mulu are pregnant, she says, and the hospital beds are full of women who have had abortions. “But we don’t have enough drugs because the government doesn’t provide any support to the hospital.”
Even pregnant women are raped. “Afterwards, the soldiers beat them in the belly with the butts of their rifles until they start bleeding and lose their child.” The head of an association for the disabled says that disabled women are increasingly among the victims.
“It has to stop,” implores Mulu. “We need peace. The world has to help us.”