Photo: Dignitaries at the 2nd World Irrigation Forum, Chiang Mai, Thailand, November 2016. Credit: Nation - Photo: 2021

Brutal Gender-Based Violence in Tigray — A Personal Account


BRUSSELS (IDN) — “A woman in her 40s was found dead on the road to her home. She was found with her hands tied, injured to her head and sexually assaulted. This was in Mekelle. I know her son.” This is what one of our reporters (A.G.), who herself is a young woman, has reported.

The extent and cruelty of the assaults, sexual violence and rape of women and girls that the Europe External Programme with Africa (EEPA) has received information about is simply chilling. Much of it goes unreported. There is still no internet, and journalists were prevented from reaching the region for three months. Often, these atrocities are not reported, because the facts are just too repulsive. How do you talk about such horrific incidences?

How do you report on the murder of a grandfather, in front of his family, after he was instructed to rape his own granddaughter at gunpoint, but refused to do so? Minds blank out these images; refusing to engage with the utter cruelty of the Gender Based Violence (GBV) that is so widespread in the Tigray war. It is paralysing.

Ten thousand women: this is the conservative estimate of the number of victims of rape in Tigray.

One inventory of confirmed cases from just a handful of health clinics in Tigray found 108 women who had been raped. (Ethiopia Commission on Human Rights, 11 February 2021)[1]. In Adigrat alone, the public hospital received over 174 rape survivors since the beginning of the war (Deutsche Welle, 2021)[2]. According to Dedebit media, 750 women were raped and admitted to Ayder hospital in Mekelle alone (Dedebit, 29 January 2021).[3] There have been multiple reports of gang rape. One documented incident involved more than ten soldiers raping a single victim. Victims include girls as young as ten years old as well as grandmothers.

Many incidents go unreported. As an aid worker stated:

“Whenever a girl or a woman comes and shares her story, she is speaking for 6, 8 or even 10 other women who were raped in the place she comes from. She is the only one who was able to come and get treatment. This helps you to imagine the scale of the atrocities. So, talking about the official numbers is downscaling the problem.”

Reporting in many parts of the region is simply impossible. Communication with large parts of the region have been cut, or is very difficult, so numbers have been reduced. Rape and sexual assault is generally a deeply taboo subject, that brings shame on the woman and her family. It can be very costly for women to come forward and testify. There is a tendency to not report GBV to avoid the consequences – which can include becoming an outcast.

There is also fear. Women are also fearful of reporting to the clinics, since they do not believe the centres, or the authorities can or will protect them. They do not report these atrocities because they do not believe there will be either support or justice. They are justifiably fearful that if they go public that they, or their family members, will be punished once again, with even more violence from the soldiers.

Only the most severe cases tend to be reported when victims come to seek urgent medical help. However, 90% of clinics and hospitals have been destroyed and are no longer in use, with health workers having fled.

“These [cases] are only those who have access to this hospital, but we don’t know what happens in the 18 districts in the Eastern [Tigray] zone – what happens to the mothers, what happens to the other community [members].” (Deutsche Welle, 6 March 2021)

The doctor said women are being gang-raped, drugged and gravely injured in the assaults. One woman was held captive for over ten days, raped by 23 Eritrean soldiers, then left on the side of the road. Surgeons had to remove stones and nails that had been inserted inside her genitals. (Deutsche Welle, 6 March 2021).

There are several ways in which rape against women is employed as a weapon of war in the conflict.

First, there is the widespread fear that it instils in the entire civilian population. They become paralysed and inactive. Rape, together with other forms of cruelty and torture, degrades and dehumanises the victim and their relatives. The severe trauma associated with such assaults may have long term effects, inducing in these victims a state of paralysis. This is one of the eye-witness reports EEPA has received:

A woman in a place near Wukro was raped and killed by Eritrean soldiers in front of her three sons. She was left with the sons, who were not allowed to bury her. The body, with her hands tight together, was left for three days. The sons were not allowed to move it. (G.W. 7 March 2021)

The purposeful degrading of women—even when they are dead—forms part of a collective humiliation. It can be seen in this desecration of women in holy orders:

In Wukro, Eritrean soldiers have raped the nuns of the monastery collectively. (G.W. 7 March 2021)

From the reports it appears that the women are targeted as a collective punishment for the war. Soldiers use perpetrating sexual assault and rape to create a human shield, to enforce compliance with their forces controlling the area. Devex found that women and girls who had been able to flee to Sudan:

“also witnessed loved ones and friends killed, and tortured, creating a high need for psycho-social support.”

At the same time, there are reports of male relatives being forced to carry out rapes on family members. If they refused, they were threatened with execution.

They force the family members to rape their relatives. There is so much to it that it really is a weapon. (A.G., 6 March 2021)

There are similar reports of family members, including husbands and children, being forced to watch the rape:

Sadistic perpetration of sexual violence reported. Report received that a girl from Abyi Adi was shot 4 times on her hands by a soldier who first went into their home asking where ‘woyane’ (a term for people in Tigray) is. Her father, a blind man, responded they didn’t know, and he was ordered to rape his own child. He was taken into another room and beaten by another soldier after he strongly refused. The girl was then ordered ‘lawtash’. (This is an offensive term widely used referring to sexual intercourse in the context of violence or rape). When she refused, he fired a shot wounding her left-hand small finger and then followed it with three shots on her right arm leaving her now amputated. (EEPA, 2 February 2021)

Involving relatives in rape destroys the dignity of all involved, and with it the fabric of society. Such incidences, associated with Eritrean perpetrators, are not new. The attacks reported in Tigray resemble the acts allegedly perpetrated by human trafficking gangs operating within an Eritrean-facilitated chain. These listed the following crimes:

  • Rape and gang rape by traffickers, torturers and guards
  • Rape in front of father, husband, wives, daughter, sons, and other family members (there are several accounts of daughters, including very young girls, gang raped in front of parents or threats thereof)
  • Rape ordered between hostages while guards watch (including the rape of very young girls)
  • Other sadistic sexual acts (The Trauma of Survivors of Sinai Trafficking, 2017: 289)

Human traffickers from Eritrea also used sexual violence against men and boys as a means of enforcing their submission. This is socially and culturally taboo, and has not yet been reported, to our knowledge, in the current war in Tigray.

The report on the Trauma of Survivors of Sinai Trafficking (2017), perpetrated in a chain that is facilitated by Eritrean commanders, also reports other forms of torture that strongly resemble the practices reported from Tigray:

Forcing hostages to witness the harm done to others, especially family members

  • The torture of other hostages
  • The killing of other hostages
  • Leaving dead hostages’ bodies in view (The Trauma of Survivors of Sinai Trafficking, 2017: 289)

In Tigray, women and girls are targeted as the (future) mothers of children who might (one day) take up arms against the invading army. They are being strategically targeted to humiliate them and their families as a way of diminishing the strength of the Tigrayan people. It can be seen as part of a genocidal strategy against the entire population. Human Rights Watch HRW) reports on the massacre in Aksum:

The massacre left the town’s inhabitants reeling. One man visited a relative who lost her children in the house-to-house killings: “They killed her children and locked the compound door behind them, so no one could get in at first. She was left alone with the bodies of her two dead children for a day and a half. She was numb, unresponsive by the time we saw her.” (HRW, 5 March 2021)

Women who become pregnant as a result of the rape have few options. Prior to the conflict abortions could be carried out in hospitals, but the medical facilities have been looted and few have any remaining medicines. Refugees who managed to flee to Sudan still face a difficult situation, since in Sudan abortion is difficult to obtain. Devex published that Tigrayan women who are now in the refugee camps are resorting to unsafe abortions.

Aid agencies have repeatedly urged the Ethiopian authorities to open the region up for humanitarian aid. The head of UK Aid, Christian Rogg, said on twitter:

In #Mekelle today. Met with people displaced by violence from across #Tigray. Heard haunting accounts of rape and murder. Families separated, incl. young children. Free access by humanitarian agencies is critical. @UKinEthiopia calls for investigation of abuses and violations. (Twitter, 5 March 2021)

It is important to note that the violence against women is not only perpetrated against the Tigray population, but also against Eritrean refugees, hosted in Tigray. In such cases violence perpetrated by Eritrean troops on Eritrean refugees may be designed to force them into submission.

There is great fear among the victims of rape about further repercussions and collective punishment if they report the crimes. Tigray expert, Prof. Jan Nysen, reports:

According to official reports, all of Tigray is happy that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has restored law and order. But that is far from apparent from the visit of Ethiopian President Sahlework Zewdie to Mekelle on 7 February. Several contacts in the city reported that she was not really welcome. Civil society people did not show up. The sad face of the displaced woman in the photo speaks volumes. The president insisted on visiting survivors of sexual assault at the local hospital. Despite having been warned by doctors, Ethiopia’s first woman president, accompanied by soldiers, stormed into the hospital room. According to those present, there was great panic among these women, who suffer from post-traumatic stress. (MO Magazine, 5 March 2021)

The interim provisional administration in Mekelle has confirmed the high incidence of rape perpetrated against women and girls. The reporter from Mekelle observes:

When the government is comparing the numbers from before and now, they are very different (A.G., 6 March, 2021)

The sexual assaults and rape of women and girls in Tigray has been carried out by Eritrean forces, Amhara forces and Ethiopian National Defence Forces. A first analysis indicates that there are different patterns associated with such attacks by the different forces. It would appear that the most hate- and revenge inspired acts have been carried out by Eritrean forces, especially in areas over which they have sole control. Further details of these attacks have to be investigated:

A spokeswoman for Patten’s office wouldn’t say which “military elements” were involved. The fighters in Tigray include those from the neighboring Amhara region and other parts of Ethiopia as well as soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea. (AP, 2021)

EEPA’s reporter from Mekelle states that rape should be investigated as a weapon of war:

I compare it to what is described in „The world within the war”. This book is about Congo when there was a war with Rwanda. When I was reading it – I saw the resemblance with the situation here, it exactly what is going on in our country. The conclusion was clear – when rape is used as a weapon of war it is used to humiliate the woman to demoralize everything.  And this is very brutal. It is not just rape – it is followed by killings and very hostile abuse. There is so much hate. It is not even about rape – there is so much to it. When they rape they say things so full of hate. It is clear. You can understand. (A.G., 6 March 2021).

There is an urgent need for investigation on the ground of all such alleged crimes. This must include the use of rape as a weapon of war. It must stop the rampant attacks on innocent citizens, women and girls. Some young women in Tigray remain combative:

“We will not be silenced. We are continuing to advocate. We are now activists. This must stop!”

Said one young woman in Mekelle, when asked by EEPA what March 8 means to her this year. [IDN-InDepthNews – 08 March 2021]

Collage: Photos of Senegal President Mackey Sall, the Republic of Congo Denis Sassou Nguesso, and President Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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[1] The Commission received reports of 52 instances of rape in Mekelle, 22 in Adigrat, 7 in Wukro and 27 in Ayder (a total of 108) (Ethiopian Commission on Human Rights, 11 February 2021).

[2] Deutsche Welle, Anger and collective trauma scar Ethiopia’s Tigray region, 6 March 2021.

[3] Dedebit is a broadcasting and production company, and it broadcasted and produced in three languages: Tigrigna, Amharic & English. It work in Science and Technology, Art and Tourism, History and Heritage Management, News and Politics. It is based on NSW, Australia. (info from their facebook-page:

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