It was the beginning of an 11-day ordeal in February, during which she says she was repeatedly raped by 23 soldiers who forced nails, a rock and other items into her vagina, and threatened her with a knife.
Doctors showed Reuters the bloodstained stone and two 3-inch nails they said they had removed from her body.
The woman, 27, is among hundreds who have reported that they were subjected to horrific sexual violence by Ethiopian and allied Eritrean soldiers after fighting broke out in November in the mountainous northern region of Ethiopia, doctors said.
Some women were held captive for extended periods, days or weeks at a time, said Dr Fasika Amdeselassie, the top public health official for the government-appointed interim administration in Tigray.
“Women are being kept in sexual slavery,” Fasika told Reuters. “The perpetrators have to be investigated.”
Reports of rape have been circulating for months. But Fasika’s assertion, based on women’s accounts, marks the first time an Ethiopian official – in this case, a top regional health officer – has made a sexual slavery accusation in connection with the conflict in Tigray.
In addition, eight other doctors at five public hospitals told Reuters that most of the rape victims described their attackers as either Ethiopian government soldiers or Eritrean troops. It was more common for women to report sexual violence by Eritrean soldiers, the doctors said.
The Eritreans have been helping Ethiopia’s central government fight the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in the conflict plaguing the Horn of Africa nation.
Taken together, the descriptions paint the most detailed picture to date of the sexual violence against women in Tigray and the military’s alleged involvement in it.
Most people interviewed for this article declined to be identified. They said they feared reprisals, including possible violence, by soldiers who guard the hospitals and towns.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed acknowledged in a speech to parliament on March 23 that “atrocities were being committed by raping women” and promised that the perpetrators would be punished. He did not identify the alleged perpetrators.
He said then for the first time that Eritrean soldiers had entered the conflict in Tigray in support of the Ethiopian government after the TPLF attacked military bases across the region in the early hours of November 4. Ethiopia’s government had previously denied this, and the Eritrean government still does not acknowledge their troops’ presence. The TPLF was the dominant power in the central government when Eritrea fought a bloody border war with Ethiopia a generation ago.
Neither the Ethiopian nor the Eritrean governments responded to Reuters’ questions about specific cases raised by women and their doctors, or about the accusation of sexual slavery. No charges have been announced by civilian or military prosecutors against any soldiers. However, officials in both countries emphasized that their governments have zero tolerance for sexual violence – a point Abiy’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, said the prime minister reiterated recently in discussions with military leaders.
Billene said the United Nations, the African Union and Ethiopia’s state-appointed human rights commission have been authorized to carry out joint investigations into alleged abuses by all sides in the conflict. That includes the “criminal clique,” she said, referring to the TPLF.
An Ethiopian military spokesman and the head of a government task force on the Tigray crisis did not respond to phone calls and text messages seeking comment. Reuters could not reach military leaders in either country.
Asked about the reports that Eritrean troops have committed rapes in Tigray and are keeping women in sexual slavery, the country’s information minister, Yemane Gebremeskel, accused TPLF activists of “coaching ‘sympathizers’ to create false testimonies.”
“All the fabricated stories – which are alien to our culture and laws – are peddled to cover up the crimes of the TPLF which started the war,” he told Reuters in a written response.
Reuters was unable to reach a TPLF spokesman.
Records of abuse
Fasika, the health official, said at least 829 cases of sexual assault have been reported at the five hospitals since the conflict in Tigray began.
Those cases were likely “the tip of the iceberg,” Fasika said. Rape is underreported in Ethiopia because it carries a huge stigma. Also, most of the region’s health facilities are no longer functioning, and travel between towns remains dangerous, he said.
Most of the women who have come forward are either pregnant or sustained severe physical injury from the rapes, Fasika said.
Reuters interviewed 11 women who said they had been raped by soldiers from Eritrea, Ethiopia or both. Four said they were kidnapped, taken to military camps and gang raped, in some cases alongside other women. The women did not know the camp names but said they were located near Mekelle and the towns of Idaga Hamus, Wukro and Sheraro.
Five other women said they were held in fields or deserted houses for up to six days. And two said they were raped in their own homes.
Reuters could not independently verify their accounts. However, all told similar stories of being beaten and brutalised. Healthcare providers confirmed that the 11 women’s injuries were consistent with the events they described, and they showed Reuters medical records for three of the women detailing their conditions.
The healthcare providers also shared details of nine other cases of sexual assault, including the ordeals of two 14-year-old girls.
Ethiopia’s Ambassador to the UN slams reports of human rights violation in Tigray:
Although Ethiopia’s government declared victory over the TPLF in November, fighting continues in some areas, and medical workers say new rapes are reported at the region’s health facilities every day.
“This is being done to dishonour the women, to break their pride,” said a doctor at Ayder Referral Hospital, in Mekelle, citing the brutality of the attacks and humiliation of victims. “This is not for sexual gratification. The rapes are to punish Tigray.”