Eritrean soldiers have been charged with rape in the Ethiopian war in Tigray

A woman at a Tigray facility for victims of sexual assault

Last November, in an effort to put an end to a brutal two-year civil war, Ethiopia's government signed a peace agreement with forces from the northern Tigray region. However, locals and aid organizations have reported to the BBC that attacks on civilians have persisted, particularly sexual assaults against women.

This article includes graphic sexual violence, which some readers may find upsetting.

Letay spent the night in hiding under a bridge as mortar rounds landed and exploded all around her on the day that representatives of the Ethiopian government shook hands with their rivals from Tigray to make peace. Both sides grinned as cameras captured the moment.

She had just escaped from being raped by an Eritrean soldier while she was alone in a remote area of north-east Tigray. .

I was unconscious after it happened for a long time before I came to. Until they left, I had to remain hidden. ".

Letay's name and the names of the other rape survivors who told their stories to the BBC have been changed to protect them from stigma and retaliation.

The systematic rape of Tigrayan women by Ethiopian soldiers, as well as by their allies from neighboring Eritrea and militia groups, has been documented by the United Nations, human rights organizations, and journalists during the two-year conflict in northern Ethiopia.

In the Amhara region, forces from Tigray have also been charged with sexually assaulting women as they advanced toward the capital of Ethiopia.

People mourning in Ethiopia
It is estimated that the war claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

The civil war's two sides fought for control of Tigray for two years starting in November 2020. Thousands of thousands of people could have died.

There was optimism that the attacks on civilians would end after the peace accord was signed in November.

Women, healthcare professionals, and aid agencies have all told the BBC that they did not.

I spoke with Letay on a shaky phone line; she informed me that the government does not permit journalists to visit Tigray.

It twice happened to me. It looked like I wanted it, but what have I done wrong? " .

Letay claims that in January 2021, two Eritrean soldiers sexually assaulted her; a third soldier declined. .

The third person was asked to follow suit after the first two had completed their tasks, but he declined. She is already a corpse lying around, so what am I going to do with her? he asked. '".

Letay joined a women's support group for survivors after the first time she was raped and sought medical and psychological care. The day of the peace agreement, Letay hurried outside to assist a young girl who had also been raped before being assaulted.

The precise number of sexual assaults committed during the war is unknown.

Because of the disruption of communications during the fighting, victims frequently feel too afraid to speak up.

In November and December 2022, two months after the peace agreement was signed, 852 cases were reported in facilities set up to assist survivors, according to data from the Tigray Health Bureau.

Sexual assault cases have continued to be reported by aid organizations and human rights workers working in Tigray.

Two women at a centre for survivors of sexual assault in Tigray
For those who were sexually assaulted during the conflict, support groups have established centers.

Adiama, who is from the town of Zalambesa in north-eastern Tigray, claimed that an Eritrean soldier had sexually assaulted her at the end of the previous month.

Only one of the four of them raped me. They even intended to kill me, but they left after I was sexually assaulted. ".

At Tigray's largest hospital in the regional capital Mekelle, Sister Mulu Mesfin, who has assisted rape survivors since the conflict's inception, left me a voicemail as she passed through a ward.

In my one-stop center, there are a lot of survivors. They originate from various locations in Tigray. Most of them are fresh cases who were raped within the previous month or two. ".

Sister Mulu and other health professionals we spoke to claim that Eritrean troops were primarily responsible for these assaults in Tigray, though militia from the Amhara region and federal government forces have also been accused of rapes.

One of the reasons Eritrea joined the civil war supporting the Ethiopian government was because of its long-standing rivalry with Tigray's ruling Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). Eritrea and Tigray share a border.

Isaias Afwerki, the reclusive president of Eritrea, made a rare public appearance last week when he traveled to Kenya.

Mr. Isaias was obviously irate and frustrated when journalists pressed him on important subjects because he is from a nation without a free press. He denied all allegations that the forces of his nation committed crimes against humanity in Tigray.

"Everyone talking about human rights violations [by Eritrean forces], rape, looting, this is a fantasy in the minds of those who own this factory," he said. "I call this factory a factory of fabricating misinformation.".

President Isaias Afwerki giving a press conference in Kenya, February 2023
Isaias Afwerki, the president, refutes all claims that Eritrean forces committed atrocities.

Neither the African Union, which mediated the peace agreement, nor the communications minister of the Ethiopian government have responded to our requests for comment regarding the claims in this report.

The agreement reached in November has changed Tigray for the better. There isn't any ongoing conflict. More towns and cities are now receiving aid, particularly food and medicine, while communication and banking services have been restored.

Some families have reunited, while others have spoken to one another after being apart for more than a year. However, the agreement's fourth article states that "The Parties shall, in particular, condemn any act of sexual and gender-based violence.". ".

Sexual assault is against the terms of the agreement, according to Laetitia Bader, director of Human Rights Watch's Horn of Africa division. The significance of the agreement's backers making sure they speak up when there are violations is one of the concerns we have been bringing up.

The group keeps requesting that journalists and independent investigators be allowed entry into northern Ethiopia.

The efforts of the Ethiopian government, which were made to try and put an end to and undermine the work of the international commission of human rights experts of Ethiopia, which was established by the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, are "very concerning," she continues.

In order for survivors to receive justice and for any process of reconciliation, according to Ms. Bader, investigations will be essential.

After the peace agreement, Hilina says, "I never expected to be attacked.".

The mother of three had already relocated from her house in Humera to Shirao, where she was employed as a street vendor selling maize.

According to her, two Eritrean troops stopped her for violating the curfew on November 16 as she was running late to go home. They took her to a vacant house after she admitted she had no identification.

The development of what appeared to be Eritrean or Ethiopian forces in Shiraro was visible in satellite images taken on September 26 and released by the company Maxar Technologies.

Ethiopian soldiers captured by Tigray, July 2021
Due to communication breakdowns and entry restrictions, the war continued for two years while remaining largely hidden from the public eye.

Hilina claims that she was able to identify the men as being from Eritrea based on their appearance and dialect.

"They took me to a house that was deserted. If you remain silent, we won't hurt you, they said while pulling a gun. I therefore told them to do as they pleased but pleaded with them not to kill me. ".

According to Hilina, she was sexually assaulted all night long before being released the next morning. She later had an abortion, claiming that she would prefer death to having a child born through rape.

There are Eritrean troops close to Shiraro, according to aid workers who were interviewed by the BBC.

The peace agreement calls for them to leave Tigray, and despite leaving major cities and towns, they continue to be present in areas close to their border with Tigray.

Again on a shaky phone line, Shashu, an 80-year-old woman, is unable to contain her tears as we speak to her. She agrees to continue the interview when we ask if she wants to.

Shashu claims that both before and after the peace agreement, just like Letay, she was raped twice during this war.

According to her, she was severely abused by men in November and is now unable to control her urination and feces.

"I was completely traumatized by two or three people attacking one human. It seems like there is nothing positive about my body anymore.

. "

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