Women who make it to the clinic for sex abuse survivors in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray usually struggle to describe their injuries. But when they can’t take a seat and quietly touch their bottoms, the nurses know it’s an unspeakable kind of suffering.
So it was one afternoon with a dazed, barely conscious 40-year-old woman wrapped in bloodied towels, who had been repeatedly gang-raped anally and vaginally by 15 Eritrean soldiers in Azerber. She was detained with about 10 other girls and women, including a 70-year-old.
The woman recently broke down in tears as she recounted her ordeal in January at the hands of Eritrean soldiers, who have taken over parts of the embattled region in neighboring Ethiopia. The Eritreans often sodomize their victims, according to the nursing staff, a practice that is deeply taboo in the Orthodox Christian religion of Tigray.
“They talked to each other. Some of them: ‘We kill her.’ Some of them: ‘No, no. Rape is enough for her,’” the woman recalled in Mekele, Tigray’s capital. The AP does not name victims of sexual assault, but journalists saw her case file.
She said one of the soldiers told her: “This season is our season, not your season. This is the time for us.”
This story was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Despite claims by both Ethiopia and Eritrea that they were leaving, Eritrean soldiers are more firmly entrenched than ever in Tigray, where they are brutally gang-raping women, killing civilians, looting hospitals and blocking food and medical aid, The Associated Press has found.
Multiple witnesses, survivors of rape, officials and aid workers said Eritrean soldiers have been spotted far from the border, deep in eastern and even southern Tigray, sometimes clad in faded Ethiopian army fatigues. The Eritreans now control key roads and access to some communities, witnesses said.
Almost all Tigrayans interviewed by the AP insisted there can be no peace unless the Eritreans leave. Yet the Eritreans show no signs of withdrawing, with Ethiopia's government appearing incapable of enforcing discipline. Two sources with ties to the government told the AP that Eritrea is in charge in parts of Tigray, and there is fear that it is dealing directly with ethnic Amhara militias.
“They are still here,” said Abebe Gebrehiwot, a Tigrayan who serves as the federally appointed deputy CEO of Tigray, sounding frustrated in his office.
The violence has already sent families fleeing to places like the camp for the internally displaced in Mekele that Smret Kalayu shares with thousands of others.
“If there are still Eritreans there, I don’t have a plan to go back home,” she said, her voice catching with rage. “What can I say? They are worse than beasts," Smret said, reflecting on her escape in April from Dengelat.
Ethiopia and Eritrea were deadly enemies for decades, with Tigray’s then-powerful rulers taking leading roles in a divisive border conflict. That started to change in 2018, after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office and made peace with Eritrea.
Abiy also marginalized Tigray's leaders, who then questioned his authority. In early November Ethiopia's government accused Tigrayan troops of attacking federal ones. Tigray's leaders later fired rockets into the Eritrean capital of Asmara.
Abiy sent federal troops to Tigray to arrest its defiant leaders, and a war broke out that has dragged on for six months and displaced more than 2 million of the region’s 6 million people. United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken has referred to “ethnic cleansing” in western Tigray, a term for forcing a population from a region through violence.
Most of the atrocities are blamed on Ethiopian troops, the Amhara militias allied with them and, notably, the shadowy fighters from Eritrea.
An Eritrean artillery bombardment lasting about 13 hours killed 150 people in Tirhas Fishaye’s village in the Zalambessa area in mid-November, she said.
“We hid in a cave for two months with 200 other people,” said the displaced woman. “Then the Eritrean army found us and murdered 18 people.”
Haileselassie Gebremariam, a Tigrayan from the Gulomakeda district who was shot in the leg in January, said he counted the bodies of 38 people massacred by Eritrean troops inside the Medhane-Alem church there.
The Eritreans are motivated by animosity against Tigrayan leaders, according to Berhane Kidanemariam, an Ethiopian diplomat from Tigray who resigned his post earlier this year. Eritrea’s longtime president, Isaias Afwerki also is seeking a buffer zone along the border and to ensure that the now-fugitive Tigray leaders cannot make a comeback, Berhane said.
“The mastermind of the situation in Ethiopia is Isaias,” he said.
In early April Ethiopia’s foreign ministry reported that Eritrean troops had “started to evacuate.” But the U.S. has said it still sees no sign of that happening.
Much of Tigray is still cut off from access, leaving displaced people to describe what is happening. Tedros Abadi, a 38-year-old shopkeeper from Samre now in Mekele, said Eritrean troops who arrived in his village as recently as April gunned down priests walking home after service on a Sunday afternoon and burned about 20 houses, he said.
“Nothing is left there,” he said.
Representatives of the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments did not respond to requests for comment.
The Eritreans seem bent on doing as much harm as they can. They have destroyed health centers such as the Hawzen Primary Hospital, whose walls were smeared with the blood of the chickens the Eritreans had slaughtered in the corridors. The intensive care nursery for babies had been trashed.
For all the damage the Eritreans have done, the gang rapes are among the worst.
The Mekele clinic has looked after about 400 survivors since November, many victims of Eritreans, according to the head nurse, Mulu Mesfin. Between 100 and 150 were sodomized, she said, describing survivors of anal rape who can’t sit down for the pain and are so ashamed that they simply lack words.
“They say, something, something,” Mulu recalled. “The victims are psychologically disturbed.”
Tag: Other AP journalists in Mekele contributed to this report.