‘A Tigrayan womb should never give birth’: Rape in Tigray

The Amhara fighters in charge of her hometown of Humera and other disputed areas of western Tigray had just ordered all Tigrayans in her neighbourhood to leave their homes within 24 hours.

“The militiamen who have been terrorising us for months,” said the 34-year-old mother of three, “told us we are not allowed to live there anymore, because we are Tigrayans. They ordered us to leave empty-handed. They said all the properties we owned belong to Amharas, not to us.”

The Amhara forces entered western Tigray from neighbouring Amhara region in support of Ethiopian federal forces in November last year, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered an offensive against Tigray’s then-ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Since then, the Amhara, who are Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group, have taken control of several areas in the region – land, they claim, that historically has been theirs.

Akberet wasted no time after the ultimatum.

The following morning, on March 8, she fled her home on foot, her six-month-old baby strapped to her back, and her two other sons – aged four and seven – and 14-year-old brother in tow.

Some seven hours later, as they reached a bridge on Tekeze River used by the Amhara forces as an informal border between what they say is now Amhara and Tigray, four Amhara militiamen stopped them. The Amhara men separated Akberet from her children and brother and took her into an abandoned farmer’s house, just a few metres away.

The four men took turns raping her. After they were done, the militiamen inserted into her genitals a hot metal rod that burned her uterus.

“You did nothing bad to us,” she said they told her. “Our problem is with your womb. Your womb gives birth to Woyane [derogative term used to refer to the TPLF]. A Tigrayan womb should never give birth.”

After the militiamen left, Akberet was left there unconscious. Her brother went to get her, and with the help of other displaced people took her to a town to the east. “The sexual assault made her infertile,” a doctor who treated her there confirmed to Al Jazeera. Her bleeding has now stopped but Akberet, currently recuperating at a relative’s house, cannot walk and has to keep her legs spread. Sleeping at night is hard.

Hundreds of women have reported horrific accounts of rape and gang rape since the start of the conflict in Tigray nearly six months ago. Medics have reported removing nails, rocks and pieces of plastic from inside the bodies of rape victims, while the United Nations said last week women and girls in the mountainous region’s remote areas are being subjected to sexual violence “with a level of cruelty beyond comprehension”.

Healthcare workers in Tigray’s few operational clinics document new cases on a daily basis, despite fearing reprisals and attacks, according to Pramila Patten, the top UN official on sexual violence in conflict. The cases reported have involved Ethiopian soldiers and allied Eritrean troops, as well as Amhara fighters and other members of irregular armed groups or aligned militia.

In the regional capital, Mekelle, doctors at the Ayder Referral Hospital said the number of rape cases on April 1 stood at 272. Within one week, it had jumped to 330.

“Overall, 829 women have reported sexual assault to major hospitals of Tigray. The figure was 518 on April 1,” said Hayelom Kebede, chief executive director of Ayder Referral Hospital.

Doctors fear, however, the true number is much higher, suspecting there are many unreported cases as fighting continues and large parts of Tigray remain inaccessible.

Since December, three other women from the contested areas of western Tigray have reported suffering the same fate as Akberet, doctors said. In northern Tigray, troops from neighbouring Eritrea have also been accused of committing similar acts of gang rape and torture.

“On February 22, our hospital received an emergency call that a 21-year-old girl was gang-raped and found dumped in Edaga Hamus,” said Hayelom, who is currently out of Ethiopia but is in regular contact with his staff. “The report was that Eritrean soldiers had burned her external and internal genital parts using a match and hot metal rod. We could not send an ambulance immediately because of security issues. Later, the communication was lost. Perhaps the girl has died,” he added.

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