Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis: ‘I lost my hand when a soldier tried to rape me’

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An Ethiopian schoolgirl has told the BBC how she lost her right hand defending herself from a soldier who tried to rape her – and who had also tried to force her grandfather to have sex with her.

The 18-year-old, who we are not naming, has been in hospital in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region for more than two months recovering from her ordeal.

The conflict in Tigray, which erupted in early November 2020 when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched an offensive to oust the region’s ruling TPLF party after its fighters captured federal military bases, has destroyed her dreams, and those of many of her classmates.

Most of them, along with other families in their town, have fled to the mountains – even after Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, declared victory following the capture of Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, by federal forces on 29 November.

This is because the security forces began an operation to hunt down TPLF members who refused to surrender, which has resulted in allegations of serious human rights abuses being committed against the residents of Tigray. The authorities deny the accusations.

The schoolgirl and her grandfather remained in their home in the town of Abiy Addi, about 96km (60 miles) west of Mekelle, because it was difficult for them to travel far.

On 3 December, the teenager said that a soldier, dressed in an Ethiopian military uniform, entered their house demanding to know where the Tigrayan fighters were.

After searching the house and finding no-one, he ordered them to lie on a bed and began shooting all around him.

“He then ordered my grandfather to have sex with me. My grandfather got very angry and… they started fighting,” she says.

The soldier, she says, took the old man outside and shot him in the shoulders and the thigh and then returned to her, saying that he had killed him.

“He said: ‘No-one can save you now. Get your clothes off.’ I begged him not to but he repeatedly punched me.”

Their struggle continued for several minutes – though she felt disorientated from the blows – and in the end he became so angry that he turned the gun on her.

“He shot my right hand three times. He shot my leg three times. He left when he heard a gunshot from outside.”

Thankfully her grandfather was still alive, though unconscious, and for two days they remained cowed and injured in their home too scared to seek help.

‘No justice at all’
The teenager’s account backs up concerns about alleged rapes in Tigray expressed by Pramila Patten, the UN envoy on sexual violence in conflict.

She said there were “disturbing reports of individuals allegedly forced to rape members of their own family, under threats of imminent violence.

“Some women have also reportedly been forced by military elements to have sex in exchange for basic commodities, while medical centres have indicated an increase in the demand for emergency contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections, which is often an indicator of sexual violence in conflict.”

Three opposition parties in Tigray have said extra-judicial killings and gang rape had become “everyday practices”, also citing the case of a father forced to rape his daughter at gunpoint.

A doctor and a member of a women rights group – both of whom wish to remain anonymous – told the BBC in January that between them they had registered at least 200 girls under the age of 18 at different hospital and health centres in Mekelle who said they had been raped.

Most of them said the perpetrators were wearing Ethiopian army uniforms – and afterwards they had been warned against seeking medical help.

“They have bruises. Some are even gang-raped. One was constrained and raped for a week. She doesn’t even know herself. And there is no police, hence no justice at all,” the doctor said.

The rights activist said: “We have also heard similar shocking stories of rape from other parts of Tigray. But because of transport issues we couldn’t help them. It’s so sad.”

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