Mona Lisa lay on a hospital bed in Mekelle, the main city in war-torn northern Ethiopia, her body devastated but her defiance on display.
Named for the iconic painting, the 18-year-old Ethiopian high school graduate had survived an attempted rape that left her with seven gunshot wounds and an amputated arm. She wanted it to be known that she had resisted.
“This is ethnic cleansing,” she said. “Soldiers are targeting Tigrayan women to stop them giving birth to more Tigrayans.”
Her account is one of hundreds detailing abuses in Tigray, the mountainous region in northern Ethiopia where a grinding civil war has been accompanied by a parallel wave of atrocities including widespread sexual assault targeting women.
told the Security Council last week that more than 500 Ethiopian women have formally reported sexual violence in Tigray, although the actual toll is likely far higher, she added. In the city of Mekelle, health workers say new cases emerge every day.
The assaults have become a focus of growing international outrage about a conflict where the fighting is largely happening out of sight, in the mountains and the countryside. But evidence of atrocities against civilians — mass shootings, looting, sexual assault — is everywhere.
increasingly desperate pleas for international action on Ethiopia, led by senior United Nations and European Union officials, the pressure appears to be producing results. President Biden recently sent an envoy, Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, to Ethiopia for talks with Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, that lasted five hours.
On Tuesday, addressing Ethiopia’s Parliament, Mr. Abiy publicly acknowledged that sexual assault had become an integral part of a war he once promised would be swift and bloodless.
said earlier this month.
The war started in November after Mr. Abiy accused the T.P.L.F. of attacking a major military base in a bid to overthrow his government. The T.P.L.F. ruled Ethiopia for nearly three decades until Mr. Abiy came to power in 2018, then retreated to its stronghold in Tigray where it began to openly defy the new prime minister’s authority.
In some ways, the bitter fight is driven by deeply rooted forces — longstanding land disputes, opposing visions over the future shape of Ethiopia, and a rivalry with Eritrea going back decades. But civilians, and particularly women, are bearing the brunt of the most disturbing violence.
Rocks, nails and other objects have been forced inside the bodies of women — and some men — during sexual assaults, according to health workers. Men have been forced to rape their own family members under threat of violence, Pramila Patten, the top U.N. official on sexual violence in conflict, said in January.
“Rape is being used as a weapon of war,” said Letay Tesfay of the Tigray Women’s Association, which runs a safe house for women in Mekelle. “What’s happening is unimaginable.”
called a concerted effort to destroy the region’s health care system. In his meeting with Mr. Abiy in March, Senator Coons said they discussed “directly and forcefully” the reports of widespread human rights violations including rape.
Whether Mr. Abiy delivers on his promise of bringing the perpetrators to justice, he added, “is going to be critical to any successful resolution of this conflict.”
marched into Mekelle on Nov. 28. Some said they had been raped by soldiers in the camps for displaced people on the edge of the city; others were abducted from their homes in rural areas and held for days as soldiers repeatedly raped them.
The doctor, who like several other medics spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the authorities, produced a list of 18 registered sexual violence patients at the hospital. The youngest was 14. Most said their attackers were soldiers, he said.
In one bed, a 29-year old woman who asked to be identified only by her first name, Helen, trembled as she recounted how Eritrean and Ethiopian troops tied her to a tree near her home in Agula, 15 miles north of Mekelle, and assaulted her repeatedly over a 10-day period in late November.
“I lost count,” she said. “They took photos of me, poured alcohol on me and laughed.” Some of her assailants also shot dead her 12-year-old son, she added.
Selam Assefe, a police investigator working on rape cases at the Ayder Referral Hospital, corroborated Ms. Helen’s account.
Most sexual assault cases in Tigray, however, may not be recorded anywhere. Health workers said that officials are reluctant to register such violence, fearing the military could target them for documenting the crime. Patients often remain anonymous for the same reason.
Filsan Abdullahi Ahmed, Ethiopia’s minister of women, children and youth, insisted that the federal government was taking seriously the reports of sexual violence in Tigray, and had sent a task force including social workers, police and prosecutors to investigate.
While her own mandate was limited to providing victims with psychological support, Ms. Filsan said she had pressured Ethiopia’s attorney general to deliver justice. But it is a difficult process, she insisted.
“I cannot 100 percent confirm whom this is being committed by,” Ms. Filsan said, referring to the perpetrators.
The sexual attacks are so common that even some Ethiopian soldiers have spoken out. At a public meeting in Mekelle in January, a man in military uniform made an outburst that was broadcast on state TV.
“I was angry yesterday,” he said. “Why does a woman get raped in Mekelle city?” The soldier, who was not identified, questioned why the police weren’t stopping them. “It wouldn’t be shocking if it happened during fighting,” he said. “But women were raped yesterday and today when the local police and federal police are around.”
Haben, a waitress in Mekelle, was raped with two other women at the cafe where they work in December, she said. Her body is still covered in bruises from the assault.
“They told us not to resist,” she recalled. “‘Lie down. Don’t shout.’”
But even if they had shouted, she added, “there was nobody to listen.”
An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Mekelle, Ethiopia.
After months of denying their presence, Ethiopia said on Friday that troops from neighboring Eritrea had agreed to withdraw from the restive Tigray region amid mounting accusations of mass atrocities during a five-month conflict that has roiled the strategic Horn of Africa region.
Ethiopian troops will take over positions being vacated by the Eritrean military effective immediately, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said following a visit to Asmara, where he held talks with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. Eritrea’s information ministry said that the two leaders discussed their “strategic partnership and envisioned joint trajectory.”
The development comes after weeks of pressure from the Biden administration and the United Nations. The U.S. had called for Eritrean troops to withdraw from Tigray and for Mr. Ahmed, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts to broker a peace deal with Eritrea after decades of war, to take responsibility for protecting all his citizens, including the ethnic minorities in that region.
It remains unclear whether the withdrawal will mark a pivot point in the conflict or is simply a tactical retreat in the face of growing international pressure. Ethiopia, a strong U.S. ally, has been stung by Washington’s opposition to the continuing conflict.
This month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken denounced as unacceptable the ethnic cleansing and other human rights abuses he said have been carried out in Western Tigray—accusations the Ethiopian government denies. He has also called for an independent investigation into the alleged atrocities and for unhindered humanitarian access to Tigray.
NAIROBI, Kenya — After months of denial, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia admitted this week that Eritrean troops had been fighting in Tigray, the war-torn northern Ethiopian region where the brutal conflict between pro-government and local fighters has become a byword for atrocities against civilians.
On Friday, under mounting American and international pressure, Mr. Abiy went one step further and announced that the Eritrean soldiers had agreed to go home.
Mr. Abiy’s statement, issued after a meeting with President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, offered a faint glimmer of hope amid a stream of horrific reports about widespread looting, massacres and sexual violence in Tigray.
soldiers from Eritrea — even as Mr. Isaias, the dictatorial leader of the notoriously secretive country, denied that his troops were even present in Tigray.
Mr. Abiy flew to meet Mr. Isaias on Thursday, days after an envoy sent by President Biden pressed the Ethiopian leader to halt the carnage, and to reinforce American calls for an immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops.The United States has publicly called for Eritrean soldiers to be withdrawn from Tigray.
On Friday Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane Ghebremeskel, appeared to confirm Mr. Abiy’s declaration that an Eritrean troop withdrawal had been agreed upon. Public statements from both governments “underline full agreement and consensus on all issues discussed,” he said in a text message after Mr. Abiy had left the Eritrean capital, Asmara.
Mr. Abiy launched a military campaign in Tigray on Nov. 4, accusing rebellious Tigrayan leaders of orchestrating an attack on a major military base and trying to topple the federal government.
As the fighting gathered pace, reports of gross abuses against civilians began to emerge from Tigray. Ethiopian soldiers, allied fighters from ethnic Ahmara militias, and fighters loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front all faced accusations.
But United Nations officials and human rights groups singled out Eritrean troops for many of the worst violations. Last weekend, Mr. Abiy spent five hours in talks with U.S. Senator Chris Coons, who had been sent to Ethiopia by President Biden to convey his alarm at the deteriorating situation.
In a briefing to reporters on Thursday, Mr. Coons said that the talks were “forthright” at times, and that Mr. Abiy had reiterated his promise to investigate human rights abuses in Tigray, including “credible reports of sexual violence as a tool of war.”
But Mr. Abiy has fallen short on such commitments before, Mr. Coons said, and the United States intends to keep up the pressure.
“It’s actions that are going to matter,” he said.
On Friday a State Department spokeswoman welcomed Ethiopia’s announcement, calling it “an important step” toward de-escalation.
In a mark of the impunity that has come to characterize the Tigrayan conflict, Ethiopian soldiers dragged civilians from a bus on a major road in Tigray and executed four of them in front of aid workers from Doctors Without Borders, the group said in a statement Thursday.
a landmark peace deal soon after Mr. Abiy came to power.
The pact earned Mr. Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and helped Mr. Isaias, one of the world’s most repressive leaders, to emerge from international isolation. After the Tigray war erupted in November, though, critics said the two leaders were mostly united by their shared hostility toward the leaders of Tigray.
It was unclear on Friday whether Mr. Abiy’s announcement signaled a potential breakthrough in ending the fighting in Tigray or another feint by two leaders under international pressure.
In his statement, Mr. Abiy said Eritrea had agreed to withdraw its forces “out of the Ethiopian border,” where, effective immediately, Ethiopian soldiers were to assume border guarding duties.
But it was unclear if that included Eritrean troops stationed deep inside Tigray, where many of the worst atrocities have occurred.
Amnesty International has blamed Eritrean forces for the massacre of hundreds of civilians in Axum, a city in northern Tigray. Sexual violence survivors from Tigray have blamed horrific assaults on Eritrean troops.
over 500 rape cases have been reported at five clinics in Tigray, although the actual number is likely far higher.
“Women say they have been raped by armed actors, they also told stories of gang rape, rape in front of family members, and men being forced to rape their own family members under the threat of violence,” the official, Wafaa Said, said.
Exactly how many Eritrean troops are stationed inside Tigray and where is unclear. Much of the region remains out of bounds for aid workers and reporters, and sporadic fighting continues in rural and mountainous areas.
Still, the departure of all Eritrean troops would likely pose a serious military challenge to Mr. Abiy.
The Ethiopian army fractured in the early days of the war, when hundreds and possibly more Ethiopian soldiers defected to the rebel side, according to Western officials. Since then, Mr. Abiy has regained control of a swath of Tigray with help from his allies — ethnic Amhara fighters and soldiers from Eritrea.
Were the Eritreans to leave en masse, some analysts say, government forces might struggle to maintain their grip on the parts of Tigray that they now control.