MEKELE, Ethiopia — 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 over a week by 15 Eritrean soldiers. Bleeding profusely from her rectum, she collapsed in the street in her village of Azerber, and a group of priests put her on a bus to Mekele.
The woman recently broke down in tears as she recounted her ordeal in January at the hands of Eritrean troops, who have taken over parts of the war-torn 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. She said one of the soldiers told her: “This season is our season, not your season. This is the time for us.”
Despite claims by both Ethiopia and Eritrea that they were leaving, Eritrean soldiers are in fact 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. A reporter was stopped at five checkpoints manned by sometimes hostile Eritrean soldiers dressed in their beige camouflage uniforms, most armed, as gun shots rang out nearby. And the AP saw dozens of Eritrean troops lining the roads and milling around in at least two villages.
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. Rather than leaving, witnesses say, the Eritrean soldiers now control key roads and access to some communities and have even turned away Ethiopian authorities at times. Their terrified victims identify the Eritreans by the tribal incisions on their cheeks or their accents when speaking Tigrinya, the language of the Tigrayan people.
This story was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Almost all Tigrayans interviewed by the AP insisted there can be no peace unless the Eritreans leave. They see the Eritreans’ menace everywhere: the sacked homes, the murdered sons, the violated daughters, even the dried turds deposited in everything from cooking utensils to the floor of an X-ray room in one vandalized hospital.
Yet the Eritreans show no signs of withdrawing, residents said. And after first tacitly allowing them in to fight a mutual enemy in the former leaders of Tigray, the Ethiopian government now appears 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 and bypassing federal authorities altogether.
“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 continuing presence of Eritrean soldiers “has brought more crisis to the region,” he warned. “The government is negotiating…. I am not happy.”
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, mostly women and children. The 25-year-old, who once owned a coffee stall in the town of Dengelat, reflected on her escape in April while Eritrean forces searched houses and “watched each other” raping women of all ages. They also peed in cooking materials, she said.
“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. I can’t say they are human beings.”
Ethiopia and Eritrea were deadly enemies for decades, with Tigray’s then-powerful rulers, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, 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, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Abiy also marginalized the Tigrayan leaders, who fought back by questioning his authority. In early November the Ethiopian government accused Tigrayan troops of attacking federal ones. Tigrayan leaders later fired rockets into the Eritrean capital of Asmara, including some that appeared to target the airport there.
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, often including killings and rapes.
All sides have been accused of human rights abuses. But most of the atrocities are blamed on Ethiopian government forces, 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. After that, she added, the Eritrean army moved in and started killing people in the streets.
“We hid in a cave for two months with 200 other people,” she said. “Then the Eritrean army found us and murdered 18 people.”
Tirhas, who is now displaced in Mekele, said the soldiers searched for young people, whom they shot as they ran away.
Another Tigrayan, Haileselassie Gebremariam, 75, was shot in front of a church in early January in his village in the Gulomakeda district. He said he counted the bodies of 38 people massacred by Eritrean troops inside the Medhane-Alem church during a religious festival. Several of his relatives were killed.
“When the Eritreans arrived, they shot everyone they found,” said Haileselassie, still nursing his ugly wound at Mekele’s Ayder Hospital. “They burnt our crops and took everything else.”
The Eritreans are acting out of a deep-rooted animosity against Tigrayan leaders after the border war, even though the people share a similar culture, according to Berhane Kidanemariam, an Ethiopian diplomat and Tigrayan who resigned his post earlier this year in protest. Eritrea’s longtime president, Isaias Afwerki, seeks a buffer zone along the border to foil any attempts by Tigray’s now-fugitive leaders to make a comeback, especially by resupplying their arsenal through Sudan, Berhane said.
“The mastermind of the situation in Ethiopia is Isaias,” Berhane said by phone from Washington, where until March he served as the deputy chief of Ethiopia’s mission. “Basically, Abiy is the poorer one in this. The head is Isaias…. The war, at the moment, is life or death for Isaias.”
For months, both Ethiopia and Eritrea denied the presence of Eritrean soldiers in Tigray. But evidence of Eritrea’s involvement grew, with the AP reporting the first detailed witness accounts in January, sparking a U.S. call for their withdrawal.
Abiy acknowledged in March that Eritrean troops were “causing damages to our people.” 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, and has demanded a verifiable exit of Eritrean soldiers from Tigray. The U.S. this week announced sanctions, including visa restrictions, against Eritrean or Ethiopian officials blocking a resolution in Tigray, which the Ethiopian government called “misguided” and “regrettable.” The government has repeatedly warned of outside attempts to meddle in the country’s internal affairs.
Much of Tigray is still cut off from access, with no communications, leaving the displaced to describe what is happening. Tedros Abadi, a 38-year-old shopkeeper from Samre now in Mekele, said Eritrean troops arrived in his village as recently as April. After being ambushed by Tigrayan guerrillas, they gunned down priests walking home after service on a Sunday afternoon and burned about 20 houses, he said.
“Nothing is left there,” said Tedros, who does not know where his family is. “I left home because they were targeting all civilians, not only priests.”
He said dead bodies lay in the village for days afterward, eaten by vultures, because those who remained were too afraid to bury them. He added that Eritrean soldiers told Tigrayan elders that this was revenge for the border war.
Yonas Hailu, a 37-year-old tour guide in Mekele, is glad his father, a retired army lieutenant, died of natural causes before the Eritreans invaded. He sees no signs of the war ending.
“They will never give up fighting,” he said. “The Ethiopian troops – they would never stay here for three days without the Eritreans.”
Representatives of the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments did not respond to requests for comment.
The Eritreans seem bent on doing as much damage as they can, inserting sand into water pumps to disable them and even ferreting away such apparently useless items as old mattresses, witnesses said.
“You can literally see nothing left in the houses,” said one humanitarian worker with access to some remote areas of Tigray. She recalled seeing Eritrean soldiers smiling for selfies by a lorry with looted items near the town of Samre.
She requested anonymity to protect her organization from retaliation.
The Eritrean soldiers also have destroyed hospitals and sometimes set up camp in them. At the Hawzen Primary Hospital, walls were smeared with the blood of the chickens the Eritreans had slaughtered in the corridors. Soiled patient files were strewn on the ground, and the intensive care nursery for babies was trashed, with missing incubators and toppled little beds.
They have also looted and burned sacks of grain and killed livestock, witnesses told the AP.
Gebremeskel Hagos, a mournful-looking man in a Mekele camp for the displaced, recalled how Eritrean and Ethiopian troops sang as they entered the ancestral home of a former Tigrayan leader in a village near Adigrat in January. The soldiers fired rounds into the air and sent young and old scampering for safety. They killed people and livestock, and one referred to revenge for the border war.
“I don’t have hope,” said Gebremeskel, a 52-year-old farmer who is separated from five of his seven children. “They want to destroy us. I don’t think they will leave us.”
For all the damage the Eritreans have done, the gang rapes are among the worst.
The Mekele clinic for rape survivors is full to overflowing with women, sometimes raped by Ethiopian soldiers but often by Eritreans, according to Mulu Mesfin, the head nurse. Some women were held in camps by the Eritreans and gang-raped by dozens of soldiers for weeks, she said.
Her clinic has looked after about 400 survivors since November. Between 100 and 150 were sodomized, she said. She described 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,” recounted Mulu, a slender, wiry woman whose voice fell when she talked of the sodomy. “The victims are psychologically disturbed.”
In further humiliation, Mulu said, some survivors reported being sodomized because their attackers wanted to avoid any contact “with their TPLF husbands.”
She cried when she heard what had happened to the woman from Azerber, who was barely able to walk when she arrived. At first, Mulu recalled, she muttered to herself as if she was still in the presence of the Eritrean soldiers.
“She was saying, ‘Eritreans, go back. Close the door. You are a soldier. Don’t touch me,’” Mulu said.
The AP doesn’t name people who have been sexually abused, but an AP team looked at the notes in the woman’s medical file.
The woman said she was detained for a week at the Eritreans’ camp, where she saw about 10 more girls and women, including a 70-year-old. The soldiers mocked her when she asked them to let her go.
The attackers sometimes raised their guns and hit the back of her head. As they raped her, she said, one told her, “You are crying for a long period of time. This is not enough for you?” They also said they wanted to infect her with HIV.
The woman won her freedom one day when the Eritreans had to relocate. She now lives in a safe house for rape survivors at Mekele’s Ayder Hospital, along with about 40 others. She isn’t certain if her two children, ages 6 and 11, are still alive somewhere in northern Tigray because the phone network there is disabled.
Another woman from the town of Wukro was raped anally, and an Eritrean soldier inserted his arm in her vagina, according to Yeheyis Berhane, a researcher with the Tigray Institute of Policy Studies. He was furious that his team had been stopped from going into the remote areas north of Mekele to investigate sex and other crimes.
“They killed women, men, children,” he said. “But they don’t want us to go there because we are going to expose to them to the public.”
Other AP journalists in Mekele also contributed to this report.