TPLF rebel group in Ethiopia raped hundreds of women as a weapon of war

"My children were right there watching as I was raped." Account of a rape victim in Northern Ethiopia.

On the night of Aug. 16, 2021, the piercing screams were terrifying throughout the town of Nifas Mewcha, part of the city of Gonder in the Amhara region of northern Ethiopia. Liya, the mother of two children, had no idea what horrors were yet to come when she gathered her courage and sought to check on her next-door neighbor Aida, a mother in her 30s with three children.

On this night, the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces terrorized the town, committed what seems to be heinous war crimes in a brutal attempt to subdue the residents and take control of Nifas Mewcha.

Both Liya and Aida were surrounded by ruthless members of the TPLF, who gang-raped both women in front of their screaming, terrified children.

“Three to four TPLF fighters came over to where I was sitting,” Aida recounts, the unthinkable memories causing her voice to crack. “One of my sons realized what was about to happen and started screaming for help. They threatened him, saying they would beat and kill him. And they forced me and gang-raped me, three to four of them with a gun pointed at my head.”

Her voice still trembling, Aida spoke more about the physical torture she endured on this night from hell.

“They beat me, my body was badly bruised and injured, my thighs disfigured. They also beat my helpless eight-year-old child, who was crying,” she said, the pain clearly audible in her voice. “When my neighbor [Liya] came to check on me, they chased her and raped her too. She is the mother of two children. They raped her, and there was nothing we could do.”

Until 2018, the TPLF had ruled Ethiopia for nearly 30 years with iron fist policy. TPLF is predominantly ethnic Tigrayan which makes up six percent of Ethiopia’s population in the northernmost region of the country. With the reform led by the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmid, the people ousted the TPLF from controlling the national military and economic apparatus. In retaliation, the TPLF attacked the Ethiopian Northern Defence Force and triggered the current conflict in early November 2020.

After the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire in June 2021, the TPLF continued its aggression to regain power of the capital Addis Ababa, a move that led to the atrocities and displacements of millions, and the ravaging of towns in the Amhara and Afar regions, which border Tigray. The violent rape of innocent women by the TPLF is now a commonplace among many other human right violations.

Aida describes the nightmare of Aug. 16, particularly with one of her rapists. “While violating me, he asked if I was the wife of one of the town leaders and whether I voted for Abiy Ahmed, [Prime Minister of Ethiopia]. At that time, all I wanted was to save myself and survive for my three children, so I could not say I voted for Abiy. He put a gun to my head and asked if I liked Abiy; I said 'no' just so I could survive this moment.”

According to Habtam Mengiste, the women and children’s coordinator in the town of Nifas Mewcha.

“There are four Kebele [Wards] in this town, and more than 120 women suffered and have been raped, and many children have been beaten and assaulted. In particular, more than 50 women have been raped and assaulted in Kebele 04. The TPLF fighters have tortured and gang-raped the women. These women and elderly have been terribly assaulted, when we see their bruised bodies, it is very sorrowful. The children were beaten badly and had to witness the horrific act of their mothers being raped.”

50-year-old Nigest, another rape victim living in the controlled town of Nifas Mewcha, has a story not much different than that of Aida and Liya, and she sobbed as she spoke.

"I do not know where to begin. He was holding bombs, a knife, a gun, he was geared with military weapons. He threatened me, saying he was going to crush me, and then raped me. Nobody came to my rescue.” she said. Even worse, Nigest’s savings, money she needed to survive as well as pay a tithe to her church, was taken along with her dignity.

“My savings was all taken,” she said, adding that there is no way to seek retribution or medical help, since hospital facilities have been destroyed. “They [TPLF fighters] control the entire town, so who can I tell what happened to me? They control the district office and everything else. Which administration could I tell about my suffering? I had to remain quiet and hide myself.”

Even more devastating than the bruises and scars in their body, for these women, is the long-term psychological damage, the fear of being tabooed and outcasted, unwanted pregnancies, and the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS.

For the victims’ children, the aftermath of seeing their mothers gang-raped by rebel forces is horrific. Most likely, post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma will haunt these children throughout their lives.

The international media is giving the conflict in Ethiopia a different twist, and pressuring the current government and the Ethiopian military for what seems to be defending its people against TPLF rebels. Displaced victims from the town of Nifas Mewcha, however, tell a much different story.

Meanwhile, the TPLF is gaining power by terrorizing and violating civilians. It is the women who are suffering the most by the actions of an emboldened TPLF rebel group, and rape is being used as a weapon to break down those in support of their government.

It is vital for the future of Ethiopia that the international community recognizes the need to protect women from such horrifiing and possibly long-lived atrocities.

Due to confidentiality reasons and fear of being cast out of their communities, the names of the women featured in this story have been changed.