'They Told Us Not to Resist’: Sexual Violence Pervades Ethiopia’s War

Rape is being used as a weapon as fighting rages in remote parts of Tigray region. “Even if we had shouted,” one woman said, “there was no one to listen.”


Wukro General Hospital, north of Mekelle, Ethiopia, in February. Over 500 sexual assaults have been reported at five health centers in Tigray, a senior United Nations official said last week, and the actual figure is likely much higher. [Eduardo Soteras/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images]

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.


A senior United Nations official told the Security Council last week that more than 500 Ethiopian women had 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.


“My case is not unique,” said Mona Lisa. “I fought the soldier off. But there are so many women all over this region who were actually raped.” [The New York Times]

In early December, Ms. Mona said, an Ethiopian soldier burst into the house she shares with her grandfather in Abiy Addi, a town in central Tigray, and ordered them to have sex.

“Please,” she recalled her grandfather, an Orthodox Christian, telling the soldier. “This is abnormal and against our religious beliefs.”

When her grandfather refused, the soldier shot him in the leg and locked him into the kitchen. Then he pinned Ms. Mona to a sofa and tried to rape her. She fought back, kicking the man in the crotch and briefly grabbing his gun, she said.


But he quickly overpowered her and, after shooting her in the hand and firing warning shots into the floor, issued another ultimatum. “He said he would count to three and if I did not take off my clothes he would kill me,” she said.


The soldier fired a volley of bullets that cut through Ms. Mona’s right arm and right leg. By the time she got transportation to the Mekelle General Hospital a day later, doctors were forced to amputate the arm.


She is still in the hospital, the bones in one leg still shattered. An uncle at her bedside corroborated her account of the assault on Dec. 4. Ms. Mona, who consented to be identified, called it a calculated act of war.


“My case is not unique,” she said. “I fought the soldier off. But there are so many women all over this region who were actually raped.”


After months of 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 that he once promised would be swift and bloodless.

Editors’ Picks “Anyone who raped our Tigrayan sisters, anybody who is involved in looting, will be held accountable in a court of law,” Mr. Abiy told lawmakers, appearing to implicate his own soldiers. “We sent them to destroy the junta, not our people.”

A damaged tank on the outskirts of Mekelle, Tigray’s capital city. Months into the war, stories of rape and sexual assault have become a central element in the conflict. [Eduardo Soteras/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images]

The “junta” is a reference to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, known as the T.P.L.F., which governed Tigray and now fights under the banner of a new group, the Tigray Defense Forces. The majority of sexual violence accusations in Tigray have been leveled against Ethiopian and allied Eritrean soldiers. But Tigrayan forces may also be guilty of war crimes, the top U.N. human rights official, Michele Bachelet, said 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.