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In early March, video of a medical operation performed at Adigrat Hospital in northern Tigray circulated extensively on WhatsApp. It shows a doctor operating on a woman after she was repeatedly raped for several days by Eritrean soldiers. Several sources have enabled us to piece together the story of this now safe woman. It is revealing of the massive and systematic practice of rape of Tigray civilians in the ongoing conflict since the end of 2020.
WARNING: the stories and details mentioned in this article may be shocking
The video was filmed on February 17 at Adigrat Hospital, the second largest city in the region. Lasting 2 minutes 33, it is unbearable. It shows the lower part of a woman’s body, legs apart, lying on an operating table, and the hands of a doctor performing the operation. Using forceps, he successively removes two long nails, a plastic bag, handkerchiefs and a stone from his vaginal cavity.
A woman comments on the operation in English, expressing her intention for this video to reflect the situation in Tigray. However, at the very beginning of the video, men can be heard speaking in Tigrigna, the language of Tigray, which helps identify the region where the video was shot.
Repeatedly raped for eleven days
According to several sources we contacted and who spoke with the victim, she is 28 years old and has two children. She was kidnapped on February 6. That day, she takes a bus to the Tigrayan capital, Mekele, to collect money from relatives. On the road, Eritrean army soldiers stop the vehicle and isolate the women. They take the victim to a nearby camp. She then saw an ordeal for 11 days, during which she was repeatedly raped by 23 soldiers, according to her.
On February 16, she was finally driven out of the camp by Tigrayan prisoners, under escort of Eritrean soldiers, who ordered them to abandon her on the side of the road, where she remained overnight, partly unconscious. She says she does not know when the objects were inserted into her. She was picked up in the morning by civilians, who brought her to Adigrat hospital on February 17, where she was operated on immediately. The soldiers had taken a photo of her ID card, threatening to go find her at her home to kill her if she reported what had happened to her.
“There are no serious physical consequences”
A member of the medical staff at Adigrat Hospital, who attended the woman’s operation, said:
When she arrived at the hospital, she was very weak. The gynecologist who performed the operation successively removed from her vaginal cavity two nails, several pieces of handkerchief, a plastic bag in a ball and a stone. The vaginal cavity was bleeding, but luckily it turned out to have only microperforations. There will be no permanent damage to the cavity. His reproductive organs remain functional. There are therefore no too serious physical consequences. As for the psychological trauma, it is something else.
Everyone at the hospital was shocked by this case. I have not witnessed any similar practice after rape in this conflict. And I have never seen or heard of a similar practice anywhere else. Rape can happen, but things like that… How do you get to such a level of inhumanity?
Filmed without the victim’s consent, the video began circulating on a date we could not determine. Eritrean soldiers then came to Adigrat hospital with the will to kill the victim. Placed in a safe place with her children, she was able to escape them.
254 women raped, including 175 pregnant
The member of the medical staff of Adigrat continues:
Since the end of December, we have received 254 raped women here at Adigrat Hospital, 175 of whom were pregnant. We were able to terminate their pregnancies, for each of them. Among these raped women, one woman, already pregnant, was made incontinent by the rapes she suffered. We have documented rapes of a 4-year-old girl, and of women up to 89 years old.
The reason we have so many pregnant women is because their pregnancy prompts them to come to the hospital. Many raped women do not dare to come, they hide their rape for cultural reasons, out of shame. Some cannot come for treatment because they live in remote areas and do not have transport to reach Adigrat.
Many testimonies of women in Tigray claiming to have been raped by Eritrean, Ethiopian or militia soldiers are reported in the media, especially since March. The video of the abuse inflicted on this woman provides a unique and sordid visual illustration.
On March 23, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2019, finally admitted that the Eritrean army was participating in the conflict alongside Ethiopia, and that rapes had been committed, without him specifying by which belligerent. He had previously committed that the perpetrators of the rapes be prosecuted, Without further details. He also claimed that Eritrean troops would leave the country. This was not the case in mid-April, with the Eritrean army still recently accused – in addition to rape – of massacres and looting.
Since November 4, the conflict between the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian government has left thousands dead. Historically very hostile to the TPLF, Eritrea has sent troops to fight alongside Ethiopian troops. According to the UN, 4.5 million Tigrayans out of a population of 6 million are in need of humanitarian assistance.