Editor’s note: This story contains graphic descriptions of rape
A senior United Nations official says that it may be many months before the full scale and magnitude of atrocities being committed against women and girls in Ethiopia’s Tigray region is known, as more reports of sexual violence emerge from the conflict zone.
“Testimonies of some rape survivors reveal the brutal and heinous war being waged on the bodies of women and girls,” Pramila Patten, the U.N. special representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict said during a discussion about Tigray at Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security on Wednesday.
The U.N. says the majority of rapes reported have been committed by men in uniform. Cases reported have involved Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Eritrean Defense Forces, Amhara Special Forces, and other irregular armed groups or aligned militia.
Patten urged that an agreed joint investigation between the U.N. Human Rights Office and the government-funded Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) begin soon.
“It is absolutely critical it be conducted in a timely manner — time is of the essence before the evidence trail goes cold,” she said. “It is therefore desirable that the terms of reference be promptly finalized and the joint team deployed without further delay and have full and unimpeded access throughout the Tigray region in the conduct of the investigation.”
The region, in Ethiopia’s north, has been the epicenter of hostilities since November, when fighters from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked army bases there, according to the federal government. The attack, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said, prompted his government to launch a military offensive to push the group out.
The special representative said her office has received reports from “multiple and credible sources” about vicious attacks on women and girls. She said that verification is difficult due to communication blackouts and restrictions on access to Tigray but that even the EHRC has acknowledged that such violations are widespread.
“These reports may only be the tip of the iceberg, as sexual violence is always chronically underreported,” she added.
Patten said there are other indicators that sexual violence is being deployed on a large scale. Health care providers report an increased demand for emergency contraceptives, abortions, HIV prevention drugs and requests for trauma counseling.
Fanaye Solomon, a social worker who established a safe house for women in Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, and is now part of the Tigrayan diaspora, said no place is safe for women and girls in the conflict zone.
“These women have seen their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers being shot in front of them trying to protect them, and then later on raped next to their dead bodies,” Fanaye said.
She recounted testimony from rape survivors.
One woman reported that soldiers, after taking turns raping her for days, assaulted her with a metal rod. Fanaye said the soldiers told her it was to make sure she would not give birth to any children, as they would only grow up to be enemies they had to fight.
Other survivors said the men in uniform who raped them told them they were chosen because they were HIV-positive and would infect the women. Fanaye said that females are being gang raped to the point of paralysis and that violent-rape-related fistulas — in which a woman’s internal tissue is ripped, causing a leaky bladder and incontinence — have become a growing problem.
Fanaye urged influential governments to take immediate action, saying statements of concern, while appreciated, do not stop rape and atrocities.
As the conflict enters its sixth month, Special Representative Patten said the already grave humanitarian situation is deteriorating rapidly, and without a cease-fire, it will only get worse.
The United Nations has appealed for more funding and safer and unimpeded access in order to scale up the humanitarian response. The Tigray interim administration estimates that 4.5 million people need lifesaving assistance in the region.