By Catherine Byaruhanga
Ethiopia’s government signed a peace deal with forces from the northern Tigray region last November, in a bid to end a brutal two-year civil war. But aid groups and locals have told the BBC that attacks on civilians – in particular, sexual assaults on women – have continued.
This report contains content which some readers may find upsetting, including sexual violence
On the day Ethiopian government officials shook hands with their rivals from Tigray to make peace – both sides smiling while cameras witnessed the moment – Letay spent the night hiding under a bridge with rounds of mortar shells landing and exploding all around her.
She was alone in a part of north-east Tigray and had just survived being raped by an Eritrean soldier.
“After it happened, I was unconscious for a long time before I regained consciousness. I had to hide myself until they left.”
We have changed Letay’s name and those of the other rape survivors who shared their stories with the BBC to protect them from stigmatisation and retribution.
During the two-year conflict in northern Ethiopia the systematic rape of Tigrayan women by Ethiopian soldiers, as well as their allies from neighbouring Eritrea and militia groups, has been documented by the United Nations, human rights organisations and journalists.
Forces from Tigray have also been accused of sexually assaulting women in the Amhara region as they made a push towards Ethiopia’s capital.
For two years, from November 2020, the two sides in the civil war fought for control of Tigray. The death toll could be in the hundreds of thousands.
There was hope that after the peace agreement was signed in November, the assaults on civilians would stop.
Women, health workers and aid organisations have told the BBC that they did not.
I spoke to Letay on a crackly phone line – journalists are not being given government permission to travel to Tigray.
“It happened to me twice. What have I done wrong? It seemed like I wished for it.”
Letay says she had been raped before, in January 2021, by two Eritrean soldiers – a third one refused.
“The two of them did what they wanted before asking the third one to do the same, except he said no. He said: ‘What will I do with her? She is already a corpse lying around.'”
After the first time she was raped, Letay sought medical and psychological help, joining a women’s support group for survivors. On the day of the peace deal Letay had rushed out to help a young girl who had also been raped before she was assaulted too.
It is difficult to know the true number of sexual assaults committed during the war.
Victims are often scared to speak out while telecommunications had been cut off during the fighting.
According to data from the official Tigray Health Bureau in November and December 2022 – after the peace deal was signed – 852 cases were reported in centres set up to help survivors.
Human rights workers and aid organisations operating in Tigray have also continued to document cases of sexual violence.
Adiama, who comes from the town of Zalambesa in north-eastern Tigray, said she was sexually assaulted by an Eritrean soldier at the end of last month.
“There were four of them but only one raped me. They even had plans to kill me but they left after I was raped.”
Sister Mulu Mesfin, who has worked with rape survivors since the start of the conflict at Tigray’s biggest hospital in the regional capital Mekelle, sent me a voice message as she walked through a ward.
“There are lots of survivors in my one-stop centre. They are coming from different parts of Tigray. Most of them are new cases who have been raped in the last one or two months.”
According to Sister Mulu, and other health workers we have spoken to, most of these assaults in Tigray were committed by Eritrean troops, while militia from the Amhara region and federal government forces are also accused of committing rapes.
Eritrea shares a border with Tigray and has a long-standing rivalry with the region’s ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – one of the reasons why it joined the civil war backing the Ethiopian government.
Last week, Eritrea’s reclusive President Isaias Afwerki made a rare public appearance when he visited Kenya.
Coming from a country where a free press does not exist, Mr Isaias was visibly angry and frustrated when asked tough questions by journalists. He dismissed all claims of atrocities committed by his country’s forces in Tigray.
“Everybody talking about human rights violations [by Eritrean forces], rape, looting, this is a fantasy in the minds of those who own this factory, that I call a factory of fabricating misinformation,” he said.
We have sent the allegations in this report to the Ethiopian government’s communications minister and the African Union, which brokered the peace deal, for comment, but neither have responded.
November’s agreement has brought positive change to Tigray. There is no active fighting. Aid, especially food and medication, is reaching more towns and cities, while banking and communication services have resumed.
Some families have been reunited and others have spoken to each other for the first time in more than a year. But according to article four of the agreement: “The Parties shall, in particular, condemn any act of sexual and gender-based violence.”
“Sexual violence is a violation of the agreement,” says Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa Director at Human Rights Watch. “One of the issues we have been raising is the importance of the backers of the agreement to ensure that they are speaking out when there are violations”.
The organisation continues to call for independent investigators and journalists to gain access to northern Ethiopia.
“We are very concerned by the efforts of the Ethiopian government to try to end and undermine the work of the international commission of human rights experts of Ethiopia, which was established by the Human Rights Commission in Geneva,” she adds.
Ms Bader says investigations will be crucial if survivors are to get justice and for any reconciliation process.
“I never expected to be assaulted after the peace agreement,” says Hilina.
The mother of three had already fled her home in Humera to the town of Shirao where she worked as a street vendor selling maize.
She says on 16 November, she was late going home when two Eritrean troops stopped her for breaking the curfew. She told them she had no ID, and they took her to an empty house.
Hilina says she could tell from the men’s appearance and the dialect in which they spoke that they were from Eritrea.
“They brought me to an empty house. They took out a gun and said: ‘If you keep quiet, we won’t harm you.’ So, I told them they could do what they wanted to but begged them not to kill me.”
Hilina says she was raped the whole night before they let her go in the morning. She has since had an abortion, saying she would rather die than give birth to a child from rape.
According to aid workers the BBC spoke to there are Eritrean troops close to Shiraro.
The peace deal requires them to leave Tigray and though they have pulled out of major cities and towns, they maintain a presence in areas close to their border with Tigray.
Shashu, an 80-year-old woman, cannot hold back her tears as we speak to her – again on a crackly phone line. We ask if she wants to continue with the interview and she agrees.
Like Letay, Shashu says she has been raped twice in this war – before and after the peace deal.
She says men assaulted her so badly in November that she now cannot control her urine and stool.
“Two, three people on one human, I was completely traumatised. It’s as if there is nothing good on my body any more.”