Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Tuesday that his government would hold accountable any soldier found responsible for rape or looting in the country’s conflict region of Tigray, just days after CNN and the UK’s Channel 4 News published investigations into rape being used as a weapon of war against women.
“Reports indicate that atrocities have been committed in Tigray region,” Abiy wrote in a post on his Twitter account. “Regardless of the TPLF propaganda of exaggeration, any soldier responsible for raping our women & looting communities in the region will be held accountable as their mission is to protect,” he said, referring to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the region’s ruling party, which is now leading a resistance against Ethiopian and Eritrean forces in the area.
In stories published and broadcast Friday, CNN spoke with nine doctors in Ethiopia and one in a Sudanese refugee camp who said they had seen an alarming increase in sexual assault and rape cases since Prime Minister Abiy launched a military operation against TPLF leaders, sending in national troops and fighters from the country’s Amhara region. Forces from neighboring Eritrea are participating in the military campaign on the side of Ethiopia’s government, as CNN has previously reported.
CNN unveiled medical records and testimony from survivors, alleging that women were being gang-raped, drugged and held hostage by soldiers.
High-level UN agency officials issued a rare statement late Monday demanding the allegations of rape and other forms of sexual violence in the region be investigated.
“Amid a worsening humanitarian situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, reports of indiscriminate and targeted attacks against civilians, including rape and other horrific forms of sexual violence, continue to surface. This must stop,” the statement reads.
“First, it is essential that an independent investigation into conflict-related sexual violence in Tigray be initiated, with the involvement of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.”
They called on all parties to the conflict “to fulfil their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law; ensure their forces respect and protect civilian populations, particularly women and children, from all human rights abuses; explicitly condemn all sexual violence; and take action to bring perpetrators to justice where abuses do occur.”
A victim left pregnant
A CNN team in Hamdayet, a Sudanese town on the Ethiopian border where thousands of refugees from Tigray have gathered in recent months, spoke with several women who described being raped as they fled fighting.
“He pushed me and said, ‘You Tigrayans have no history, you have no culture. I can do what I want to you and no one cares,’” one woman said of her attacker. She told CNN she is now pregnant.
In a separate case in Ethiopia, a woman’s vagina was stuffed with stones, nails and plastic, according to a video seen by CNN and testimony from one of the doctors who treated her.
According to the doctors CNN spoke with, almost all the women they treat recount similar stories of being raped by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers. The women said the troops were on a self-proclaimed mission of retribution and were operating with near-total impunity in the region.
“The women that have been raped say that the things that they say to them when they were raping them is that they need to change their identity – to either Amharize them or at least leave their Tigrinya status … and that they’ve come there to cleanse them … to cleanse the blood line,” Dr. Tedros Tefera said.
“Practically this has been a genocide,” he added.
On Thursday, CNN affiliate Channel 4 News published its own harrowing investigation into sexual violence against women in Tigray. The report included interviews from a safe house – the only one believed to be operating in Tigray for rape survivors – where around 40 women too traumatized to return to their families are receiving shelter and support.
One of the survivors told Channel 4 News that she and five other women were gang-raped by 30 Eritrean soldiers who were joking and taking photos throughout the attack. She said she knew they were Eritrean troops because of their dialect and uniforms. She said she was able to return home only to be raped again. When she tried to escape, she recalled being captured, injected with a drug, tied to a rock, stripped, stabbed and raped by soldiers for 10 days.
Thousands of civilians are believed to have been killed in the conflict. CNN has previously reported that soldiers from neighboring Eritrea have perpetrated extrajudicial killings, assaults and human rights abuses in the Tigray region. Separate investigations by CNN and Amnesty International in February revealed evidence of massacres carried out by Eritrean forces in Dengelat and Axum.
On Monday, the Eritrean embassy of the UK and Ireland responded to CNN’s repeated requests for comment by denying allegations of wrongdoing by Eritrean soldiers and denying that Eritrean troops were in Ethiopia.
CNN’s Schams Elwazer, Richard Roth, Sarah Dean and Angela Dewan contributed to this report.