Issued on: 19/04/2021 – 18:26

A horrifying video showing a doctor operating on a woman who was brutally raped in Ethiopia’s conflict-torn Tigray region has been circulating widely on WhatsApp since early March. The surgery took place in a hospital in Adigrat, in the north of the Tigray. Our team spoke to several sources who told us about what happened to this woman, who is now living in a safe house. Her story highlights the massive and widespread rape of woman in the conflict in the Tigray that began in late 2020. 

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WARNING: This story contains details of violence that may shock some readers

This video was filmed on February 17 in a hospital in Adigrat, the second largest city in the region. Watching the entire video, which lasts 2’33”, is nearly unbearable. The footage shows a woman with her legs spread apart, lying on an operating table. You can see the doctor’s hands as he operates on her vagina. He uses forceps to extract two long nails, a plastic bag, tissues and a rock. 

A woman speaks in English during the video, explaining that she wants this video to show the world the horror of what is happening in the Tigray. At the start of the video, you can hear men speaking in Tigrinya, the language spoken in the Tigray, which allows us to identify the region where the video was filmed. 

Capture d'écran de la partie supérieure de la vidéo, filmée à la verticale, qui montre une partie de la salle d'opération, et le drap vert recouvrant le haut du corps de la patiente. Derrière, un personnel de l'hôpital contourner la table d'opération.
Capture d'écran de la partie supérieure de la vidéo, filmée à la verticale, qui montre une partie de la salle d'opération, et le drap vert recouvrant le haut du corps de la patiente. Derrière, un personnel de l'hôpital contourner la table d'opération.
Capture d’écran de la partie supérieure de la vidéo, filmée à la verticale, qui montre une partie de la salle d’opération, et le drap vert recouvrant le haut du corps de la patiente. Derrière, un personnel de l’hôpital contourner la table d’opération. © DR

Raped repeatedly over a period of eleven days

Our team spoke to several sources who had been in direct contact with the woman. They told us that she is 28 years old and has two children. On February 6, she was taking the bus to Tigray’s capital, Mekele, to withdraw money. In the middle of the journey, Eritrean soldiers stopped the bus and separated all the women. They took the woman to their nearby camp. There she was kept for eleven days, during which time she was raped repeatedly by 23 men. She says she doesn’t know when the objects were put inside her.

On February 17, she was finally taken from the camp by Tigrayan prisoners under the escort of Eritrean soldiers, who ordered them to abandon her by the side of the road. She spent an entire night there, partially unconscious. The next morning, some civilians found her and brought her to the hospital in Adigrat, where she underwent surgery. The soldiers had taken a photo of her identity card and threatened to come find her at her home and kill her if she told anyone what had happened. 

“There is no lasting physical damage, but psychologically is another matter”

A member of the medical team who was present during the surgery told us more:

When she arrived at the hospital, she was incredibly weak. The gynecologist who carried out the operation successfully removed two nails, several pieces of tissue, a balled up plastic bag and a rock from her vaginal cavity. She was bleeding but, thankfully, there were no perforations [Editor’s note: holes in the wall of her vaginal cavity.] There will be no permanent damage. Her reproductive organs still work. So there is no serious permanent physical damage. But in terms of psychological trauma, that is something else. 

All of the personnel at the hospital were horrified by this case. I haven’t seen or heard of this practice in any other case of rape during this conflict. And I haven’t heard of this taking place anywhere else. We see rape cases but not this… how can you reach that degree of inhumanity?

Our team cannot be entirely sure when exactly the video, which was filmed without the woman’s consent, started circulating online. A group of Eritrean soldiers came to the hospital with the intention of killing the victim and she was later moved to a safe location with her two children. 

L'hôpital général d'Adigrat en 2019.
L'hôpital général d'Adigrat en 2019.
L’hôpital général d’Adigrat en 2019. © Facebook / Adigrat General Hospital

254 women raped, 175 of whom are pregnant

The member of the medical personnel at the Adigrat hospital told our team that they have treated many survivors of rape: 

Since late December, we’ve treated 254 women who are survivors of rape. Of those women, 175 had fallen pregnant from their rapes. We were able to terminate all of those pregnancies. One of the women, who was already pregnant when she was raped, was left incontinent from her injuries. The youngest rape victim was four years old, the oldest was 89.

The reason we have seen so many pregnant women is that many of them don’t come to the hospital until they realize they are pregnant. We know there are more cases. Many women don’t dare to come for treatment because they want to hide the fact that they’ve been raped for cultural reasons and because they are ashamed. Some of them can’t come to get treatment because they live in rural areas and they don’t have transport to reach Adigrat.”

L'hôpital général d'Adigrat en 2019.
L'hôpital général d'Adigrat en 2019.
L’hôpital général d’Adigrat en 2019. © Facebook / Adigrat General Hospital

The media has reported many stories of women from the Tigray being raped by soldiers— either Eritrean or Ethiopian— or by members of militias, with reports increasing since March. This video documenting the violence carried out on this woman provides a unique and horrifying visual illustration to these reports.

On March 23, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, finally admitted that the Eritrean Army was participating in the conflict in the Tigray alongside the Ethiopian Army. He also said that rapes had been committed, without specifying by which party. He promised that the perpetrators of these rapes would be brought to justice, without providing any more details. He also said that the Eritrean troops would leave the country. However, several weeks later, in mid-April, there are still Eritrean troops on the ground. Accusations of rape as well as massacres and looting continue to flood in. 

Thousands of people have died in the conflict that began November 4, 2020 between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian government. Eritrea, which has been historically hostile to the TPLF, sent troops to fight alongside Ethiopian soldiers. According to the United Nations, 4.5 million Tigrayans, out of a population of six million, need humanitarian aid.