lganesh Lelisa, a 38-year-old mother of three and former KG teacher in Mekelle town, has endured unimaginable hardships since the outbreak of war in November 2020. Currently seeking refuge in a safe-house near Mekelle, Alganesh is one of 50 victims of Gender-based violence (GBV) who have found solace there.
Following the control of Mekelle by the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), a wave of mass arrests swept through the city. Tragically, Alganesh’s 13-year-old daughter lost her life during this violent period. As for Alganesh herself, she was captured by ENDF patrol and forcibly taken to the northern command headquarters on June 18, 2021.
Recalling her harrowing ordeal, Alganesh reveals, “They bound me in a food warehouse, where commanders and soldiers subjected me to daily acts of rape. Only a few individuals showed me minimal mercy by providing water when I was conscious.”
The toll of this trauma weighs heavily on her as she recounts the loss of her uncle, who was killed while desperately searching for her.
After enduring two weeks of unspeakable suffering, Alganesh managed to escape from the clutches of the northern command camp. Weak and desperate, she ventured into the rural outskirts, but her journey was short-lived. Overwhelmed by exhaustion, she collapsed, only to be discovered by a compassionate farmer.
Overwhelmed by her emotions, Alganesh’s tears flow incessantly as she recounts her story. Her strength and resilience shine through, a testament to the indomitable human spirit in the face of unspeakable adversity.
Alganesh, now paralyzed from the brutal beatings and gang rapes she endured, stands as a remarkable symbol of strength among the victims of Gender-based violence (GBV) seeking shelter at the safe house. Despite her physical limitations, she possesses an unwavering mental fortitude, allowing her to bravely share her story with The Reporter’s staff.
The suffering Alganesh has endured has left her yearning for an escape from the pain, believing death to be a preferable alternative to the unimaginable torment she experienced. Adding to her anguish, federal officials have attempted to sweep allegations of GBV under the rug, compounding the victims’ suffering and forcing them to seek refuge at the safe house.
Tragically, the safe house, meant to be a sanctuary, has become a place of despair for some.
Kelali Desalegn, director of communications and public relations at Elshaday Relief and Development Organization, reveals the heartbreaking reality that at least 10 GBV victims have taken their own lives after arriving at the safe house.
Overwhelmed by their burdens, these individuals found the weight of their pain unbearable, turning the refuge they sought into a haunting reminder of their personal tragedies.
The victims face additional heartache when it comes to childbirth. Desalegn explains that some survivors of GBV have given birth within the confines of the safe house, their babies conceived as a result of rape by both Eritrean forces and fellow Ethiopians. These women find themselves grappling with the unimaginable dilemma of how to navigate motherhood when their children serve as painful reminders of their torturers.
While the true extent of the atrocities inflicted upon women in Tigray is yet to be fully understood, local officials reveal distressing accounts of widespread rape and intentional HIV infection affecting tens of thousands of women.
The blame for these heinous acts is primarily placed upon Eritrean forces, who are accused not only of inflicting immeasurable human suffering but also causing economic devastation.
In Samre town, located just 40 kilometers south of Mekelle, The Reporter has encountered children who have tragically lost their mothers, burned alive in their own homes by Eritrean forces, leaving behind a trail of devastation and heartbreak.
Survival in the face of relentless assaults was only possible for those who managed to flee to the nearby mountains. While a few victims of gender-based violence in Mekelle have found refuge in safe houses, many in rural areas are left without access to any form of treatment. Even those seeking shelter in safe houses are unable to receive adequate medical care due to the scarcity of essential supplies.
The officials in the Amhara and Afar regions claim that similar human rights violations were committed by the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) as the conflict expanded beyond Tigray.
The Tigray war has brought to light a series of extraordinary crimes. One such crime is gang rape, which was previously unheard of in any part of Ethiopia. While instances of rape have occurred, the phenomenon of gang rape emerged with the Tigray war.
The atrocities in Tigray go beyond gang rape alone. These heinous acts are conducted in front of families and communities, forcing them to witness the horrifying violation of their children, mothers, sisters, and wives by multiple armed forces.
Yemane Zeray, commissioner at the Commission of Inquiry on the Tigray Genocide, emphasizes the need for reflection and learning from these events, as they challenge the core values of the involved forces. The Commission was established just a year ago, amidst the ongoing war.
According to officials, the vicious cycle of ethnic hatred and revenge has surpassed the boundaries of warfare discipline. The Eritrean military, Fano, and Amhara militia are responsible for a significant portion of the horrific war crimes. This highlights the extreme level of atrocities that disorganized armed groups can commit, especially in areas where Eritrean and Amhara forces have merged.
On the other hand, crimes committed by organized military forces are comparatively less horrifying. Such crimes are prevalent across all war-affected regions in Tigray, exposing the darkest aspects of armed forces. Yemane argues passionately that this inhumane treatment should never be repeated against any individual.
The Commission of Inquiry, currently engaged in a door-to-door damage assessment, has covered 40 percent of Tigray thus far. However, when it comes to estimating human casualties and economic damage, Yemane dismisses previously mentioned figures.
Numerous figures have been circulated regarding death casualties in Tigray during the war, ranging from the Ethiopian Ministry of Peace’s estimate of 400,000 to the Tigray Interim Admin’s doubling of that number, and even foreign institutions like Gant University estimating it at 650,000.
Yemane stresses the importance of conducting a realistic assessment using a rigorous methodology that counts every death, physical damage, rape, and all forms of destruction. The Commission’s aim is to provide an accurate account, devoid of speculation or guesswork. Their universal methodology ensures a comprehensive evaluation.
While the casualty figures remain contentious, many agree that the conflict in northern Ethiopia represents the most devastating conflict since the genocide in Rwanda.
In the heart of Mekelle, the Elshaday center stands as a beacon of hope for those shattered by the Tigray conflict. For Alganesh and countless others like her, two vital elements remain elusive: access to medical treatment and the pursuit of justice. Battling the aftermath of unspeakable atrocities, they find solace within the walls of this sanctuary.
“Medical treatment is nonexistent for us. No one cared, except this remarkable NGO. We yearn not only for physical healing but also for justice,” Alganesh asserts, her voice filled with anguish yet undeterred.
The Center, nestled near Mekelle, is a refuge dedicated to offering aid to children, victims of GBV, and individuals with disabilities. Within its sprawling expanse, unimaginable stories unfold, chilling the very essence of the soul.
Each day, Eritrean refugees arrive at the camp, where Tigrayan women bear the weight of heinous crimes committed predominantly by Eritrean military forces. A busload of Eritrean refugees arrived at the camp on a single harrowing day.
In response to the ravages of war, Elshaday has extended its reach, establishing additional branches in Shire, Adwa, Axum, Adigrat, and Mekelle, tasked with providing aid to Eritrean refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Adult refugees and IDPs are directed to these and various other camps.
“The war has left indelible scars on everyone. For the victims of GBV, healing these wounds is an arduous journey. Children, adults, and the elderly have endured unspeakable horrors. Kidnappings, beatings, rape—their suffering knows no bounds,” shares Abel Gebreyohannes, a psychological counselor at the ElshadayMekelle relief camp.
As a consequence of the war, the number of unaccompanied children in Tigray has soared to a staggering 60,000, according to Kelali, a testament to the magnitude of the crisis.
Yet, amidst the darkness, Yemane Woldemariam, the founder and general manager of the Elshaday Relief and Development Association, envisions a path to healing.
“Undoubtedly, the Tigray war stands as one of the most devastating conflicts in world history. However, healing is within our grasp, and normalcy will soon be restored. This fight arose from political disagreements, not animosity between peoples,” Yemane says. He is confident that the shattered relationships between Amhara, Tigray, Eritrea, and other stakeholders “will mend, ushering in a return to the world we once knew.”
He established the organization 34 years ago, driven by the harrowing aftermath of the Hauzen airstrike by the Derg regime.
Yemane raises a serious concern regarding the federal government’s decision to block Elshaday’s accounts since the start of the war in November 2020. As a result, Tigrian humanitarian agencies are unable to access their funds, mobilize resources, and provide support to the war victims.
But for YemaneZeray, healing the wounds of the conflict is not as straightforward as unlocking bank accounts.
“It is not only about post-war trauma treatment and justice,” he emphasizes. “We have to screen our social values, education, religion, and other principles as a nation, region, and as human beings.”
Yemane Zeray poses thought-provoking questions: “Why did this happen? Where will this suffering end? What if young Tigrians who saw this calamity want revenge when they grow up? This has to be curtailed.”
He believes that curbing this cycle requires specific actions. “The perpetrators must admit what they did and bring justice. The victims must receive justice and reconcile. Crimes done during this war are extraordinary. This pattern must be curtailed at one point.”
However, there is a lack of agreement on transitional justice and compensation for the war victims among regional and federal authorities, as well as the international community.
According to Yemane Zeray, the Tigray Genocide Commission asserts that the entire transitional justice issue should be led by them. “Tigrians are the victims,” he states. “Their question is, can the world understand this?”
He outlines the Tigray Genocide Commission’s position: “Our first position is, the federal government must investigate the Tigray issue as a separate case. If it is possible, the government can also investigate similar crimes in other regional states as another case. You cannot place everything in one bag and overlook the grave crimes as if nothing happened.”
Yemane Zeray further highlights concerns regarding the federal government’s approach. “Secondly, we asked the federal officials what they will do with the international dimensions. Thirdly, the federal government is not consulting the Tigrian population. Fourthly, in all the federal and international activities, Tigray is not represented.”
Federal officials strongly disagree with the assertion that the transitional justice initiative should be solely led by Tigray.
MarishetTadesse, a member of the Transitional Justice working group of experts at the Ministry of Justice, explains, “The transitional justice policy works not only for Tigray. Ethiopia’s problem goes back further than the northern Ethiopia war. There are reasons that resulted in the war. So the transitional justice has to go beyond the northern Ethiopia war.”
The federal government believes that the national transitional justice initiative will address all past injustices and contribute to Ethiopia’s nation-building efforts. They emphasize the importance of forward-looking paths and narratives that will emerge from the ongoing national dialogue initiative. Both initiatives are preparing to launch their preparations in Tigray, seven months after the devastating northern war ended. Federal authorities argue that Tigray, Amhara, and Afar regional authorities will participate in the federal transitional justice initiative.
However, Yemane Zeray argues that Tigray should not just participate but lead the transitional justice initiative. He believes it should be part of the political negotiation, stating, “It has to be led by Tigray. Then the federal and international actors can be represented.”
Tigrian officials, who have less trust in the federal government’s initiatives, express concern about the lack of an international body to investigate the human rights violations during the Tigray war.
Yemane Zeray highlights the involvement of external actors in the conflict, stating, “Eritrea and Somalia participated in the Tigray war. This war was a function of internal and external interests. Several extraordinary scenarios happened in this war.” He further emphasizes the need for accountability for both domestic and external actors involved in the war. However, he expresses disappointment with the politicization of the justice issue for Tigray, particularly with the upcoming expiration of the UN International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia’s mandate.
On the other hand, federal officials believe that the transitional justice and national dialogue initiatives will address past injustices and pave the way for a better future.
Marishet explains, “The transitional justice is backward-looking, aiming to correct past injustices and compensate victims. The national dialogue is forward-looking, focusing on resolving conflicts and moving forward. Some issues will be addressed through the national dialogue commission, while others through the transitional justice.”
As the debate rages on between regional and federal authorities over the leadership and scope of the transitional justice initiative, the harrowing story of Alganeshstands as a poignant reminder of the urgent need for justice and healing in Ethiopia.
Alganesh, a survivor of unimaginable violence and trauma, embodies the strength and resilience of countless victims who have sought refuge in the safe house. Her tears and unwavering determination to share her story serve as a haunting testament to the indomitable human spirit in the face of unspeakable adversity.