The young mother of two was walking with her sister near a desolate highway in northern Ethiopia last month when five men forced them into a pickup truck and drove them to a small building with a metal roof.
The women recognized their captors by their accents and military uniforms: They were soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, which has joined Ethiopian troops in months of fighting against anti-government forces in the Tigray border region.
Mehrawit, 27, was separated from her sister and locked in a room with only a thin, dirty mattress. For two weeks, she said, the Eritrean soldiers gang-raped her repeatedly, fracturing her spine and pelvis and leaving her crumpled on the floor. One day, she counted 15 soldiers who took turns sexually assaulting her over eight hours, her cries of agony punctuated by their laughter.
“I was numb,” she recalled from a hospital bed in the regional capital, Mekele, days after she escaped. “I could see their faces. I could hear them giggle. But after a while, I was no longer feeling the pain.”
Her account is one of few emerging from the murky conflict in Tigray, where human rights groups say pro-government forces are sexually abusing civilians in a remote highland region far from the world’s gaze.
With tens of thousands of people reportedly killed, many more having fled their homes and some surviving by eating leaves in mountain villages cut off from phone and internet access, the United Nations has warned that the region of 6 million is edging toward a humanitarian disaster. More than 60,000 have escaped to refugee camps across the border in Sudan.
Compounding the suffering are accounts of gang rapes and other sexual violence by pro-government forces operating with near-total impunity.
As Ethiopia battles to wrest control of Tigray from the regional ruling party, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government has barred journalists and most humanitarian groups from the area, rejected allegations of abuses and denied — despite credible evidence to the contrary — that Eritrean forces have entered the country. Eritrea’s government also denies involvement in the fighting.
With local Tigrayan paramilitary forces having mostly retreated to mountain areas, Ethiopian and allied troops have gained control of population centers including Mekele, where they have established a transitional government. As some communication links are restored, human rights groups have begun compiling accounts of women bearing telltale signs of sexual violence.
Doctors at Mekele’s main hospital say rape survivors are turning up injured and in tears. More women are seeking counseling, testing for sexually transmitted infections, emergency contraception and abortions. Girls as young as 12 are among those attacked, researchers say.
“Growing reports of rape and other sexual violence in the Tigray region over the last few weeks adds yet another layer to alarming abuses against civilians since the start of the conflict,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
“These reports bring new urgency for the need for a U.N.-led fact-finding mission into the region, which should also include experts in sexual violence and mental health, to press for credible, fair and safe justice for survivors.”
Last month, United Nations special representative Pramila Patten said she was “greatly concerned by serious allegations of sexual violence” in Tigray. She cited accounts of individuals being forced to rape family members or to have sex with members of the military in exchange for basic goods.
Although Patten did not identify the alleged perpetrators, survivors blame pro-government forces, including Ethiopian and Eritrean troops and paramilitaries from the Amhara region, according to human rights groups.
Mehrawit, whose full name is being withheld under a Times policy not to identify rape survivors, said the Eritrean soldiers did not hide their identities and cast their actions as revenge against Tigray, whose ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, led Ethiopia for nearly all of the last three decades.
The TPLF presided over a 1998-2000 war with Eritrea, a former Ethiopian state, in which tens of thousands of soldiers died, many in brutal trench warfare. The conflict ended with Ethiopian troops retaining control of the contested border town of Badme in defiance of a peace agreement.
When Abiy took office in 2018, he agreed to implement the peace deal and ceded the town to Eritrea, ending one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts. His efforts earned the 44-year-old leader the Nobel Peace Prize.
Abiy and Eritrean strongman Isaias Afwerki — whose tiny Red Sea nation’s isolationism sometimes garners comparisons to North Korea — now have a shared adversary in the TPLF, which has lost political influence but retains a well-trained paramilitary force estimated at 250,000 troops. In November, capping months of disputes between Tigray and the government in Addis Ababa, Abiy blamed the TPLF for an attack on a federal military base and launched air and ground raids across the region.
That has trapped women like Mehrawit on a perilous landscape of fresh bloodshed mixed with past grievances. She said she cried out to her Eritrean captors: “Are you not our brothers? Why are you this cruel?”
One responded: “You killed our family in the war and took Badme from us. So you deserve to be punished.”
Her ordeal began in early January, when Eritrean troops arrived in her village of Kerestber, about 75 miles north of Mekele. Her family — including her father, 24-year-old sister, aunt and two children ages 7 and 5 — sought safety with relatives in a nearby village.
But there was little to eat there. On the morning of Jan. 9, she and her sister ventured back to Kerestber to collect some crops and check on their house.
Walking back from Kerestber, she said, the Eritrean troops stopped them. Her account was corroborated by a counselor at a rehabilitation center who has interviewed Mehrawit repeatedly, as well as medical records from Ayder Referral Hospital, where she was treated. Staffers at both facilities spoke on the condition of anonymity to shield them from government reprisals.
Mehrawit said that when she and her sister arrived in the Eritreans’ makeshift camp, they saw about eight other Tigrayan women being held. That day, five soldiers took turns raping her. Another day, they brought her sister to her room and made Mehrawit watch as she was raped.
For 15 days, Mehrawit was given almost nothing to eat. Her injuries left her unable to walk. The Eritreans brought more and more women to the camp and began to taunt her, saying she would soon be “thrown away.”
“We’ll bring younger and virgin Tigrayan women next time,” one said.
The soldiers eventually loosened their control. On the night of Jan. 23, Mehrawit crawled out of the camp and made it to a main road, where she fainted. Her memory remains unclear, but she recalled a motorcyclist finding her lying next to the asphalt and bringing her to Mekele.
A doctor who treated her in the hospital said injuries to her spine and pelvis meant she would struggle to walk again.
“She has to be in a wheelchair,” he said. “But most of all, her psychological trauma is grave.”
Mehrawit has had no contact with her sister, who she worries may still be in the Eritreans’ custody. Her children and other relatives remain out of phone range. She was transferred to a nongovernmental center for sexual abuse survivors, where a nurse said she suffers from nightmares that soldiers will climb through the windows and attack her.
“There are days when she begs me not to leave her alone,” the nurse said.
In daily sessions with a therapist, Mehrawit often calls out her sister’s name. Again and again, she wonders about the women she left behind in the camp, the therapist said.
Ethiopian officials have publicly denied allegations of rape and other abuses. The interim head of Tigray’s social affairs department, Abrha Desta, did not respond to requests for comment.
But in a closed-door meeting in Mekele last week, Muna Ahmed, the deputy federal minister for women’s affairs, said the government had recorded 113 rape cases in the Tigray conflict, according to a person who was present and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
This week, the U.N. World Food Program said the Ethiopian government had agreed to increase access for aid workers in an attempt to speed the delivery of food assistance to 1 million people.
Humanitarian organizations say armed groups have looted and ransacked medical facilities across Tigray, making it difficult for survivors of rape and other crimes to access emergency care. Many others are afraid to come forward, fearing punishment by the federal forces that increasingly hold sway over the region.
A few days after Mehrawit spoke to a Times reporter for this article, she received a phone call from an unknown number. The caller knew she had accused Eritrean soldiers of rape, her therapist said. He warned her not to tell her story again.
Special correspondent Lucy Kassa reported from Addis Ababa and Times staff writer Bengali from Singapore.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get all the day's most vital news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.