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Behind The Humanitarian Crisis Caused By The Civil War In Ethiopia

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It has been six months since Ethiopia descended into civil war. The conflict has spiraled, pulling in neighboring Eritrea. Few journalists have been able to get there to report on the conflict. But NPR's Eyder Peralta made it into the Tigray region of Ethiopia, and he found an astonishing level of human suffering. He heard horrific stories of sexual violence being used as a weapon of war. And he brings us this report. And just a warning - this story does contain graphic descriptions of violence.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Here in Mekelle, the signs of war are everywhere. Displaced people gather at churches. Soldiers with big guns guard government offices and strategic positions in what was once the rebel capital. And every school has seemingly become a refugee camp. One of them has become a safehouse for women who have been raped during this war. It used to be a nursery, so the walls are painted with bright cartoon characters. Children once ran through these halls, filling it with laughter, but now it's heavy with misery.

(CROSSTALK)

PERALTA: Senait sits on a bunk bed. Incense is swirling around her. She's lined up pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary next to her bed. In January, she says, the fighting broke out in her village. And she and her family fled into the woods. Days later, she and eight other women had to leave their hiding place to forage for food, and that's when they were captured.

SENAIT: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: Eritrean soldiers, she said, hit her with their guns. They insulted her. They tied her up and dragged her to a military base.

SENAIT: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: For about a month, she was chained. She was chained - both her feet and her leg was chained. And she was gang raped both vaginally and anally by soldiers.

PERALTA: There were other women there, and the soldiers took turns. They would rape them for days at a time.

SENAIT: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: They assaulted her so bad, she says, she wouldn't stop bleeding. Some of the women begged to be killed. And eventually, the soldiers drove her out to a field and left her for dead. As we speak, tears roll down her face. She holds her hands to her chest as if she's trying to keep her heart inside. When she finally made it to the hospital, doctors pulled out five socks from inside of her. She couldn't walk. She couldn't eat or drink. But what hurts the most is that she has no idea where her children are. They're lost in the chaos of war - maybe dead, maybe alive.

SENAIT: (Through translator) Even though I am lucky that I have survived and - but that not knowing the whereabouts of my family has make me above a dead person but lower than a normal person.

PERALTA: So how did it get this horrific? For months now, Ethiopian government troops backed by Eritrean soldiers have been attacking the TPLF, the rebellious group that not long ago dominated Ethiopia's power structure. The fighting has been ugly in Tigray, the TPLF's stronghold. Thousands have been killed. Ethiopian and their allied Eritrean soldiers have raided towns and destroyed infrastructure. Ethiopia, the second-most populous nation in Africa, has been through many wars. But this one is different because decades of ethnic tensions have come to a head.

Lemma Tsedale, the editor of the Addis Standard, says that's what made this war particularly gruesome. Many Ethiopians are no longer distinguishing the people of Tigray from the rebels they hate.

LEMMA TSEDALE: That tells you why our compassion has been drained off for the people of Tigray they see them as one in the same.

PERALTA: Tsedale says, because this fight has become intertwined with ethnicity, everyone views each other as an existential threat. It's why they tolerate cruelty and ruthlessness.

TSEDALE: My worst fear now - and I'm not - and I don't feel lighthearted when I say this, but I see a scenario in which there is an elected government in Addis Ababa and rebel-held territories outside of the capital.

PERALTA: Like Syria, like Yemen - the utter disintegration of a state. Back in Mekelle, we meet Dr. Reiye Esayas, clinical director of one of the largest hospitals in Ethiopia, paramilitary police marched through the hallways. Even this hospital is not safe. Dr. Reiye has been harassed. Two medical students were raped by Ethiopian troops right on this campus, he says.

REIYE ESAYAS: In war there are rules. They don't abide by any rules.

PERALTA: Even this hospital has been shelled.

ESAYAS: And yet this is a safe haven compared to the other parts of the region. That's the most painful part, you know?

PERALTA: We walk through the hallways. Some patients lie on the floor. We see a young man with three fingers blown off, a lady in her 50s with a bullet wound in her leg. We walk up to the pediatrics ward. There's a little boy catatonic after a bomb blast. And we stop in front of a little girl. Her whole face is bandaged

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: Her dad says she was helping a friend who was hit by a bullet when her own face was blown off by sniper fire. Dr. Reiye says it's hard to stay dispassionate when you see this relentless horror.

ESAYAS: You wonder, why do people act like this? I don't know how much pain do they have, how much rage do they have to eliminate the whole population of the region? It looks like that.

PERALTA: When Dr. Reiye was young, he lived through a war. He lived through the repressive red terror days of the military junta that ruled Ethiopia in the '70s and '80s. This, he says, is so much worse. We walk downstairs, outdoors to a small clinic that was set up to deal with rape cases. Nurse Simulu Mestin says she has been treating hundreds of women who have been raped.

SIMULU MESTIN: Some of them are raped in front of their families.

PERALTA: She digs through her records. There's a pattern. Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers physically assault women. They insert foreign objects into their bodies. She's seen little girls raped, elderly women raped. She calls them clients.

MESTIN: Gang rape is very common. Most of our clients are affected or raped by groups - by 30, by 40.

PERALTA: The Ethiopian and Eritrean governments did not respond to phone calls, text messages and emails requesting comment. One academic shared data with us showing almost a thousand rape cases since this war started in November. She did not want her name used because she feared retribution. Nurse Simulu says it feels like humanity has collapsed.

MESTIN: They do - the Eritrean soldiers in Tigay - as they want. The Ethiophian also - as they want.

PERALTA: The soldiers do as they like. There is no justice, she says. And there is seemingly no one who can step in to stop this.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Mekelle, Ethiopia.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this piece, we incorrectly translate part of an interview with Senait as saying she was chained for about a month. Senait says she was held captive for about one month but that she was tied for nine days.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 13, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this piece, we incorrectly translate part of an interview with Senait as saying she was chained for about a month. Senait says she was held captive for about one month but that she was tied for nine days.