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Refugees from the Tigray region of Ethiopia board buses to a Um Rakuba refugee camp, after spending days to weeks at a UNHCR reception center located in the east Sudanese border village of Hamdayet, in December, 2020.Byron Smith/Getty Images

As investigators struggle to gain access to sites of atrocities in northern Ethiopia, new accounts are emerging of previously undocumented cases of sexual violence, torture and mass detention in the region.

Interviews with The Globe and Mail have uncovered horrific new evidence of sexual assaults on young men in Western Tigray, a region where human-rights groups have already documented a systematic pattern of ethnic cleansing targeting Tigrayan residents. The latest cases are in addition to reports of sexual violence against Tigrayan women and girls.

The United Nations Human Rights Council voted last December to launch a one-year investigation into suspected massacres and other crimes in Ethiopia committed since the beginning of the war in Tigray. The Ethiopian government fought the UN proposal, tried unsuccessfully to block its funding and has not yet granted approval for the three-member investigation panel to travel to the country’s northern regions.

After threatening to deny the investigators any access to Ethiopia, the government last week allowed them to visit the capital, Addis Ababa. But with only a few months remaining in the panel’s mandate, the government has still not agreed to let the investigators travel to the reported atrocity sites.

In a statement Tuesday, the panel said it had “reiterated its requests” for access. It said it hopes for “unhindered access without delay, so that it may visit sites and speak freely and privately with survivors, witnesses and other persons of interest.”

Western Tigray has been the scene of some of the worst atrocities since the war began in November, 2020. A joint investigation by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International concluded that hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans have been violently expelled from the region by ethnic Amhara militias, the Ethiopian army and allied Eritrean troops in a campaign that could amount to genocide.

The Globe interviewed four young Tigrayan men who said they were tortured and raped after trying to escape from a mass detention camp in Humera, a town in Western Tigray. They eventually reached Sudan, where they were interviewed by phone. The Globe is not providing their full names because of the risk of retaliation against them and the stigma they would face as rape victims.

Mehari, 19, said he and his 27-year-old cousin, Birhane, were detained by Amhara militiamen on April 11. They had been hiding in Humera after many of their family members were killed or forced to flee to Sudan, but neighbours informed on them.

The militiamen took them to Bet’Hintset, one of several detention camps in Humera. According to former detainees who had also managed to flee to Sudan, more than 3,000 Tigrayans were held in the camp.

“There are beatings and torture every day,” 36-year-old Nigus told The Globe.

“They would not give any food – they want us to die starving,” he said. “Detainees would eat only if some kind Amhara neighbours brought food. But it is not easy for them to get the food in. In the community, they often get isolated for pitying Tigrayans.”

Mehari and his cousin spent a month in the camp. On the morning of May 8, they decided to try to escape. “We could not bear the hunger and beatings any longer,” he said.

They and two other detainees headed to Sudan, but when they were within an hour’s walk of the border, nine Amhara militiamen found them.

“They beat us until we bled,” Mehari said. “They tied our hands and legs in a torture position.”

The four men said the militiamen called their commanders to ask if they should execute them. Hours went by with no decision, but the beatings continued.

When the sun went down, the militiamen stopped beating them and began raping them.

“Each of them took turns,” Mehari said, speaking through tears. “I don’t want to remember what they did. I feel sick and angry whenever the memories come. They did to us the unimaginable. And then they urinated on us. I just don’t want to remember it. I would have preferred if they shot us.”

The three other men shared similar accounts with The Globe. After raping them, the militiamen tied them up and abandoned them. The men said they were rescued at night by other Tigrayans fleeing to Sudan.

Mehari and the other rape victims say they are suffering from both physical and mental trauma because of what happened. Mehari is experiencing bladder dysfunction and has frequent suicidal thoughts. Due to the intense social stigma that plagues male rape victims, and extreme homophobia in the community, he kept his ordeal to himself until his health worsened.

“For a long time I could not even tell what happened to my doctor,” he said. “Nobody knew except those who were raped alongside me. I was only asking the doctors to treat my feet, which were broken during the torture. But when I could no longer control my urine, I needed to tell it to my doctor.”

Researchers at Ghent University in Belgium have estimated that as many as 500,000 people have died from war-related causes in Tigray, which was under an Ethiopian government blockade for most of the war. Abuses have also occurred in the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar, where civilians were targeted by Tigrayan fighters.

Investigations have been limited by government restrictions. Canada provided $600,000 to help finance an earlier probe by UN and Ethiopian human-rights officials, but they were unable to visit several key locations in northern Ethiopia.

In a July 24 statement, Tigray’s government said it was worried that Ethiopia would try to control the scope of the latest UN investigation. The Globe sent questions to the UN-appointed investigators about the details of their work, but they responded only by repeating the Tuesday statement.

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