Many women have "conclusively and without a doubt" been raped in the Tigray region, home to Ethiopia’s secretive conflict - which may have left tens of thousands of civilians dead - the country’s minister for women said Thursday in a rare government admission of its fallout.
More than 100 women in the largely remote northern region have reported being raped amid the four-month-long conflict between Ethiopian forces and allied fighters - including Eritrean fighters whose presence is denied - and the fugitive former leaders of Tigray who long dominated Ethiopia’s government.
The rape allegations have come out despite women having few police or health facilities for reporting alleged crimes.
"Hence, there is a possibility that the actual number of cases might be higher and more widespread than the reported cases," the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said in a report of the 108 alleged rapes over the last two months.
Both sides in the conflict that started in early November see the other as illegitimate after last year's national elections were delayed because of the coronavirus and Tigray defiantly held its own.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed once said no civilian had been killed in the conflict, but more recently he admitted it has "caused much distress for me personally."
Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, attempted to centralize power in the country in September and was reportedly furious over Tigray’s decision to hold its own election after the national elections were postponed.
Hailu Kebede, foreign affairs head for the Salsay Woyane Tigray opposition party, called the conflict the "least-documented" war, estimating along with two others, that more than 52,000 civilians have died over the last few months.
"The world will apologize to the people of Tigray, but it will be too late," he told The Associated Press.
Journalists have been barred from the region where communications are patchy but accounts from survivors who have escaped paint an unthinkable picture of the atrocities occurring in the region.
Disturbing reports have included claims of people being forced to rape members of their own family under threat of violence and women forced to have sex with soldiers in exchange for basic necessities.
"Many, many severe cases of malnutrition" have been also reported in the region where the vast majority of its 6 million citizens remain unreachable, the Red Cross said Wednesday. The organization said thousands could starve to death.
A woman from Tigray studying in Europe said Ethiopian soldiers had recently come to her village with food but are withholding it from families suspected of having ties to Tigray fighters.
"If you don’t bring your father, your brothers, you don’t get the aid, you’ll starve," the woman told the Associated Press after somehow speaking to her sister who lives in the Tigray.
She also learned that her uncle and two nephews were killed by Eritrean soldiers during a recent holiday gathering. A local advocacy association, relying on witnesses who have reached cities with phone service, has listed 59 victims overall.
"I’m so ashamed of my government," the student, speaking on condition of anonymity for her family's safety, cried. And since it’s nearly impossible to contact people in the region she said she worries if "somebody from my family dies, I will learn about it from Facebook."
An American nurse who was visiting her family in the border town of Rama estimated looting Eritrean soldiers had left 1,000 dead.
She was able to fly out of the country and return to her home in Colorado.
If the fighting doesn't end soon, she told the AP, "we'll be left without families."
Fox News' Edmund DeMarche and The Associated Press contributed to this report.