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Friday, June 18, 1999 Published at 15:15 GMT 16:15 UK


World: Africa

Ethiopia: Revenge of the abducted bride

Aberash faces exile from her village and cannot see her family

Charlotte Metcalfe, director of the BBC programme 'Schoolgirl killer' tells the story of Aberash Bekele, a young Ethiopian women on trial for murder after killing the man who abducted and raped her.

We are in the high court of Asela, the regional capital of Arsi, a remote and rugged region in the south of Ethiopia.

The girl in the dock is Aberash Bekele. Two years ago, when she was 14, Aberash shot and killed a 29 year old farmer.

One day, she had been walking home from school with friends when they were surrounded by a group of horsemen with whips and lassoos.

Aberash had never seen any of the men before. She was grabbed, whipped and dragged onto a horse. While her friends screamed helplessly, the horsemen raced off across the great plain with their prize. Finally, after a hard, dusty ride, they reached a small hut on the edge of a village. Aberash was thrown inside.


[ image: Facing an uncertain future]
Facing an uncertain future
When it was dark, Aberash heard the door open. A man came towards her.

"He hit me about the face," She said.

"I nearly lost consciousness. He was such a huge man, I couldn't push him away. Then he forced my legs apart. He beat me senseless and took my virginity."

Afterwards the other men entered the hut. They were quite kind to her. They cleaned up the blood and gave her a stool to sit on. Then it dawned on Aberash that her kidnapper and rapist was intending to be her husband.

A way of life

In Ethiopia's wild south, abduction is a legitimate way of procuring a bride. The practice has been going on so long that no-one can remember how it all began.


Meaza Ashenafi: "Aberash was the first woman to challenge and to resist this violence"
The usual procedure is to kidnap a girl, hide her and then rape her until she becomes pregnant. Then, as father of the child, the man can claim her as his bride.

At this stage, he will call on the village elders to negotiate the bride's price and to act as middle-men between his family and that of his bride.

Next morning, Aberash's abductor gave her a cup of coffee. It was salty and bitter. Aberash winced.

"Country girl" he jeered.

Then he left. The men guarding her sat around outside and chatted in the sunshine.

Revenge

She saw a gun standing forgotten in the corner - a kalashnikov.

She waited until she heard the men laughing, then took the gun and sneaked out. The men were sitting a few feet away with their backs to her. They did not see her.

She started to run. Just then, her rapist reappeared and saw her. He shouted and started to run after her. Instantly the other men got to their feet.

Aberash ran into a field of maize, but there were too many of them. Soon she was cornered. Her abductor approached.

"Don't come any closer, " she warned. He ignored her.

"I'm not going to tell you again", she shouted.

Her voice trembled, as did her finger on the trigger. He crept closer. She fired the gun in the air. He kept coming. She fired two more warning shots - but he did not stop. Then she lowered the gun and fired.

"She's hit me," he cried. Those were his last words. He fell and died.

Backed by lawyers


[ image: Aberash's elder sister was also abducted]
Aberash's elder sister was also abducted
The shots alerted passers-by and the local militia rushed to the scene. The abductor's companions wanted to cut Aberash's throat immediately in revenge for the death of their friend.

Instead, the militia arrested her and took her to the police station. No-one seemed to care that she had been beaten and raped or that she had narrowly escaped being lynched.

"I don't think of myself as having killed anyone," said Aberash.

"The way I see it, all I did was kill my enemy. I don't feel sorry for him as I would for anyone else. I could have been killed myself."

It is precisely this attitude that attracted the attention of a newly formed group, the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (ELWA).

"She is the first woman ever to challenge and resist this kind of violence," said Meaza Ashenafi.

"She represents a revolution against male culture."

Aberash was kept hidden in an orphanage in the capital, Addis Ababa, while Meaza and her lawyers prepared her case.

Freedom

It is two years later. A hush falls over the courtroom as the three judges walk in. They look like solemn crows in their rusty black gowns. Their high backed chairs creak and scrape on the wooden floor as they take their seats. One of them puts his glasses on. Another clears his throat. The third writes something.

The crowd holds its breath. The sound of pen on paper is clearly audible. In the dock stands a beautiful 16 year old girl. Her hands, nails painted pearly lime green, pluck at her cheap bangles nervously. All heads in the room are turned towards her.

Aberash was acquitted, on the grounds of self defence. For EWLA, the verdict was a triumph. But for Aberash it was a hollow victory. She remains unable to return home for fear of revenge and is still hiding in the orphanage, terrified that the relatives of the man she killed will track her down.

Back in her village, Aberash's little sister has turned 14. Already the boys at her school are threatening to abduct her. Aberash feels helpless.

"My sister Mulatu wouldn't be stuck at home if I could do anything about it. She could suffer the same fate as me. There's nothing I can do about it."



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