The Rape Victim Who Fought Back and Shamed a Nation

Aberash Bekele
Aberash Bekele in a scene from Schoolgirl Killer in 1998. Schoolgirl Killer Documentary

The woman who greets me at Addis Ababa airport is very different from the traumatised girl I last saw in 1998. When I hugged Aberash Bekele goodbye 16 years ago, I had just finished filming a BBC documentary about her called Schoolgirl Killer. At 14, Bekele was kidnapped by a gang of horsemen, raped and then put on trial for killing her abductor. Her story forced Ethiopia to confront its brutal customs and change its laws. Today she’s the mother of a 10-year-old son;  she’s plumper, her hair is hennaed and styled, her shoes sparkly, her nails varnished gold. Her story has now been made into a feature film called Difret. Executive produced by Angelina Jolie, Difret has already won awards at the Sundance, Berlin, Montreal and Amsterdam film festivals and Bekele is once again the talk of the nation.

Bekele is one of 11 children (now aged between 52 and 19) by the same mother and grew up outside Kersa, a small remote town in Arsii, southern Ethiopia, where her parents are subsistence farmers. She was on her way home from school when horsemen with whips and lassoos surrounded her, grabbed her, threw her over a saddle and took her to a hut where she was locked up and raped. Her rapist then announced he was her husband-to-be. In Arsii it was the custom that if you wanted a wife you went out and kidnapped one and it’s estimated that, in 1998, 30% of marriages were initiated this way, with varying levels of violence.

Bekele escaped, stealing the guard’s gun. When her abductor and his men gave chase, she threatened to fire but they ignored her. So she pulled the trigger. Bekele was nearly murdered by the furious mob that gathered but was rescued by family friends, then arrested and put on trial. She became the first cause célèbre for the Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association and was finally released on the grounds of her youth and acting in self-defence. Despite her release, Bekele was exiled by the Kersa elders who didn’t recognise the courts. Unable to return to her family, and in danger from revenge threats by her dead abductor’s family, she fled to Addis.

When Schoolgirl Killer aired on the BBC in 1999, it struck a chord with the British public, who sent in enough money to send Bekele to a safe boarding school to finish her education. I lost touch with her until last year when an Ethiopian cameraman alerted me to Difret. I went to see it at the London Film Festival. Centre stage, as the main character, rather than Bekele, was Meaza Ashenafi, the then head of the Women Lawyers’ Association, whom I had interviewed for Schoolgirl Killer. The producers had changed Bekele’s name, but some scenes in the film were almost identical to Schoolgirl Killer. I found Bekele and flew to Addis.

Bekele now works there for Harmee, an NGO that aims to eliminate violence against women in Arsii. Dr Daniel Keftassa, who founded Harmee in 2006, picked me up from the airport with Bekele and we made the five-hour drive to Kersa, where Harmee has its headquarters, and where Bekele’s family still lives. On the way, she told me about the film. She was never consulted during its making, and when she found out about it and confronted Ashenafi and the producers, they told her the film was not about her.

Rounds of legal negotiation followed but no-one agreed to put Bekele’s name on the film. So, on the night of the film’s première, she obtained a last minute court injunction to stop it being screened. The producers had just screened Jolie’s televised address, in which she said that Difret was based on the “untold story of Aberash Bekele,” when she arrived with the necessary papers. Bekele ultimately signed an agreement, which means she feels unable to complain or take further action. Meanwhile, the film was temporarily released in Ethiopia but blocked again by the children of Bekele’s defence barrister. The film’s producers did not respond to a request for comment nor did Jolie’s personal assistant acknowledge receipt of emails.

Bekele, Keftassa and I arrived in Kersa. Apart from a new mosque, it’s the same shambles of mud and corrugated iron shacks strung along a few dirt roads. We went immediately to see Bekele’s family, who live a walk away from a new dirt road in a thatched hut on their farm. After eating, we sat around a fire under the stars. The grandchildren began dancing as one of the daughters beat out a rhythm on a plastic jerrycan and the family sung traditional Oromo songs. Bekele looked happy as she sat in her father’s embrace, a small nephew on her knee. Her brother told me about the day she was abducted. He was in the same class at school and went home early. As he cradled his infant son, it clearly still haunted him that he was unable to protect his sister.  

Family outside Aberash Bekele with her father and family members today. Aberash Bekele Personal Photo

After Bekele’s high profile case, abductions dropped in Arsii; none were reported for five years. Bekele’s older sister Mestawet is now 50. She was also abducted into marriage at 14. When we filmed her for Schoolgirl Killer, she was living in a hovel that also served as a bar, pouring home-brewed Arak to men, bringing up four small children. She had been a contemporary of the athlete Derartu Tulu, the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold at Barcelona in 1992. Mestawet, too, had been picked to run for her country and had been about to depart when she was kidnapped. Though she later left her husband, the elders persuaded her to return. She is now a grandmother and lives in a small new house running Harmee’s compound for Keftassa. Her eldest daughter is at college studying IT, the youngest at school. “I was married against my will so I will never be satisfied or happy but things are much better,” she said. “Kidnapping here has been minimised. Bekele paved the way because men started to be scared of what girls can do but only some have really changed their minds.”

The impact of Bekele’s high-profile case was immediate, but in the last few years abductions are back to seven or eight a year and late last year a 14-year-old was kidnapped. When her abductor tried to rape her, the girl fought so hard that he enlisted his friend to help tie her up. He kept her bound and hidden in the forest for a month, repeatedly raping her. To end the torture, the girl agreed to marry him. At the earliest opportunity, she stole his mobile and called her brother. Her abductor was given 17 years in jail. Bekele applauds the sentence but worries, like her sister, about whether the male mindset has truly changed. “How could that man have thought the girl would want to be his wife after what he did to her? Shame on him!” she said.

Bekele is now determined to change the violent customs that have scarred her life. Her work with Keftassa and Harmee is already yielding results in Arsii, where more girls are being educated and learning to stand up against the traditions that have subdued them for so long. Recently another girl was grabbed, hurled into a horse-drawn cart and driven off, but she screamed so loudly and the local women were so alert to abductions that they gave chase. The kidnappers threw the girl out of the cart. She was severely injured but her abductor was sent to jail for 12 years.

One night in Kersa, Bekele, Keftassa and I sat talking until late, reminiscing about the day she finally obtained the court order that ruined the film’s première. “I counted 11 big Mercedeses dropping off actors that night,” remembers Keftassa. “They swept up the red carpet, so high, so honoured, to meet Meaza and other important people. Meanwhile, far from the celebrations, running around out there seeking justice was Aberash. Aberash! The one who went through all the pain and all the trauma. I despair of people’s greed and ego that they can say it’s not her story.”

The film’s producers have now invited Bekele to Los Angeles in December, but she has been refused a visa. Though the film continues to be blocked in Ethiopia, distribution deals have been secured throughout Europe and Jolie enthused about its forthcoming release in the UK, when she hosted a special screening of the film during the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, which she co-chaired with the British foreign secretary William Hague. She  reportedly said, “I cried for the first 20 minutes and then I smiled for the rest of it thinking I can’t wait for the world to see it because it will make a change.”

Of course, any change that helps end violence towards girls is welcome. While anyone to whom the cause of Ethiopa’s young women is important applauds the makers of the film for their good work, Bekele remains without a credit on the film. Today, she could be bathing in the glow of international admiration for her extraordinary courage and resilience. Instead she is invisible, her story taken.

“I feel doubly abducted,” she said.