She rushed through the tangled brush of onion farms and up the knobby footpaths of her village. Her shirt was bloody, her clothes were torn and her thighs were bruised a deep shade of purple, recalled the villagers who were drawn by her screams.

Woineshet Zebene Negash, with a round face and a puff of thick brown hair, was running from her rapist.

She was abducted one night in March 2001 by four men who hacked down the front door of her home in the village of Abadjema with a machete. Police and witnesses said she was forced into a nearby shack by the men's leader and raped for two days. She was 13 years old.

When the police finally arrived, Woineshet took off running. The police, who say they have never seen a child covered in so much blood, arrested the suspect.

Woineshet's father, Zebene Negash, 49, who was working and living in Addis Ababa, the capital, went home, looked at his daughter and made a dramatic and unusual decision. For months, he had heard radio announcements and seen bus ads sponsored by the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association urging the prosecution of rape cases. Standing in the village square, his heart pounding, he vowed: This case will go to court.

But what happened next made him distrust not just justice, but his own common sense.

The accused, Aberew Jemma Negussie, was released on bail.

That same week, Negussie, a 20-year-old merchant, abducted Woineshet again, this time hiding her in his brother's house and raping her for 15 days. She escaped again, by running through the farms and through their village, again bruised, again bloody.

Even before a trial had started, the country's struggling justice system had already failed.

In the days and months after the attacks, Woineshet's journey took her from a poorly equipped one-room health center to a financially strapped police station to a cramped courtroom with reluctant judges. Her story was reconstructed though dozens of interviews with family members, friends and others familiar with her plight. Woineshet and her father consented to be identified by name.

The case opens a window on a struggle in Africa between deeply held rural and tribal traditions and a quest to establish internationally recognized legal standards in societies that have long been without them. The continent, along with Asia, has the highest rates of sexual violence in the world, according to a Global Forum for Health Research report issued earlier this year. But it is often so difficult to bring assailants to justice that victims rarely turn to the judicial system.

Yet Woineshet's example highlights an important moment of change here, as lawyers, police and family members struggle to overcome social taboos and establish a new pattern for investigating and prosecuting rape in Ethiopia.

Last year, Woineshet's abductor was taken to court a second time, convicted of rape and kidnapping and sentenced to 10 years in jail. But a judge released him after he had served just one month. Woineshet and her father, backed by the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association and Equality Now, an international women's rights group, are appealing the case to Ethiopia's highest court.

Woineshet's family comes from the Oromo tribe, Ethiopia's largest ethnic group. In the green hills of southern Ethiopia, the tribe's men hold a firm upper hand in society and women are often treated as servants. Marriage by abduction, a common practice, occurs when a man and his friends kidnap a woman or girl he has been watching, rapes her and then pressures her to sign a marriage contract.

Woineshet's father recalled that he felt caught between the draw of the modern world in the capital and the traditions of the village. He said he was offered bribes of cows and cash by local elders to keep quiet. He also endured pressure from some members of his family, who thought that Woineshet should marry her abductor. Ethiopian law absolves abductors of their crime if they marry their victims.

Other family members said they also wanted Woineshet to get married because she was no longer a virgin and therefore, they believed, would never find a husband.

But her father resisted. "I thought, 'Here I am, very much happy in Addis, and women here are working and smart. They aren't suffering all the time,' " he said. "I have only one daughter. And I had that dream for my daughter. That is how I got my courage. I wanted to see her happy like them."

'She Was Very Brave'

After she was abducted the first time, Woineshet recalled, she was fatigued and scared. Her grandmother held her hand and fed her spicy meat and sips of coffee and water. She gently urged her to report the rape.

There was no health center in her village, where horse-drawn carts serve as taxis. The closest bus stop was five miles away, down a long rocky hill that wound through the sloping landscape. She had to wait two days for the next bus.

Woineshet endured a hard journey: a ride on a chaotic, rickety bus, where chickens, people, goats and sick babies all squeezed in and hurtled down the roads to the sound of hip-hop music played at an alarmingly high volume.

"I was feeling so embarrassed," Woineshet whispered as she recalled her journey. "I didn't want anyone to look at me on the bus."

"She was very brave," her father said. "She had berchi," an Amharic term that means a passion to live, strength of conviction.

With her legs bruised and her mind racing with fear that people would know what had happened to her, Woineshet arrived in Abomsa, an agricultural market town 40 miles north of Abadjema, where there was a health center with one nurse.

In the small room where she was examined, Woineshet was asked for the clothing she was wearing when she was raped. She replied that she had left it with her grandmother. A family friend went to retrieve it.

The nurse asked Woineshet if she had been a virgin and why her wounds looked old. She explained that she had had to wait two days for the bus.

Ethiopia has only one rape counseling center -- a pilot program in the capital run by the Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia. Nurses are trained there to recognize sexual assault, judge when the rape occurred and issue a certificate of sexual assault, including photographs. But in most health centers in Ethiopia, there are no X-rays or blood tests, let alone computers, DNA tests and cameras.

Woineshet said the nurse at the health center took notes and held her hand.

"She is no longer a virgin. Not sure of date of penetration, could be recently," said the health report filed in court records. "Many bruises and scratches around vagina."

'Maybe They Were Just in Love'

At the courthouse in Asela, the regional capital, 100 miles north of Woineshet's village, a swarm of villagers, some holding frayed paperwork, milled around one day recently in a series of dark rooms in a complex of concrete and corrugated metal buildings set under the misty hills of the Bale Mountains.

Woineshet's evidence was taken to this court, which handles 4,000 cases a year with one computer, four judges and 10 lawyers, most of whom have had a few months of training after high school. On this day, Tolera Bekissa, the court's president, thumbed through a thick stack of Woineshet's files, which at times misspelled her name and got her age wrong. He said the vague notes from the health center about her virginity were used against her in court.

Ellen Alem, a legal aid service coordinator with the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, said it is almost impossible to bring a rape case to court in rural areas when the victim's virginity is questioned. She is lobbying the government to specify in the law that non-virgins can also be victims of rape and that their cases should be taken seriously.

"We have a problem here," said Bekissa, the court's president, rubbing his eyes and leaning back in his chair. "The trouble is, this type of crime happens secretly. You can't gain evidence about her virginity so easily."

Bekissa called in Judge Biyo Ukie, who had helped make the decision to allow the accused assailant out on bail.

"I don't think she was abducted or raped," said Ukie, rocking in his chair, his arms folded, and staring at the floor. "The health report did not specify that she was a fresh virgin. No one wants to rape anyone who is not a virgin. Maybe they were just in love. This case has no evidence."

Even Woineshet's state-appointed lawyer, Srat Tolch, expressed doubt about the rape charge. "I think Woineshet was like, 'Please rape me.' Maybe he couldn't afford the dowry and they wanted to be together without a formal marriage," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "Culturally, no one rapes a non-virgin. So unless we can prove for sure she was a virgin until the time of the rape, there is reasonable doubt and the man should just be left alone."

A Policeman 'Snapped'

In Abadjema, a poverty-stricken village where policing is done without cars, with little pay and scant training, rape is often a disregarded crime.

There are no women on the police force in the village. In sexual violence cases, some of the people meant to enforce laws are skittish about going after the accused because they may be friends with the men. Some officers in the police department said in interviews that prosecuting the case would be uncomfortable for the community and that the matter should be forgotten. Relatives of the accused came by, slapping backs and offering cash, the officers said.

But Daweda Hayea, a lanky police officer and the lead investigator on the case, rejected appeals by relatives of the accused assailant to drop the case. He had already taken statements from farmers who witnessed Woineshet's race through their fields after the second rape. Hayea took copious notes. Their descriptions of a terrified girl, a girl he knew as a quiet student, made him feel queasy.

"Something inside of me snapped," he said, as he stared out a smudged window in the department's dark mud-and-stick complex of buildings.

"I thought, after seeing this young girl run through the hills like an animal running from a hyena, this man is living here, among us, and nobody cares. Are our morals dead?" said Hayea, who hid the girl in his house after she was raped the second time. "She was crying too much. She had scratches everywhere. I was so angry. Always, he beat her. Always, without clothes."

The police hired a car to drive her to the health clinic in Abomsa this time.

She went to her grandmother's house to rest, but the abductor's family came and beat Woineshet after the second assault. They demanded she sign the marriage contract, Woineshet said. They forced an indecipherable signature out of her and left.

Woineshet then moved in briefly with Hayea and his wife but begged to be sheltered at the police station. She wanted to be protected 24 hours a day. "It was ironic because she was the one who ended up in jail," Hayea said.

Woineshet remembered saying: "I don't want out from this police station. They will kill me."

That's when she was moved to a cell.

Hayea said he held a meeting at the station, telling the officers, "At the end of the day, the entire community will have to wonder: What did we do for Woineshet?"

The police force conducted interviews. They rallied the community to testify and track down every piece of evidence -- her broken door, her clothing, the testimony of the farmers.

"There was good evidence, especially since she was raped twice," said Capt. Amaan Alishuu, the commanding officer. "At this point, practically the entire village had seen her running from the crime. There was no reason why the man should not be in jail."

A trial was held, and the accused was sentenced to 10 years in jail last November.

But in December, during a new court session, Ukie, then the judge on the bench, told Woineshet, "He wants to marry you. Why are you refusing?

"After 13 years, after 15 years, the lady she can be happy. She can be okay," he told Woineshet and the courtroom.

The judge suggested her choices were to marry Negussie or try to send him back to jail.

Woineshet refused to marry. Her father refused. The police refused. Even members of the community attending the trial stood up and refused.

"I had already made it through the worst nightmares," Woineshet said. "I couldn't have been hurt any more than I already was. He raped me. His family beat me. They forced me to be married. I wanted to speak out. I had known pain for so long. All I knew was that I didn't want to be married to my abductor."

The marriage contract was examined in court but wasn't seriously considered because it was dirty and torn.

One month later, for reasons no one is certain of, Ukie let Negussie out of jail.

Ukie said that there were not enough witnesses and that Woineshet was most likely in love with Negussie and ready for marriage. "This family is only out for revenge," Ukie said in an interview. "Maybe they don't want her to marry him. So they accuse him of rape."

Later, when he was asked about a health report showing severe abuse during the second abduction, Ukie said: "Look, a marriage contract had been signed, and I think we should find it. If she wanted to marry him, then if there was a rape that makes it legally okay."

Then he sighed and said, "Some of our new laws and ideas on these matters do not fit with the culture anymore."

'She Would Be Luckier Than Me'

Negussie, a trader in small soaps and used clothing, did not want to be interviewed and left town when he heard a journalist was visiting. His brother, who police said was with him at the time of the rape, also refused to comment.

But on a recent day at the market, his brother's wife wanted to talk. Woynitu Gela, 27, was abducted, raped and then forced to marry at 15.

"We weren't so lucky then," said Gela, a tough-looking woman with a dirty face and a gaggle of screaming children tugging at her skirt. She shoved them behind a gate and tried to answer the visiting journalist's questions, all the time with a smirk and a knowing glance, her eyes wide, her eyebrows lifting as if she were signaling the truth.

"Was Woineshet raped? Maybe. Sure. I don't know," she laughed and then pointed to her five children, dirty and crying behind a fence.

"I have a terrible life. It's full of difficulties. I am always suffering. I keep saying I don't want any more children. But the man doesn't listen."

She has heard that the case is being appealed and will be heard in several months in federal court in the capital. She grins, just a little.

"Maybe Woineshet will get justice. Who knows? She would be luckier than me if she did."

Woineshet Zebene Negash, now 16, was abducted and raped twice in 2001 in what her assailant later said was an effort to force her to marry. Her father, Zebene Negash, helped her press charges in court.Woineshet Zebene Negash, at left, says of her refusal to marry her abductor despite pressure from a judge, "I had already made it through the worst nightmares. I couldn't have been hurt any more than I already was." Daweda Hayea, above, is a police investigator who hid Woineshet in his house after she was abducted again and rejected pressure to drop the case. Woynitu Gela, 27, is the sister-in-law of the man accused of raping Woineshet. She says she herself was raped and forced to marry her abductor at 15 and now has "a terrible life . . . full of difficulties." Does she think Woineshet was raped? "Maybe. Sure. I don't know," Gela said.