Three children came to greet the rebels as they approached the farm. Completely isolated, it consisted of two small huts delimited by dry wood and thorn branches. The few sheep and goats that the farmers possessed were startled by the appearance of ten armed men and dashed away. It was a typical farm in the Ogaden, a dry region in the southeast corner of Ethiopia at the Somalian border. Yet something stood out: There were no men around. Then again, this is quite commonplace in the war-infested Ogaden, where women and children often need to fend for themselves in order to survive under dire conditions. “The Ethiopian army killed our husbands last December”, explained one of the three women that live on this farm. An atmosphere of constant menace lingers in this region of desolate hills congested with thorn bushes and cacti.
At any time, helicopters carrying Ethiopian soldiers can appear and, with them, the threat of terror. The separatist war pitting impoverished nomads against one of the largest armies in Africa began its current upwelling 15 years ago. But the conflict has escalated in the past two years, following the Ogaden National Liberation Front’s (ONLF) attack, in April 2007, on a Chinese-run oil exploration field that resulted in the death of 74 Ethiopian guards and Chinese workers. Since then, the Ethiopian army has closed off the area.
The ONLF seeks self-determination for ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden region, unlike other Somali nationalist movements in the Horn of Africa, which have sought to create a “Greater Somalia” in which all areas populated by Somalis are unified into one country. The ONLF insists it will not allow the exploration of oil and gas in the area until the region gains independence, and threatens any foreign companies that try.
Gaining access to the Ogaden can prove difficult (not to mention dangerous) because journalists, NGOs and international institutions are forbidden entry. I nevertheless arrived in March 2009. The isolated population understands only too well the trials of abandonment and despair. “We lack food and the soldiers kill our livestock and burn our already meager crops”, said Hasan, the sixty-year-old elder in this small village deep in the Ogaden. “We’re left with a few camels, which is not nearly enough.” Only thirty people remained in the village. Many fled to the hills or escaped to seek refuge in neighboring countries such as Kenya, Djibouti and, less often, to Somalia, due to its own chronic instability. “About a hundred soldiers took us by surprise in early January”, continued Hasan. “They killed 250 people, including 150 women and children. They cut up some of the bodies, like hyenas, and scattered the parts to prevent the remaining villagers from burying the dead in a decent manner.” Certain homes had been padlocked in order to at least psychologically deter villagers from returning.
The Ogaden region is home to approximately five million people. However, according to a 2007 report by the Horn of Africa Group (a collaboration between four London-based institutions: Chatham House, the Royal African Society, the Rift Valley Institute and the Centre for African Studies at London University), the population size is highly disputed; it has been alleged that the last census findings, dating back to 1994, were greatly reduced. The locals are mostly ethnic Somali and, for the most part, nomads herding camels, sheep and goats. The countryside is inhospitable; water is scarce. Even during the rainy season, which begins in April, muddied water is all there is to drink. There are no cars or trucks to be seen in the Ogaden, as the government has closed off all access to the region. The only way to travel is on foot. Nevertheless, despite its barren appearance, the Ogaden is a gas-prolific area, believed to contain reserves of some four trillion cubic feet according to the government.
Many if not most of the villages are being emptied out. It is painfully obvious that the Ethiopian military does not shy away from any means to attain its goal. Nowhere is this more visible than in the village of Galashe, which Ethiopian troops attacked in January. On the outskirts of the village lie numerous piles of rocks. “There are about fifty bodies under each pile”, said Hasen, a forty-year-old villager with a noticeable limp. “The Ethiopian soldiers stayed here for a couple of months. They terrorized the inhabitants, killing as many as 1,500 people. They even crushed babies’ heads with stones. Now Galashe is empty not only because the villagers fear the return of government troops but mostly because they have been ordered to leave.”
Here again, locks were placed on the doors of certain homes. The generator that would have powered a water transport system in the village has been completely destroyed. Like Hasen, the only civilians present in Galashe fled to the nearby hills and had only returned to collect water from the well. There was nothing else to salvage, as only scattered empty cans of food carpeted the soil. “The soldier executed my two children who were seven and eight years old as we were trying to escape”, continued Hasen. “One of them cut me at the ankle and whipped me with the butt of his rifle just above my eyebrows. He did not finish me off because he was distracted by something else.” Now, Hasen said he tries to survive with other displaced and scared locals in the nearby hills.
Women are especially vulnerable at the hands of government troops. “One of the soldiers held me at gunpoint while the three others beat me before ripping my clothes off”, recounts Halimo, sixty, who has also sought refuge in the hills. “I am old but still they raped me.”
Unfortunately, Halimo does not constitute an exception—quite the contrary—as it is rare to meet an Ogadeni woman who does not have a story of being sexually assaulted by Ethiopian soldiers. “They laughed as they passed me around”, she told me. “I tried to fight them off but I was too exhausted. In the end, I just cried and let them do what they wanted.” With journalists and NGOs denied access, it is impossible to verify atrocities, or to know their true scale. Nonetheless, all over the Ogaden, the stories of civilians attest to similar horrors.
“The Ethiopian government is obviously trying to cut us off from the population, which supports us with food even though it is scarce”, declared Ahmed, one of the chief rebels escorting us through the Ogaden region. The night before, he says he participated in an attack against Ethiopian troops near Babile. “The assault lasted only a few minutes but we managed to kill nine government soldiers”, he claims matter-of-factly, his AK-47 slung over his shoulder. “We are no match for direct combat with Ethiopian forces so we must rely on quick surprise raids”—based on knowledge accumulated over many years.
Alas, the travails of ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden have a long history, connected to the colonial era’s territorial refraction of the Somali homeland. Only the Kurds come close to being divided up into so many pieces. Aside from the Ogaden, ethnic Somalis live in the former Italian colony of Somalia and the formerly British Somaliland Protectorate that today form the mostly ungoverned boundaries of Somalia. They also live in what used to be called the Côte Française des Somalis, now known as Djibouti, and in northern Kenya.
Not surprisingly, irredentism has not been unknown in recent Somali history. The most spectacular episode occurred in 1977–78, when the Soviet-supported Somali regime of Siad Barre invaded the Ogaden, and the U.S.-supported government of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia resisted. Somalia’s attempt to seize the Ogaden was aided by an organization within the region called the West Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), which had been founded in 1974 with help from, of all places, Syria. And then perhaps the strangest volte-face of the Cold War took place: The Ethiopian monarchy fell to a leftist-inspired military revolt, and Moscow switched sides in the Somali-Ethiopian war. That led the United States to switch as well: No longer welcome in Ethiopia, it befriended Somalia, but not before an international communist offensive, complete with Cuban troops, pushed the Somali army out of the Ogaden. Ethiopian retribution against the WSLF and its supporters was fierce and brutal.
The armed resistance began again in 1994, after the ONLF, then a political organization started ten years earlier by former members of the WSLF, broached the idea of splitting off from Ethiopia. The central government responded by imprisoning Ogadeni leaders, and, according to scholars and human rights groups, assassinating others. The Ethiopian government calls the Ogaden rebels terrorists, going as far as linking them to al-Qaeda, and claims they are armed and trained by Eritrea, Ethiopia’s neighbor and bitter enemy. However, the U.S. State Department does not include the OLNF on its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, and the group is also absent from similar lists maintained by the European Union and Britain. “Meles [Zenawi, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister since 1995] is a liar”, shouted Farah, thirty, the head rebel in one of the nine sub-regions of the Ogaden. “We do not target civilians, and religion has nothing to do with this conflict. We fight only for the Ogaden.”
It is unclear how many fight in the ONLF. Farah claimed to command around 2,500 men in his sub-region. Few take up arms out of sheer conviction or raw idealism. A death of a close relative at the hands of Ethiopian soldiers or an unwarranted imprisonment constitute the more common reasons to join the ONLF. At 35 years old, Ahmed seemed quite the elder among mostly young recruits. Nevertheless, his reasons for joining the ONLF did not differ from those of his younger peers. “In 1994, when I was just a student in Dire Dawa, I was not allowed take the final examinations just because I was an Ogadenian”, he recalled. “I was arrested two years later on false charges of belonging to the ONLF. They kept me there for four years. I was beaten repeatedly, sometimes even subjected to torture by electricity.”
All Ogadeni who have suffered in Ethiopian jails describe the same poor conditions: overcrowded cells, lack of food and water, regular beatings, and so on. “While I was detained, my father was killed by government soldiers”, said Ahmed. “When I was released in 2001, I immediately joined the rebellion. Today, my mother still remains in jail in Jijiga”, the administrative Ethiopian-controlled capital of the Ogaden region.
The rebels usually set camp on top of a hill in order to better defend themselves against a surprise attack. “When we find ourselves deep in the Ogaden, we mostly fear helicopter attacks”, stated Ahmed. Farah and Ahmed are the only members left of the group who participated in the ONLF’s attack in April 2007 on a Chinese-run oil exploration field. “It was a crucial moment for us, because then the international community started to pay attention to us”, admitted Farah. “However, it is also when the Ethiopian army started increasing its operations against the Ogadeni people.” Both men express a deep commitment to gaining the Ogaden’s independence, but they are most concerned with the apparent lack of interest worldwide in their struggle.
The UN humanitarian chief, John Holmes, visited the region in November 2007 and expressed deep concern about a possible humanitarian crisis and potential violations of human rights. In 2007, Steve Cradshaw, the United Nations advocacy director for Human Rights Watch went as far as likening the situation in the Ogaden region to “ a mini-Darfur.” Since then, the situation has only worsened, the Ethiopian military clearly having carte blanche in the region. “Why does the international community stay silent? Why does America support the Ethiopian government?”, pleaded Farah.
These are good questions. They have answers, of a sort. The Bush Administration considered Ethiopia its main ally in combating terrorism in the Horn of Africa. In January 2007, according the New York Times, the American military mounted a strike by using an airstrip in eastern Ethiopia and managed to capture and kill top leaders of al-Qaeda based in Somalia. The extent of the relationship included significant sharing of intelligence on the Islamic militants’ positions and information from American spy satellites with the Ethiopian military.
These close ties are beginning to worry some elected officials. “We want constructive relations with Ethiopia, but we are concerned with reports of abuses by Ethiopian security forces, as well as repression of political opponents and restrictions on civil society and the press”, stated Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chairman of the Senate subcommittee on the state department and foreign operations. “Congress adopted a provision I wrote, which restricts military aid for Ethiopia and requires the Secretary of State ‘to report on actions taken by the Ethiopian government to address reports of abuses of civilians by Ethiopian security forces, particularly in the Ogaden region.” Ethiopia is one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world, receiving well over $2 billion in foreign assistance every year, of which the U.S. government has been providing roughly one fourth. In January 2009, the European Commission announced plans to give Ethiopia €250 million (approximately $330 million) in new assistance. So conditionalizing aid may work, or not, depending on the conditions, and the extent to which the U.S. government can, along with its key allies, learn to speak with one voice on the subject. This sounds much easier than it usually turns out to be.