Humanitarian crisis hits Ethiopia

By Xan Rice, The Guardian / September 5, 2007
A humanitarian crisis has developed in Ethiopia's remote Ogaden region, where government forces are trying to quell a rebel insurgency, according to a leading international aid agency

Médecins Sans Frontières said 400,000 people, including thousands forcibly displaced when their villages were burned down, had little or no access to medicine due to a government-installed blockade.

MSF said that following an exploratory mission to Ogaden in July which revealed a "deeply precarious situation", repeated requests to work in the worst hit areas have been denied by both regional authorities and the government in Addis Abada.

"We were told that we could only begin work once 'operations' were finished," said Loris De Filippi, Ethiopia coordinator for MSF. "We said that humanitarian aid is not about putting flowers on graves, but they just ignored us."

The government denies creating no-go zones anywhere in the country. But six weeks ago it expelled the International Committee of the Red Cross from Ogaden and has refused to let the organisation resume its work. Journalists are barred from visiting "for their own safety".

The army crackdown began in earnest in June, shortly after rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) attacked a Chinese-run oil exploration facility, killing 74 people, including nine Chinese workers.

The ONLF, described by the government as terrorists, says it is fighting for greater autonomy for the region's people, who are mainly ethnic Somalis, and will not allow their natural resources to be exploited until this happens.

The raid and other attacks on civilians attracted international condemnation. But the Ethiopian government's response has drawn even more criticism. In early July, a Human Rights Watch report accused the army of forcibly displacing thousands of civilians, and included eyewitness accounts of soldiers torching homes, property and food stocks. The report said the government had imposed a trade blockade to force civilians from rural areas to larger towns, and so deny the rebels a support base.

Accounts from MSF staff, who held a press conference in neighbouring Kenya yesterday to protest about the Ethiopian government's denial of access to Ogaden, appeared to corroborate the reports.

"We saw about 30 villages that had been burned by armed groups or simply abandoned," Mr De Filippi said. "There were a few donkeys carrying water when normally there would have been hundreds of commercial trucks."

Aid workers also reported seeing soldiers chasing women and children away from wells where they were drawing water. Mr De Filippi said the government had refused even to allow MSF a window of 24 hours to take drugs to an area called Fiq, which has not received medical supplies for six months.

The United Nations has sent a fact-finding team to the region, but it remains unclear whether it will be allowed to visit the worst affected areas.


The Ogaden region, on Ethiopia's arid border with Somalia, is seen as the poorest in the country. Home mainly to Somali nomads, the region was left underdeveloped by successive regimes, causing resentment. The Ogaden National Liberation Front, which calls for secession, led a lengthy guerrilla war against the Derg regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. It briefly enjoyed cordial ties with the current prime minister, Meles Zenawi, but since 1994 it has waged a low-level war, with human rights abuses reported on both sides.