In southeastern Ethiopia, war leaves civilians dying, hungry in the middle

By Anita Powell , AP / Jan 29, 2008

DEGAHABUR, Ethiopia - In this remote Ethiopian trading town, people speak of the fight between the government and separatists furtively, in snatches. They are trapped in the middle, silence and anonymity their only shield.

“We have problems with the (rebels) and the government, both of them,” said a woman crouched in a tailor’s shop, mending a pair of trousers. “They harm us. People have run away from the city because of the clashes between the two parties.”

She looked around as she spoke, wary of being overheard by government agents.

n May, the Ethiopian government launched an offensive against the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which in April attacked a Chinese-run oil exploration field in Ethiopia’s southeastern Somali region, killing 74 workers.

The ONLF, founded in 1984, is fighting for independence for a large part of Ethiopia’s Somali region, known as the Ogaden. Most of the group’s members are part of the large, mostly nomadic Ogadeni clan, the region’s predominant clan.

The government claims that an eight-month siege has decimated the rebels, but residents say fighting has not subsided.

Determining what is happening in the Ogaden is difficult. The government usually keeps outsiders out, citing security fears. Government officials closely monitored a group of foreign journalists allowed to tour the region earlier this month following criticism from human rights, aid and other groups that a government crackdown on the rebels has led to systemic abuses of civilians.

Women gave accounts of rapes, mass arrests and attacks by government soldiers. One man said four college students had been arrested and had their throats slit by government soldiers. Another told of the arrest of an 80-year-old man, shocking in a culture in which elders are venerated. Hurried, whispered conversations often end with the same refrain, “We are very frightened.”

Leslie Lefkow, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on the Horn of Africa, said her organization, which the Ethiopian government accuses of bias, has had to gather information on the Ogaden from refugees who have fled the region and other sources.

“We know that there are ongoing clashes, we know that there are ongoing abuses of civilians, but it’s very difficult to know the exact number of people who are affected,” Lefkow said, accusing the government of launching “a campaign of terror intended to terrorize the people who are believed to be supporters of the ONLF.

High-level military officials in the region did not speak to reporters, and reporters were not allowed to visit detention centers in which officials said they were holding ONLF members. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has denied charges his troops are violating his citizens’ rights. His officials say it is ONLF fighters, not government soldiers, who have terrorized the Ogaden.

Regional security chief Abdi Mohammed Umar said the guerrilla group had killed 200 civilians in the last two months. Abdullahi Hassan, the top government official for the region, called the rebels “anti-peace elements” who have killed religious elders and women and mined roads.

Anyone speaking openly of support for the rebels could end up jailed _ at one point during the government-organized tour, the region’s security chief quoted details of reporters’ private conversations with locals. Most residents said they supported neither the rebels nor the government.

Local elders in Jijiga, the busy commercial town that is the regional capital, were more open about describing constant clashes between their primarily farming clan and the nomadic Ogadeni clan associated with the ONLF. They accused the ONLF of stealing livestock.

Lefkow, of Human Rights Watch, described the ONLF uprising as “classic rural insurgency,” with clan ties affecting support for the movement.

Gode, the region’s second-largest city, has been on the periphery of the fighting. Residents at the governor’s house as he prepared to greet visiting journalists in Gode spoke of relatives being killed by the ONLF.

“If they are fighting for the people, they would not kill us,” said Faduma Muhumed, 40, who said her sister was killed recently by five rebels. Faduma said she, like most rebels, was of the Ogadeni clan.

“We are Ogadeni and they are Ogadeni too,” she said. “I don’t think that many people support them. Nobody likes them. Nobody can like people who are killing their people.”

Mariam Qorane, a 50-year-old mother of 10, was in Gode’s small and understaffed main hospital after a stray bullet hit her below her right breast during a battle between the government and ONLF. She blamed neither side.

“I know nothing about it,” she said. “I’m a mother, I was in my house.”

Even those who have not been directly affected by the violence are helplessly caught in the crossfire. The fighting has kept goods from the markets, leading to inflation and hunger.

United Nations officials have in recent months warned of a deteriorating humanitarian situation in the region. U.N. aid officials reported earlier this month that emergency food aid deliveries were being made, but that the regional government’s requirement that every food truck be escorted by armed military escorts was slowing the process.

At the Gode cattle market, a 29-year-old woman sat with two spindly goats, which she’d brought from her remote village and hoped to sell for about US$30. She said food prices at her local market had risen because of scarcity.

She accused government troops of slaughtering rebels like cattle. But she said she sided with neither the government nor the ONLF.

“I feel frightened,” she said. “It’s not just me. It’s the whole city.”

Source: Associated Press