Ethiopian annihilation of the Ogaden people

Internaly displaced in Ogaden Ethiopia

Besieged, abused, ignored

By Graham Peebles

In the harsh Ogaden region of Ethiopia, impoverished ethnic Somali people are being murdered and tortured, raped, persecuted and displaced by government paramilitary forces. These actions are carried out with the knowledge and tacit support of donor countries, seemingly content to turn a blind eye to war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed by their brutal, repressive ally in the region.

Around five million traditionally nomadic pastoralists live in what is one of the least developed corners of the world, besieged by military oppression, drought and famine.

Democracy denied

When the British, with due colonial duplicity, arrogantly handed the Ogaden region over to Ethiopia in 1954, the ethnic Somali people found themselves under occupation by, what they regard as a foreign power. The centuries-old struggle for self-determination has since 1984 been taken up by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), predictably regarded as “terrorists” by the Ethiopian government, which hunts them down and, with impunity, tortures imprisons and rapes its members and suspected supporters while carrying out widespread extrajudicial killings.

In 1992, as part of the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) much trumpeted but never realized policy of ethnic federalism, which promised autonomy and cultural respect to the many tribal groups in the country, ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden were officially acknowledged and inaugural regional elections were held. The ONLF, a secular group in a largely Muslim region, “won 60 per cent of seats… and formed the new (regional) government”, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported. Two years later, and in response to the will of the people, the ONLF called for a referendum on self-determination. The government’s reaction to such democratic gall was to kill 81 unarmed civilians in the town of Wardheer, disband the regional parliament, arrest and imprison the vice-president and several other members of the parliament, and instigate mass arrests and indiscriminate killings. This brutal act ignited the current struggle and drove the ONLF into the shadows and its current guerrilla war.

Resource rich

The region, rich in oil and gas reserves, is potentially the wealthiest area of Ethiopia, endowed with resources which the indigenous people are understandably keen to benefit from but which the EPRDF sees as another party asset to add to its burgeoning portfolio. Genocide Watch (GW)tells us that “immediately after oil and gas were discovered in the Ogaden, Ethiopian government forces evicted large numbers of [Ogaden Somalis] from their ancestral grazing lands and herded them into internally displaced persons  camps, causing a humanitarian disaster”. If the ONLF is correct – and its view sounds more than plausible – then the Ethiopian military intends to secure the resources for the government and exclude the local people. The Africa Faith and Justice Network confirms such suspicions, saying: “With the discovery of petroleum leading to exploration missions by foreign companies, the government’s motives are questionable.”

Upfront fees for exploration rights are reputed to have been sold to foreign corporations for between 50 and 100 million US dollars, paid for by under-informed, overexcited multinationals, which subsequently pull out, having underestimated the logistical problems of working in the region. China Petroleum was one such – it was subjected to an unprecedented and ill-judged attack by the ONLF in 2007 that caused the deaths of nine Chinese workers and, according to China Daily, “65 Ethiopian employees”. The Ethiopian government, itching to intensify the conflict that had been simmering for over three decades, retaliated with excessive brutality, HRW reports, “launching a brutal counter-insurgency campaign in the five zones of [the] Somali Region primarily affected by the conflict… [where] the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) has deliberately and repeatedly attacked civilian populations”, killing hundreds of men women and children.

Displaced and destitute

Thousands of terrified Ogaden Somalis have since fled the affected areas. They seek refuge “in neighbouring Somalia and Kenya from widespread Ethiopian military attacks on civilians and villages that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity“, according to HRW. Large numbers have been made homeless and destitute – although accurate numbers are difficult to collate due to restricted access, human rights groups estimate the number to be greater than one hundred thousand.

The Ogaden, GW states, “has been transformed into a vast military occupied area, with thousands in IDP camps”. Most displaced persons, the International Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) reports, “sought shelter with relatives or safety in the bush, rather than gathering in organized camps”, where widespread abuse is known to take place, including starvation that GW describes as “genocide by attrition”. These desperate, frightened people are not regarded as refugees and so receive no humanitarian aid support from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). And the EPRDF, consistent with its duplicitous approach to governance, fails to meet its obligations under the historic Kampala Convention, which “reaffirms that national authorities have the primary responsibility to provide assistance to IDPs [internally-displaced persons and] … to address the plight of people uprooted within their borders”. The ruling party ignores these requirements, acting neither in accordance with international law, the federal constitution or indeed its moral duty.

Especially violent 

In 2009, after widespread condemnation of the Ethiopian army’s conduct in the region, the Ethiopian regime formed the highly suspect Liyu (Special) Police. According to a Somaliland Press report dated 26 September 2012, the government “deliberately recruited unemployed youths from the streets”. This shadowy paramilitary force of 10,000–14,000 fits, HRW says, “into the context of impunity where security forces can more or less do what they want”.

It is not a group, then, that the British government should be supporting. In a baffling move, however, according to the Guardian on 10 January 2013 the UK Department for International Development (DFID) submitted a “tender to train security forces in the Somali region of Ogaden”. Commenting on this, Amnesty International’s Claire Beston said: “It was highly concerning that the UK was planning to engage with the Special Police… There is no doubt that the Special Police have become a significant source of fear in the region.” The DFID, in denying the report ambiguously states that, “reforming the Special Police is critical for achieving a safe and secure Somali Region”, failing to recognize that the Liyu force needs not reforming but disbanding and, along with all Ethiopian military personnel, marched out of the region immediately.

State-sanctioned terrorism and genocide

In addition to murder and rape, appalling levels of torture and extrajudicial execution are reported. Thousands, according to GW, “have been arrested without any charges and held in desolate desert prisons”. Mass detentions “without any judicial oversight are routine. Hundreds – possibly thousands – of individuals have been arrested and held in military barracks, sometimes multiple times, where they have been tortured, raped and assaulted”, HRW reports.

Children and women, being the most vulnerable, suffer acutely. The rape of Ogaden Somali women is a favoured weapon of the Ethiopian paramilitary. Held in military barracks, women are imprisoned as sex slaves and subjected to multiple gang rape and torture. African Rights Monitor (ARM) recount one woman’s story that echoes many and shocks us all. She claims to have been, “raped by 50 soldiers for a period of 12 hours and hung upside down over a pit of fire that had chili powder in … to suffocate her lungs”.

Statistics of abuse are impossible to obtain but the numbers are perhaps less important than the crimes and the suffering caused. Survivors bear the physical scars and mental trauma of their ordeals, from which many may never recover.

A scorched-earth policy involving burning of crops and homes and killing cattle is part of the campaign of state terror. As HRW state, “Confiscation of livestock [the main asset], restrictions on access to water, food and other essential commodities” have “been used as weapons in an economic war”. Also used as a weapon is the destruction of villages, confirmed by evidence from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, proving, “that the Ethiopian military has attacked civilians and burned towns and villages in eight locations across the remote Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia”. Such inhumane methods are employed by the EPRDF to instill fear in the Ogaden Somali people and suppress their legitimate demands for autonomy. It is shocking criminal abuse which  “GW considers to have already reached stage 7 [of 8], genocidal massacres against many [Ogadeni, Anuk, Oromo and Omo] of its people”. International donors however, who provide a third of Ethiopia’s total federal budget – around 4 billion dollars a year, to their utter shame say and do nothing, neglect amounting to complicity.

Village executions

With the region virtually shut off, video evidence smuggled out of Ethiopia by Abdullahi Hussein, a former Ethiopian civil servant, is rare. According to  Somaliland Press, “whole villages have been emptied of inhabitants through executions and mass flight from terror … you can hear members of the Liyu Police desecrate a civilian they have just killed. They stomp on his head and poke his face with a stick.”

Such attacks on settlements are routine. Demanding our attention is Qurille village in the Wardeer district, which was attacked in September 2012. Ogaden Online recounts how troops “[s]hoot each resident of the town in their custody at point blank range”, including women and children. Bodies are hung from trees in a public display of state terrorism, to engender lasting fear. This type of brutality is widespread. HRW records how in Raqda village in the Gashaamo district, during March 2012, “the Liyu police force summarily executed at least 10 men in their custody, killed at least nine residents … [and] abducted at least 24 men”.

The killing continued two days later, on 17 March, when “Liyu police took another four men from their homes and summarily executed them. A woman whose brother was a veterinarian told HRW: “They caught my brother and took him outside. They shot him in the head and then slit his throat.”

Defenceless villages are easy prey for the Liyu and their brutal methodology. As HRW states, “troops have forcibly displaced entire rural communities, ordering villagers to leave their homes within a few days or witness their houses being burnt down and possessions destroyed – and risk death”. Page upon page could be filled with such violent and disturbing accounts.

Exclusion of foreign media and aid workers

Contrary to constitutional and human rights law, the EPRDF has imposed a widespread blockade on the Ogaden region, seeking to control the flow of information outside the country as it does within its borders, where it allows no freedom of the media, of expression, of assembly or of political dissent. Add to this the outlawing of trade unions and the partisan distribution of aid, and a picture of a brutal totalitarian regime emerges from the duplicitous mist of politically correct, democratic rhetoric.

Attempts to work in the region by international media and humanitarian groups are seen as criminal acts, punishable under the widely condemned anti-terrorist proclamation. Two Swedish journalists investigating human rights abuses in the Ogaden made headlines in July 2011 when they were attacked and arrested by the Liyu police and subjected to a terrifying mock execution. Charged and sentenced in Ethiopia’s kangaroo court to 11 years imprisonment, they were later released after serving 400 days in appalling conditions. Reporters from the New York Times, the Telegraph and Voice of America have also been imprisoned and expelled, as have United Nations  workers and staff from Medecins Sans Frontieres who were arrested and accused of being spies. Wrapped in paranoia, the EPRDF suspended 42 non-governmental organizations in 2009 for reporting government human rights abuses in the region, and in 2007, in what must be the EPRDF’s pièce de résistance, the International Committee of the Red Cross was expelled.

In addition to the information embargo, the region is subject to what HRW describes as “severe restrictions on movement and commercial trade, minimal access to independent relief assistance”, and the “politicized manipulation of humanitarian operations, particularly food distribution”, meaning food supplied by donor countries is stolen to feed the Ethiopian army and the Liyu force.  This in one of the worst areas for drought and famine in the country, where, In-Depth Africa reports that “1,539,279 people (30 per cent of the population) in the region lack food, water and health services”.

Peace and justice for the people

The little known conflict in the Ogaden is a cause of intense tension between Ethiopia and Somalia and a destabilizing issue in an unstable region. It is a fight that has been distorted by the former government of Somalia, which sought to misrepresent the issue and transform it into a boundary dispute – a misconception that suits the Ethiopian regime, keen to avoid the substantive point of regional autonomy.

All efforts to facilitate a lasting peaceful resolution to what is an age-old struggle should be urgently made. Ethiopia’s donors and facilitators, principally America, along with the European Union and Britain, must act with due responsibility. Action should be taken to close down internally-displaced persons’ camps and allow their occupants to return to their communities; provide aid for rebuilding villages (not to train the Liyu) destroyed by the military; and organize regional elections and a referendum on self-determination.

The appalling atrocities committed daily by the Ethiopian paramilitary constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity that should immediately be referred to the International Criminal Court for prosecution. They are, though, just the deepest wounds within a scarred body of human rights abuses, violating federal and international law, being perpetrated by the EPRDF regime throughout the country and with utter impunity. This must end and the Ogaden Somali people must be allowed to determine their own destiny and to live in peace.

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