The pain of Ethiopia’s Ogaden Somalis
In a report entitled Collective Punishment, Human Rights Watch (HRW) highlights the case of an innocent 17-year-old Ogaden Somali girl who was held captive for three months in a “dark hole in the ground” and raped 13 times.
Describing her ordeal, which she shared with five other female students, she is quoted as saying: “Every night, they took all of us girls to [interrogations]. They would separate us and beat us. The second time they took me, they raped me… All three of the men raped me, consecutively”.
This is just one of countless accounts of abuse, from within the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, where it is widely reported criminal acts like these are perpetrated by the Ethiopian military and paramilitary forces on a daily basis.
Hiding from the truth
In an attempt to hide the facts from the rest of the world, in 2007 the Ethiopian government banned all international media and expelled many humanitarian aid groups from the area. It is reputed that any non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) allowed to stay do so on the condition that they sign a waiver agreeing not to report human rights violations by the government.
According to HRW’s Leslie Lefkow, Ethiopia “is one of the most difficult places to work for human rights groups or humanitarian agencies on the African continent”, and the Ogaden – a barren land, littered with military remnants from past conflicts – “is one of the most difficult places to work in Ethiopia”. There are “huge challenges to doing investigations on the ground because the security apparatus of the government is extremely extensive and permeates even the lowest levels, the grassroots, the village levels”, where regime spies and informers operate, reporting anything and anyone suspicious.
Information about life within the region comes from whispering sources on the ground, and from those who have fled the violence and are now living outside Ethiopia. Many are in refugee camps in Kenya and Yemen, from where they recount stories of horrific abuse.
Mohammed, from the Dhadhaab (or Dadaab) camp in Kenya, described to Ogaden Online in December 2012 how he was captured by the Ethiopian military, accused of being a supporter of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and mercilessly tortured. “They hogtied me,” he said, “and then flogged me while pinned down.” Mohamed’s face “was disfigured to the point where he can’t be recognized”.
Refugees support Amnesty International’s (AI) findings of “torture and extrajudicial executions of detainees in the region” – women tell of multiple gang rapes, their arms, feet and necks tied with wire, for which they bear the scars; men speak of barbaric torture techniques at the hands of the Ethiopian military and paramilitary – the notorious, semi-legal and completely barbaric Liyu police which, HRW’s Laetitia Bader says, “fit into this context of impunity where security forces can do more or less what they want”.
The ONLF is cast as the enemy of the state, and regarded, as all dissenting troublesome groups are, as terrorist. In fact, they had won 60 per cent of seats and were democratically elected to the regional parliament in the only inclusive, open elections to be held, back in 1992. Civilians suspected, however vaguely, of supporting the so-called “rebels”, are forcibly relocated from their homes. According to HRW, the evacuated villages and settlements, emptied at gunpoint, “become no-go areas” and, in a further act of state criminality, “civilians who remain behind risk being shot on sight, tortured or raped if spotted by soldiers”. Children, according to refugees, are hanged, villages and settlements razed to the ground and cattle stolen to feed soldiers. HRW further say that “water sources and wells have [also] been destroyed”.
Pervasive, pernicious control
Spearheading the government’s campaign of terror in the region is the Liyu police. A force of 10,000-14,000 and comprising 18-20 year olds with little or no knowledge of criminal law or human rights, they have committed egregious human rights abuses, including the extra-judicial execution in March 2012 of 10 men in their custody and the killing of nine other villagers.
Established in 2005, the Liyu initiative was the brainchild of a group led by the current regional president, Abdi Mohamoud Omar, and was eagerly embraced by the late prime minister, Meles Zenawi. His Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime was and remains at war with the ONLF, which is seeking self-determination for the five million ethnic Somalis, in line with their constitutional rights under the government’s ethnic federalism policy.
The EPRDF is a highly controlling and repressive regime which has extended its pervasive reach in the nine districts of the Ogaden. The local Ogaden administration “does nothing but carry out Ethiopian dictates and represents the interests of the present, centralized regime,” according to the Ogaden Women’s Relief Association.
Terrifying tools of oppression
The current regime operates under the premiership of Hailemariam Desalegn, who, true to his inaugural word, is following in predecessor Meles Zenawi’s footsteps and has expanded the EPRDF’s repertoire of violence and imposing additional economic pressures. It is widely reported that, In the midst of the current dry season, new taxes are being levied on water drawn from wells for livestock and domestic use. Sums of up to 150 dollars are reportedly being charged to people living in rural areas, already burdened by an economic and aid embargo, which is causing civilians great hardship.
Additional tax demands are also being made. According to Ogaden Online, “reliable reports … confirm the imposition of what the locals term an illegal ‘head tax’ imposed on the civilian population as well as on their livestock”. A local elder, whose family consists of eight children in addition to himself and his wife, was arbitrarily charged “150 Ethiopian birr (8 dollars) per individual regardless of age or gender”, that is a total of 1,200 birr (56 dollars) – far beyond his means.
Kidnapping, with subsequent ransom demands, is another tool of terror employed by the regime. Family members, abducted and imprisoned, are released upon receipt of ransom payments, which are typically paid either by relatives inside Ethiopia or those living overseas. Levels of extortion vary, with those in the West paying anything from “300 to 1,500” dollars. The McGill Report found that “in some cases those amounts were contributions to total collected ransoms of more than 10,000 dollars”.
This criminal practice is widespread: civilians are arrested and imprisoned, without regard to due process, often repeatedly. One victim, Ifraah, a 25-year-old Ogaden Somali woman, told the Ogaden Women’s Relief Association:
To be released, you have to pay the Ethiopian military from 1,000 (56 dollars) to 2,000 birr (112 dollars). And the price keeps going up. If they suspect that the family has money, they raise the price. Poor people often stay in prison much longer because they can’t raise the ransom. It happened to me twice. The first time I wasn’t yet married. I spent a couple of months in prison and had to pay 500 birr (28 dollars); the second time, I had to pay 1,000.
It is widely believed that the illegal income generated is used to supplement the paramilitary soldiers’ salaries. “There are women thrown into prison five times, and each time they have to pay to get out. But economic factors are not the only ones. There’s also torture and rape”.
Civilians like Ifraah who are indiscriminately accused of supporting the ONLF are detained without charge. HRW, which has been monitoring the situation in the region for the past five years, has documented a range of human rights abuses, including
arbitrary detaining [of] family members, often for long periods of time, sexual violence against women and girls, sometimes if they are viewed as being members of the ONLF or supporters or simply because they are family members [of ONLF supporters]. There is a kind of “guilt by association” that is used to target the family members.
This is punished by “summary executions … where suspected ONLF supporters have been executed in cold blood.”
Prisoners are Incarcerated in what are often makeshift prisons (e.g. deserted school buildings) and tortured, abused and intimidated. Ina and Halima, two young women from the town of Saga, Ogaden Online reports, were “suspended in the air by their ankles with their legs spread wide, while the soldiers poured water mixed with red chilli powder over them [and] applied [it] in and around the victims’ genitalia, causing severe burns”.
In prison there are no medical facilities and, according to Ifraah, the 25-year-old Ogaden Somali woman mentioned above, “You get your food from relatives. If you don’t have anyone nearby, your relatives send money to people who live there so they can buy you food.”. Alternatively, inmates share what little they have.
Abdullahi, held among others without trial for nine months, related to the Ogaden Women’s Relief Association how his captors “locked us in an underground room”. Young girls are regarded as Liyu property, kidnapped, held captive and repeatedly raped, often falling pregnant in the process.
The government’s so-called counter-insurgency policy in the Ogaden is, in truth, a form of genocide and is regarded as such by Genocide Watch. Is it ethnic hatred, fear and loathing of the “other”, or simply greed for the region’s natural resources – the oil and natural gas that drives the government’s violent, multi-pronged approach? It is an approach which, according to HRW, aims “at cutting off economic resources, weakening the ONLF’s civilian support base and confining its geographic area of operation”. In pursuing these duplicitous goals, the Ethiopian regime seems to exist on an island of impunity, hidden from the international community. As the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization states, “there is a shocking lack of international attention directed at the situation” and, despite the substantial documentation of the violations committed, nothing is being done.
The is no doubt that the Ethiopian military and paramilitary are committing wide-ranging human rights violations in the Ogaden which constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. As Genocide Watch states, the situation should be “referred by the UN Security Council to the International Criminal Court”.
Such Human Rights violations are not confined to the Ogaden region. Genocide Watch consider Ethiopia to have “already reached Stage 7 (of 8), genocide massacres against many of its peoples, including the Anuak, Ogadeni, Oromo, and Omo tribes”. The EPRDF, unsurprisingly, plead innocent to all such accusations of abuse and state criminality, and dismisses allegations of human rights abuse substantiated by reports from international human rights group such as HRW and Amnesty International. The Ogaden regional president claims that they “peddle lies and propaganda”. However, if the Ethiopian government has nothing to hide, why doesn’t it allow independent investigators and journalists access to the Ogaden region?
The shocking accounts of violence and abuse are endless. The situation is clearly extremely critical and demands the immediate attention of Ethiopia’s main benefactors – the USA, the European Union and Britain. To continue to ignore the evidence of state criminality and to blindly support the Ethiopian government in the face of such persecution, is to be complicit in the murder and violent abuse of the innocent people of the Ogaden region.