Walking from the Ogaden in Ethiopia
Seeking peace in Dadaab refugee camp
Many people living outside Africa have never heard of the Ogaden (or Somali) region of Ethiopia and know nothing of the murders, rapes and destruction that the ethnic Somali’s allege are taking place there. “We all have our problems and what can I do anyway, these governments are corrupt, we – meaning Western governments – shouldn’t be sending them money, especially now with all the public sector cuts taking place.” So runs the uninformed, albeit understandable response.
I like it here in Dadaab, “it’s peaceful”, seven-year-old Khandra Abdi told me.
“Do you have lots of friends?”
“No, what would I do with a friend… I have an imaginary friend called Roho, she is also seven years old.”
Khandra had seen her mother, Sahro, and other women tortured when, as an innocent child of an innocent mother, she was imprisoned in the regional capital, Jijiga, in the infamous Jail Ogaden, with its torture rooms and underground cells.
While in prison Sahro received no medical treatment for the “wounds” sustained when she was violently arrested, and was detained without charge “for three years with my daughter”. Throughout that time, she says, soldiers repeatedly gang-raped, beat and tortured her. The soldiers “kept a record of the girls and women they want to rape. Women that resist or refuse are beaten, then raped and then raped again and again.” Resistance, then, is futile in a world devoid of common humanity and the rule of law. In the end “they let me go because my wounds had become infected and I could not be used [i.e. raped] by the soldiers anymore”. Sahro says the military get rid of the women when they are of no more use to them. The arrests are arbitrary, so too the release.
The Ethiopian military and their paramilitary partners, the Liyuu police, patrol the five targeted states of the region. They move from base to village, recruiting young men often at gunpoint, raping women, looting and burning homes…
After her release, in fear of her life and her daughter’s safety, she set off, with no funds, on the arduous journey to Kenya, aiming for Dadaab. With Khandra, she “firstly travelled by camel – given to me by my brother – to Danod in Wardheer. This took approximately 15 days. My brother gave me food to cook on the way and some money. Then I got a lift in a lorry to the Kenyan border.”
It’s an arid land inhabited by around five million people. Mainly pastoralists, they live simple lives tending their cattle and moving along ancestral pathways. Most have never been to school, cannot read or write and live hard but honest lives in tune with the land and the past.
There is natural gas and oil under the Ogaden, first discovered when the Italians, under the dictator Benito Mussolini, occupied Ethiopia for nine years in the 1930s.
Sahro, emotionally scarred and looking older than her 36 years, uneducated and desperately poor, earned “some little money by making and selling tea to the villagers and pastoralists who came to the village”. The Ethiopian military and their paramilitary partners, the Liyuu police, patrol the five targeted states of the region. They move from base to village, recruiting young men often at gunpoint, raping women, looting and burning homes, local people tell us. They work in five-day cycles, five on, five off.
One evening the Ethiopian military descended upon Danod, a settlement in the district of Wardheer, where Sahro lived “in a tent… with two sisters and my daughter. I was divorced from the children’s father.” The military accused her of the heinous crime of making tea for the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). This is the rebel group, or freedom fighters, depending on your viewpoint, which since its inauguration in 1984 has been calling for self-determination, politically, when it made up 60 per cent of the regional government and, after 1994, militarily and politically.
Many that arrive in Dadaab make the journey to the Kenyan border on foot, often walking in intense heat over harsh landscape for months…
The night Sahro was arrested they took her “with Khandra into the forest and they tried to rape me. I fought them and ran from them, the soldiers shot at me, hitting me in the leg [she shows me her scar] and hand [she reveals a missing finger on her right hand] and I fell to the ground. There were four soldiers chasing me, and many more in the village.” It’s hard for a woman with a child to fight off four soldiers and “many more in the village”. Bundled into a car, she was driven to Jijiga and incarcerated.
People from the region fleeing government persecution are not automatically granted refugee status; instead, they are required to pass through an assessment process, undertaken by the Refugee Determination Unit of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Given the level of state criminality, this is a procedure that should be re-evaluated. The UNHCR has limited resources and filling forms often takes months, adding up to years in some cases. Three separate sites make up the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, with a total population of close to 500,000 – a small city, it is the largest refugee camp in the world. The UNHCR manages it and gives basic support – shelter, blankets, food and water rations – to people seeking refuge.
Many that arrive in Dadaab make the journey to the Kenyan border on foot, often walking in intense heat over harsh landscape for months: 40-year-old Fadumu Siyad arrived in Dadaab in August 2012 after walking for two months from Saga to Ceelbarda. “It is a very long way; we used to walk all day and all night. At first we cooked food we carried with us, but after a month the food was finished, then we looked for pastoralists who helped us by giving us food and milk. I was walking with my three young children” – a girl aged 14 and two boys aged 10 and seven years.
Another woman I met walked with her two small children, she would carry one for 20 metres, put her down then go back for the other one. She did this for three months, until she reached Kenya. The physical and mental strength of such women is to be admired.
The inculcation of fear lies at the heart of the military methodology: “the first mission for all the military and the Liyuu is to make the people of the Ogaden region afraid of us”, said Dahhir, a divisional commander in the Liyuu force. In keeping with acts of state terrorism, he was told, and dutifully carried out his orders, “to rape and kill, to loot, to burn their homes, and capture their animals – we used to slaughter some of the animals we captured, eat some and some we sold back to their owners”.
Brought up in Fiqq town, her family of pastoralists moved to Gode after her mother was arrested when she was 16. It was in Gode that she too was imprisoned, held for six months, caned, tortured and “raped every night by gangs of soldiers”.
Rape, a weapon of war for centuries, is allegedly a favourite tool used by the Ethiopian forces to terrify and intimidate the people of the Ogaden, and we are told other parts of the country – Gambella and Oromo, for example.
In the safety of the UNHCR compound, a huge enclosure reminiscent of a French campsite, I met 18-year-old Hoden on my first day in Dadaab. Dressed in a long black headscarf, she looked fragile and shy. We sat with Ahmad the translator, in a small portakabin with the air conditioning on, surrounded by desks, and she slowly began to answer my awkward questions.
She cried a lot as she told me about her upsetting story. Brought up in Fiqq town, her family of pastoralists moved to Gode after her mother was arrested when she was 16. It was in Gode that she too was imprisoned, held for six months, caned, tortured and “raped every night by gangs of soldiers”. She was a frightened, innocent 17-year-old child then, today she is a wounded, lonely mother with a one-year-old baby girl – the result of one of the rapes.
Notions of identity and freedom lie at the heart of the political and military struggle for autonomy from Ethiopia, which many regard as a foreign occupying force. The view from Addis Ababa is, unsurprisingly, somewhat different. The government and most Ethiopians see the Ogaden as part of the federal state of Ethiopia, albeit a part given to them by the British – a detail which, while historically correct, is for the time being at least largely irrelevant. The ONLF, heroes to the ethnic Somalis, are seen by the Ethiopian regime as a band of unlawful terrorists, causing mayhem in the region.
As the “terrorism” word has now surfaced, perhaps at this point it’s worth repeating the definition of terrorism found in the US Department of Defence’s Dictionary of Military Terms. It is, it says, “The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious or ideological.” So, that would cover the rape and murder of civilians, the destruction of residential property, torture, false arrests and arbitrary executions, all of which are – we must say “it is alleged” – being carried out by the Ethiopian military, actions that, if true, earn the Ethiopian government the international accolade of “terrorist state”. This is an appropriate title that sits uncomfortably with the Addis Ababa’s democratic pretensions and the cozy relationship it enjoys with its Western allies and principal donors.
Distressingly, Hoden is now “stigmatized among her own people” within Dadaab for “having a child from an Ethiopian soldier”. Such are the narrow minded, judgmental attitudes that pervade such communities and destroy the lives of countless women, young and old. At the end of our time together, Hoden said her “future has been ruined”. She lowered her head as she gently wept, and we sat together in silence.