Horn of Africa in search of peace
From the Ogaden to Dadaab
It was dark when I arrived at Wilson Airport, Nairobi, for the 7 a.m. United Nations charter flight to Dadaab. I was in Kenya to meet refugees from the Ogaden region of Ethiopia and record their stories – accounts of false imprisonment, murder, rape, torture at the hands of the Ethiopian government: stories, which would prove deeply distressing.
An inhospitable land, the Ogaden region is home to around five million ethnic-Somalis, and has been the battleground for several armed conflicts between Somalia and Ethiopia since the 19th century. There is natural gas and oil under Ogaden soil: is the Ogaden yet another oil-infused battleground?
Mainly pastoralists, the people of the region 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. They want simply to be left alone, and allowed to live peaceful, dignified lives.
A fleet of white UN four-wheel drive vehicles met the incoming Nairobi flight and drove us along the pitted, dusty road through Dadaab town to the main UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) compound. With a population approaching 500,000 in five sites, Dadaab refugee camp collectively forms the largest temporary settlement (22 years temporary) in the world.
A small open room in the middle of one of the courtyards suffices as a workspace. Noor, a tall man in his 40s, was eager to talk about his experiences. Strong and proud, he had worked for the local government in Fiiq province, Ogaden. All regional government activities, he said, are supervised by the military – “they control everything”. Arrested without charge in 2010, he had been imprisoned for two years in barracks, where he “was repeatedly beaten. After two years I was released and confined under house arrest, but managed to escape.” Noor had witnessed the killing “of a 14-year-old girl by the Ethiopian military. She had set up a small business – a kiosk. The military suspected she received financial support from the ONLF [The Ogaden National Liberation Front, which has been fighting for self-determination since 1984].”
Noor, frustrated by the lack of international interest, estimates that less than 25 per cent of aid reaches those it is intended for. The military steal the rest – to feed soldiers and the Liyuu paramilitary police, and to sell to starving villagers. Donor countries are unable to monitor aid deliveries: the Ethiopian government has restricted access to the region for aid groups and the media since 2007.
Having told his story, he shook my hand and sat quietly with the others in the stifling heat. One woman, Muus Muhammad, beautiful and bitterly angry, looked at me through doubtful eyes, unsure whether to trust me. She had witnessed the killing of her father and brother by the military, and had been imprisoned herself for three years, when she was repeatedly raped and beaten.
Carrying out orders
The inculcation of fear lies at the heart of the Ethiopian government’s activities in the region, and indeed throughout the country. “The first mission for the military and the Liyuu is to make the people of the Ogaden region afraid of us,” said Dahir, a former divisional commander of the Liyuu force. He 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.” He ordered and committed hundreds of killings and some 1,200 rapes, or 1,500 – he couldn’t say precisely. Should this man be granted asylum in London, to end up running a café in Shepherd’s Bush, or in Sweden studying engineering in Stockholm? This moral question confronted me as the former soldier recounted serial brutality that turned my stomach, rendering me silent.
In the safety of the UNHCR compound, a huge enclosure reminiscent of a French campsite, I met 18-year-old Hoden. Dressed. Wearing a long black headscarf, she avoided looking me in the eyes, looked fragile and shy, and would only speak to me if we were alone. We sat in a small air-conditioned portakabin at the back of the main compound and she slowly, tentatively, began to answer my intrusive questions.
She cried as she told me her story. Brought up in Fiqq town, her family moved to Gode after her mother was arrested. It was in Gode that she too was imprisoned for six months, caned, tortured and raped every night by gangs of soldiers. She was a frightened 17-year-old child then; today she is a lonely mother shrouded in shame, with a one-year-old baby girl – the result of a rape. Hoden is stigmatized within her community for “having a child from an Ethiopian soldier”. At the end of our time together she said her “future has been ruined”. She lowered her head and wept.
Omar was a slight, gentle man with a glazed frightened stare, a look I would come to recognize many times during the week. He came to Dadaab in September 2012 from Gode, in the district of Godi, which, he said, is one of the most badly affected areas of the Ogaden conflict.
His wife, son and brother had been killed: pregnant with their second child, Omar’s wife became sick and “decided to travel to the countryside to drink goat’s milk, hoping to recover”. When her condition deteriorated Omar went to her. “I stayed on in the countryside and sent my wife and son back [to Godi] with my brother.” They were stopped by the military “and asked where they had come from, what they were doing in the countryside and where they got the car from”. They were accused of being affiliated with the ONLF and executed at the roadside, where their bodies were left.
Accusations of ONLF membership or support are a common excuse for killings, torture, false imprisonment and rape, accusations brandishing the innocent as the enemy.
When Omar returned to the city, he recounts, he “found the dead body of my son by the roadside – he was being eaten by stray dogs”. Omar was arrested and imprisoned for “one year and two months” and was routinely tortured. He continued:
There is a river nearby the prison; late at night we were taken to the river, a rope tied around our necks and held under the water. They pulled me out and beat me with wooden sticks and their rifles. Sometimes they would vary the method and put a sack over my head, tie it around my throat with rope, submerge me in the river, then beat me – it happened to most of the prisoners.
One night at around midnight, “the rope broke and I fell into the water. The soldiers thought I had drowned [as many do] and left me, but fortunately I know how to swim and I swam to the opposite bank and escaped”.
We had been talking for over an hour. Despair and anger filled the room. Drawn back to the horrors of his family’s tragedy, Omar sat staring into his pain, his soul entrapped.
From victim to murderer
A sullen 25-year-old former member of the Liyuu police, Abdi joined the Liyuu, rather than be imprisoned, in August 2010 and became one of 500 in a regiment stationed in Fiiq. He looked guilty and repeatedly justified his actions – saying he had no choice, unable perhaps to face the reality of what he had done.
During their three-month training he and his fellow recruits were told “to enjoy our freedom, and to rape the young women. I raped between 10 and 20 women and remember killing 11 civilians.” Soldiers “who raped a lot of women, who robbed a lot and did lots of killing were rewarded and praised. They were given bonuses of around 5,000 ETB (250 US dollars) as a present.”
Abdi was in the force for two years and three months. Two appalling incidents caused him to leave. “One day we saw a group of pastoralist families with their animals. We approached the families and took three women aged 20 to 30 years and nine girls aged 15-20… We were 300 soldiers. We raped all the women and killed about 80 people.” A group of seven furious village elders “came to ask why we raped their women – one of the men was the father of a girl we raped. The old man was very angry and took a stone and hit the leader of our force on the head, and made him bleed. The leader selected two soldiers and ordered them to kill all seven elders and all the girls and women.” This took place in March 2011 and “started to make me feel sorry for the people”. Despite this rush of compassion, Abdi stayed with the force another year, until a final atrocious straw broke his military resolve. It was around 20 December 2012 in the rural area around Galalshe, where
we killed 96 innocent people. Of the 96, 25 were tied together in a clear field, two soldiers were selected and they shot them all dead. We also burnt their homes to the ground. That day I saw a woman who was dead and lying on her was her baby, who was suckling from her breast. That is the day I decided to leave the Liyuu police.
I had never sat with a man who had killed and raped; I thanked him for his honesty. He was only a child himself, his life before him a past to somehow atone for.
Aid convoys travel to the camps in convoys of 15-30 vehicles with armed Kenyan police throughout: carjacking and hijacking of staff and visitors is an Al-Shabab threat taken seriously.
In Dagahaley camp (population about. 100,000 people), an array of shacks 20-minutes’ drive from UNHCR’s Dadaab compound, children and women gathered outside the gates of the UN field office. Fifty or so men, women and children were ushered unceremoniously into a holding area, where they sat with the same dignity I had seen on my first day. I photographed them against the white wall of the UNHCR offices. Ahmed, my translator, wrote a succinct word or two next to their name: Ardo, female, 30, falsely imprisoned, gang raped, tortured; Fadumo, female, 40, falsely imprisoned, gang raped, tortured; Raho, female, 31, falsely imprisoned, gang raped, tortured, her family killed by the Ethiopian military; Cibaado, female, 60, blinded in prison and burned; Khadar Hared Adam, male, 17, tortured using a crocodile to attack his legs.
“Why don’t they stop the violence?”
Many who arrive in Dadaab journey to the Kenyan border on foot, walking in intense heat over harsh landscapes for months. Forty-year-old Fadumu Siyad arrived in Dadaab in August 2012 after two months: “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, 14 ,and two boys, 10 and 7 years old.
In the Hagadera camp I met Ardo, a pastoralist; she had never known a permanent home, used a power shower or a dishwasher, she bathed in wells “sometimes” and lived a simple life. “I had very long hair, down to my waist. They used to tie my hair around my throat to strangle me and then, while the hair was tied like this, they would rape me.” “They” are Ethiopian soldiers, carrying out the orders of the government.
May I ask something now, said Ardo: “Why are the British and Americans supporting the government? Why don’t they stop the violence? Why do they say nothing?”
On my last day a defected former officer from the Liyuu police agreed to talk to me. Forcibly recruited when he was 30, he was in the force for five years before the horror of what he was doing became too much for his humane sensibilities. Trained to rape and kill, and to “break a virgin”, a brutal process involving 15-18-year-old girls who have been falsely imprisoned. He told of violent abuses constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity that shocked and appalled.
How to speak to a man who has just told you he and his “men” dismembered teenage girls, buried others alive, hanged boys, murdered village elders and incessantly raped? He seemed to be in a permanent state of shock, staring out from a dark place onto a world of his own making.
The Ethiopian government denies any abuse is taking place in the Ogaden region.
It was pouring with rain as we landed in Nairobi: I walked to my hotel, ate, began writing and wondered at our fractured world and man’s continual inhumanity to man.