Under Darkness in the Somali Region of Ethiopia


No matter how tightly truth is tied down, confined and suffocated, she slowly escapes. Seeping out through cracks and openings large and small, illuminating all, revealing the grime and shame, that cowers in the shadows.

The arid Somali (or Ogaden) region of Ethiopia, home to some 5 million ethnic Somalis has been isolated from the world since 2005, when the government imposed a ban on all international media and most humanitarian groups from operating in the area. Human Rights Watch (HRW), report that the government, “has tried to stem the flow of information from the region. Some foreign journalists who have attempted to conduct independent investigations have been arrested and residents and witnesses have been threatened and detained in order to prevent them from speaking out“. Aid workers with the United Nations (UN), Medecines Sans Frontiers (MSF) and the International Committee of The Red Cross, plus journalists from a range of western papers, including The New York Times have all had staff expelled and/or detained, by the Ethiopian regime, which speaks of democracy yet does act not in accordance with its own liberal constitution and consistently violates international law, with total impunity.

Under the cover of media darkness together with donor country indifference, the Ethiopian government according to a host of human rights organisations, is committing wide-ranging human rights abuses that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Serious accusations based on accounts relayed by refugees and interviews with Ogaden Somalis on the ground, thatgive, one fears, a hint only of the level of state criminality taking place in the troubled, largely ignored region. HRW, make clear the seriousness of the situation, stating that, “tens of thousands of ethnic Somali civilians living in eastern Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State are experiencing serious abuses… Ethiopian 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.”

The African Rights Monitor (ARM) in their detailed study, conservatively titled ‘Concerns Over the Ogaden Territory’, found, “that the Ethiopian government has systematically and repeatedly arbitrarily detained, tortured and inhumanly degraded the Ogaden people.” Women and children they report, “are raped, sexually assaulted, and killed”. The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) they found, “systematically attacks the women and children as they are the weakest in a civil society” and are unable to defend themselves. Documenting a series of specific cases of violence, HRW (28/05/2012) report, “an Ethiopian government-backed paramilitary force [the Liyuu Police] summarily executed 10 men during a March 2012 operation”, HRW “interviewed witnesses and relatives of the victims who described witnessing at least 10 summary executions…. The actual number may be higher.” Such accounts as these clearly warrant investigation by independent agencies, and yet they are resolutely ignored. Supporters of the regime know well what is occurring throughout the Ogaden, and yet they remain silent. America – the single biggest donor to the country, with military bases inside Ethiopia from where their deadly drones are launched into Somalia and Yemen – and Britain are close allies – of the Ethiopian government it seems, but not of the Ethiopian people it seems.

A Regime of Abuse

Page after page could be filled with detailed accounts of abuse from refugees who have fled the region, human rights groups and members of the Ogaden diaspora. Atrocities meted out to innocent civilians suspected of supporting the ONLF, which Genocide Watch (GW) find, amount to “war crimes and crimes against humanity”. Beaten to death, hanged from a tree, tied with wire and held over burning chilies, raped, repeatedly and falsely imprisoned; brutal, unjustifiable acts, justified by the government as part of a ‘counter insurgency operation’, against the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), predictably branded terrorists.

Documented reports of human rights violations amounting to state terrorism are dismissed by the EPRDF government, a regime with a notoriously dismal human rights record – who suggest that such accounts are reports of military personnel simply carrying out their duty to safeguard the Ethiopian people by routing out terrorist gangs. A scripted rhetoric of righteousness drafted in Washington after 9/11, translated worldwide distorted and espoused by totalitarian governments East and West, North and South to legitimise methods of control and acts of aggression.

Given the media restrictions, we cannot vouchsafe the governments view, but “if the Ethiopian government doesn’t have anything to hide, why don’t they allow independent investigators and journalists into the region”, Leslie Lefkow, HRW deputy director of Africa, poses the question on the tip of our tongues that cannot be asked too often. There is, she says with understatement, “ a lot of concern about the human rights situation on the Ogaden”. GW are more blunt, claiming unequivocally that Ethiopia is committing genocide in the Somali region, as well as to the “Anuak, Oromo and Omo” ethnic groups (or tribes). And they call on the EPRDF regime to “cease all attacks on the Ogaden Somali” people and “immediately release all prisoners”, urging them to “adhere to it’s own constitution and allow its provinces the legal autonomy they are guaranteed.”

A Captains Story

In 2005, delivery of the Ethiopian government’s violent policy of suppression in the Ogaden shifted from the Military to the newly-formed paramilitary group, the Liyuu Police. Not a recognisable police force at all, as Faysal Mohamoud Abdi Wali a defected 38-year-old former Captain in the Intelligence unit of the Liyuu makes clear, but “an extension of the military”, which operates under a cloak of impunity, lacking all accountability. Faysal Mohammoud served in the Liyuu from its inception eight years ago, when it was called the ‘Liyuu Xayi’ until he defected in 2012. His testimony is of particular interest, especially given the media ban.

The former Liyuu officer from regiment nine “stationed in the Duhun districy”, was interviewd by Swedish journalists, Amnesty International and myself. He related how young men are forced to join the force and arrested should they refuse. Confirming findings by HRW that forced recruitment takes place amongst tribal groups, who are ordered Faysal says tribal elders are ordered “to bring at least 80 fighters for every single tribe. If any of these [recruited fighters] escaped from the Militia they seek and capture [them, the truant is] then forced to kill one of his relatives or kinship”.

He recounts mass killing, in “Hamaro, Sagag, and Dhuhun of Fiq provinces”, where he says “large number of civilians accused of being ONLF sympathizers” where massacred. “These people are mostly killed by hanging from trees and girls are gang-raped and then murdered.” He goes on to say “the youth in Dhuhun, the young men and the young women in Hamaro, the young men slaughtered in Degeh-bur and teens summarily executed [in] Denan and Dakhato”. Extra judicial executions, intimidation and “forceful methods; strangling and rape of females aged 15 – 25,” are used as weapons of terror, “based on the advice we received from the regional president Abdi Mohamud Omar who said ‘indoctrinate the women with the male phallus and the men with guns’. Omar was largely responsible for the creation of the Liyuu, which evolved out of the Ethiopian army, and was embraced by the former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

The Captain states he was an “eye-witness for unaccountable massacres” by Liyuu Police who, after killing villagers “burned the entire village to the ground”. They forcefully remove them [villagers] from the land and slaughter their livestock. In remote villages, they sometimes massacre them all. For example, they forcefully removed many villagers from Gudhis, massacring 125 members from that village and burned the village, in 2007.”

Soldiers are rewarded he says, for killing civilians, for the “good job they have done”. Nomads who have the misfortune to see the Liyuu on operations, are killed, “in order to make sure that their information is not received by the ONLF rebels“. Summary executions, he reports are commonplace, as “in Dakhato in June 2010… {Where] 43 nomads were killed”. Faysal Mohammedd estimates the number of civilians murdered by the Liyuu since 2005 “to be in excess of 30, 000 people”.

Urgent Action Required

The Somali region, poor and desolate, is potentially the richest part of Ethiopia. Natural Gas and oil have been discovered to be lying under the harsh surface and various contracts for exploration have been granted to international companies, (without consultation with local, indigenous people, needless to say). The current round of violence is to many people linked to the discovery of these natural treasures: GW relay how, “immediately after oil and gas were discovered in the Ogaden, Ethiopian government forces evicted large numbers of Ogaden Somalis from their ancestral grazing lands”. According to Faysal Mohamoud the federal government “has strategic economic and land acquisition aim in the Ogaden region, intended to exploit the natural resources of the region.” These are strategic aims that they are seeking to realise through the silencing of the indigenous local people.

Whilst some numbers, dates and locations from these and other accounts may be debated, the weight of claims of human rights violations and state criminality, is, it would appear beyond dispute – to the extent that GW have, “called upon the United Nations Security Council to refer the situation in Ethiopia to the International Criminal Court”. This required measure together with a range of others (including; the immediate release of all so called political prisoners, the correct distribution of all humanitarian aid to the needy, journalists granted open and unrestricted access, and a thorough investigation by independent observers) would be the right and proper course of action in the region. Action that should be undertaken, at the insistence of Ethiopia’s main donors – America, Britain and the European Union and with all due urgency.

Graham Peebles is director of the Create Trust. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org

Graham Peebles is director of the Create Trust. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org

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