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Hidden and isolated from the world the armed conflict raging in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia goes unnoticed. The killing and raping of innocent civilians at the hands of the military and their paramilitary partners in crime the Liyu police, the false arrests, torture and imprisonment remain largely hidden and unreported. The international media, human rights groups and most aid organisations (including the International Red Cross) have been banned from the region by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) since 2007.
Testimonies of extreme abuse and mistreatment reported by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and diaspora agencies have come mainly from refugees who have found their way to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) administered Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya, where hundreds of men, women and children have sought safety. “I was arrested without charge in 2010 and imprisoned for two years in a military barracks, when in prison I was repeatedly beaten,” relayed Noor Sayat, a 40-year old former local government worker. Omar Abdi told me how his wife and son together with his brother had been murdered in cold blood by the military, and how he “was imprisoned for one year and two months.”
During which time he “was tortured every night…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 then 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 and then submerge me in the river, then beat me.” Women tell of being subjected to gang rapes in prison: “I was raped by groups of soldiers,” 27-year old Raho told me. “It used to happen around midnight. I can only remember the first three men who raped me. They would take me out and leave the baby in the room with the other women, and bring me back in the early morning… the soldiers would come every night about midnight to take some of the women out for raping.” Raho was imprisoned for two years, the first eight months of which she was pregnant. She was raped throughout with the exception of the “40 days when I gave birth and had my new born baby.” She was released after complaining of abdominal pains caused, she believes, by the relentless sexual abuse.
For many community leaders the persecution continues inside Dadaab, with life-threatening telephone calls and text messages made by members of Ethiopia’s secret service, military and Liyu police. Ogaden Online relays that “the names, family history and even the pictures of Ogaden leaders [now living in] the Kenyan refugee camps,” have been collected by Ethiopian intelligence. The plan is “to hunt, kill, maim, or intimidate” members of the Ogaden diaspora, “especially in the Kenyan refugee camps and those present in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.” The men who make up such so-called security services, in Ethiopia and elsewhere, live in a dark and ugly world; Ethiopia is besieged by social and economic problems and yet the government, shrouded in paranoia and hatred, spends its time and scant resources persecuting those seeking sanctuary.
The many claims of rape, false arrest, torture and execution of civilians by military personnel and Liyu police officers were confirmed by the statement of a former Liyu commander I spoke to in Dadaab. He told shocking stories of mutilation, murder, burying people alive, rape and systematic destruction of property. The Ethiopian government, he said, “wants to colonise the people and get rid of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF); the main target is the oil.” The Ogaden is reported to be rich in oil and natural gas; the promise of buried treasures may explain the West’s acceptance of wide-ranging human rights abuses being committed by the Ethiopian government – not just in the Ogaden, but throughout the country.
The struggle for self-determination for the region has been waged by the ONLF since its formation in 1984. The freedom fighters, or ‘dangerous terrorists’ if one accepts the government’s rhetoric, where voted into office in 1992 in regional elections. They “won 60% of seats… and formed the new [regional] government” [Human Rights Watch (HRW)] reported. Two years later they called for a referendum on self-determination. The EPRDF government’s reaction 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; instigate mass arrests and carry out indiscriminate killings. These brutal acts ignited the current struggle and drove the ONLF into the shadows.
ONLF Peace Negotiators Abducted
In January this year, peace talks planned to take place in Nairobi were sabotaged when two key ONLF negotiators were kidnapped. “Press reports from Kenya indicate that two members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) were abducted on 27 January 2014 outside a restaurant in Nairobi… ONLF officials stated the two persons were ONLF central committee members invited by Kenyan officials to participate in peace negotiations with Ethiopian government officials. ONLF officials further alleged that security agencies from Ethiopia and Kenya were involved in the abduction of the two ONLF negotiators.” [David Shinn former US ambassador to Ethiopia] The ONLF claim that, “a source inside Ethiopia [has] informed the ONLF that the two abducted ONLF officers were seen in a military hospital undergoing treatment for extensive wounds caused by torture.” They go on to relay how Sulub Abdi Ahmed and Ali Ahmed Hussein – “senior negotiators for the ONLF in the talks being brokered by the Kenyan government – resisted torture and the accompanying pressure to sign (under duress) a “fictitious peace agreement”. The men had participated in the second round of talks between the Ethiopian Government and ONLF last year and were in Nairobi for the planned third round of talks.
It’s hard to see how peace talks worthy of the name can be entered into whilst one of the parties is committing abductions and assassinations, and wide-ranging atrocities in the disputed region. A reasonable and I would say essential condition of any talks is the cessation of violence by both the Ethiopian military/paramilitary and the armed wing of the ONLF.
The Kenyan police force is notoriously corrupt, two of its officers were arrested for their involvement in the kidnapping, both, “have pleaded not guilty to kidnapping two Ethiopian rebels in the capital, Nairobi. Painito Bera Ng’ang’ai and James Ngaparini are alleged to have driven to the Ethiopian border and handed them [ONLF negotiators] over to Ethiopian officials.” [BBC] The kidnapping is the latest in a long line of similar incidents; the ONLF report that in “1998, the Ethiopian Army killed three members of an ONLF delegation team and abducted two members participating in bilateral negotiations with the Ethiopian government inside the Ogaden.” They go on to state that, “two years ago, the Ethiopia government assassins killed another senior leader in Nairobi.”
Talks ‘stalled’ in September 2012 when the Ethiopian team (contrary to the unconditional basis agreed for the talks by both sides that, “no preconditions shall be made to negate the inherent character and purpose of the peace negotiations”) demanded that the ONLF representatives acknowledged the Ethiopian constitution, a broadly liberal document written by the EPRDF in 1992 and largely ignored by them ever since. In its articles the Somali (or Ogaden) region is classified as a State of Ethiopia, a contentious statement implying sovereignty over the area, which the ONLF where not prepared to endorse. In a statement they made clear their position, stating that the constitution, “must reflect the will of the people and that the Somali people never exercised a referendum on the constitution.” They went on to say that, “the solution to the conflict in the Ogaden can only be achieved by accepting the principles of the [people’s] right to exercise their self-determination without any preconditions or restrictions.”
Unsurprisingly the Ethiopian government have denied any abduction took place: “the two abductees came willingly, and are kept somewhere inside Ethiopia while negotiating with the Ethiopian government, and will soon speak on Ethiopian TV.” This absurd statement was followed by another, this time from Shimelis Kemal the Minister of Government Communications Affairs Office, who claimed to have “no information about the alleged kidnapping of Ogaden officials in Nairobi”. Followed fictitiously by Dina Mufti (Foreign Ministry), who told VOA Amharic “that his government was not aware of the whereabouts of those men or any abduction.” The two men remain detained in an undisclosed location inside Ethiopia. Let us hope they are safe and that they are swiftly released.
The human rights violations, many of which constitute crimes against humanity, taking place inside the Ogaden region are but the most acute examples of widespread government violence, abuse and suppression being meted out throughout the country. Genocide Watch “considers Ethiopia to have already reached Stage 7 [of 8], genocidal massacres, against many of its peoples, including the Anuak, Ogadeni, Oromo, and Omo tribes.” Ethiopia rarely attracts the attention of the international media and their western donors are content, it seems, to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the cries of the people, happy that their ally in what is one of the most volatile regions of the world is on the face of it stable. It is a stability however brought about through fear, security forces personnel – police, military and secret service men – instilling fear of imprisonment, torture and death, amongst the people.
Political dissent is not tolerated, freedom of assembly all but criminalised, and intimidation to garner support for the ruling party is government policy. Membership of the EPRDF brings with it work permits, a range of essential aid from food to fertiliser, a home, university places, government jobs, business opportunities such as opening a shop, a hairdressing salon or driving a taxi – only possible if you are an EPRDF card carrying devotee, one prepared to hang a photograph of their cherished leader, former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, in your Lada. Economic growth is said to be racing along at 8% per annum; however, the beneficiaries of any development dividend are those within the cosy government clique, and given that deceit and duplicity are government policy, there is considerable doubt as to the reliability of the growth claims. “It is not clear how factual Ethiopia’s economic data are. Life is intolerably expensive for Ethiopians in Addis Ababa, the capital, and its outlying towns. Some think Ethiopia’s inflation figures are fiddled” [The Economist].
Why, I was repeatedly asked by refugees from the Ogaden, “does Britain support the EPRDF regime”, why is the Department for International Development (DFID) funding the Liyu police, why do they not act for us – good question. The people of the Ogaden are suffering wide-ranging atrocities and throughout the country human rights are violated, the people are suppressed and fearful, all of which donor nations such as Britain and America are well aware. All pressure should be applied to the EPRDF regime to observe human rights, dismantle draconian laws like the internationally condemned Anti-Terrorist Proclamation and Charities and Societies Proclamation; desist from military action and withdraw troops from the Ogaden, open up the region to the international media and human rights groups and enter into substantive peace talks with the ONLF.
As witnessed in many parts of the world when the people unite change ensues, governments fall. The people of Ethiopia, in the Ogaden, Oromo, Amhara, Gambella and elsewhere, need to stand together and peacefully demand their right to freedom, to justice and to peace.