“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”. Along with 15 other female students, Human Rights Watch (HRW)[i] report in Collective Punishment, this innocent 17 year-old Ogaden Somali girl, was held captive for three months in a “dark hole in the ground” and raped 13 times. 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. Untold atrocities like this; past and present are awaiting investigation, amid what is a much-ignored, little known conflict in the Horn of Africa.
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 Organisations (NGO’s) allowed to stay do so on the condition that they sign a waiver document, agreeing not to report human rights violations by the government. Ethiopia, Leslie Lefkow of HRW[ii] states, “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 grass roots, 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 (OO) 1/12/2012 [iii] 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)[iv] 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, completely barbaric Liyu Police, who, Laetitia Bader of HRW[v] 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 terrorists. They in fact won 60% 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 re-located from their homes. The evacuated villages and settlements, emptied at gunpoint HRW (CP) record, “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, refugees report are hanged, villages and settlements razed to the ground and cattle stolen to feed soldiers: HRW record (CP), “water sources and wells have [also] been destroyed”. Systematic, strategic methods of violence and intimidation employed by the Ethiopian regime, that has, Genocide Watch (GW)[vi] state, “initiated a genocidal campaign against the Ogaden Somali population”.
Pervasive pernicious control
Spearheading the Governments campaign of terror in the region is the Liyu Police. A force of 10,000-14,000 18-20 year olds, with little or no knowledge of criminal law or human Rights, David Mepham UK Director of HRW told The Guardian 15/01/2013[vii], that “for years we have documented egregious human rights abuses committed by the Liyu police, including the March 2012 extra-judicial execution of 10 men in their custody and the killing of nine other villagers”. Established in 2005, to replace a discreditethe Liyu initiative was the brainchild of a group led by the current regional President, Abdi Md military, ohamoud 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, who are seeking self-determination for the five million ethnic Somali’s, in line with their constitutional rights under the governments Ethnic Federalism policy.
The EPRDF is a highly controlling repressive regime, which has extended its pervasive reach in the nine districts of the Ogaden, to where, HRW (CP) records, “security committees, which exist at every administrative level [and]… include members of the armed forces, military intelligence, security officials.” The local Ogaden administration “does nothing but carry out Ethiopian dictates and represents the interests of the present, centralised regime,” the Ogaden Women’s Relief Association (OWRA)[viii] record in their study, A Place to Call Home. Dictates’ of government brutality and intimidation regimentally carried out by the Ethiopian military apparatus, fully equipped by their principle donor, America, who GW recommend, should “immediately cease all military assistance”.
Terrifying tools of oppression and imprisonment
The current regime operates under the premiership of Hailemariam Desalegn, who, true to his inaugural word, is following in predecessor Meles Zenawi’s shoes – has expanded the EPRDF’s repertoire of violence and control and, in addition to the range of violent measures employed, is imposing additional economic pressures, intimidation and extortion the name of the game. It is widely reported that In the midst of the current dry (or Jilaal) season, new taxes are being levied on water drawn from wells for livestock and domestic use. Sums of up to $150 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 – OO (8/03/2013)[ix] carry the story that, “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 and he and his wife” received an arbitrary charge of “150 Ethiopian Birrs ($8) per individual regardless of age or gender”, a total of 1200 birr ($56) – far beyond his means.
Kidnapping, with subsequent ransom demands, is another applied tool of terror. Family members, abducted and imprisoned, are released upon receipt of ransom payments, made 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”; the McGill Report[x] found “in some cases those amounts were contributions to total collected ransoms of more than $10,000”. This criminal practice is widespread: civilians are arrested and imprisoned, without regard to due process, often repeatedly as Ifraah, a 25 year-old Ogaden Somali woman, told the OWRA: “To be released, you have to pay the Ethiopian military from 1,000 ($56) to 2,000 birr ($112). 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); the second time, I had to pay 1,000.” It’s a business in human suffering, “arrests also benefit the military; it’s a flourishing trade. Innocent people are captured and have to come up with a lot of money to free themselves.” This illegal income, it is widely believed, is being 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 indiscriminately accused of supporting the ONLF are detained without charge. Leslie Lefkow of HRW makes clear that, “the way the EPRDF targets people, is an enormous problem from a human rights point of view”. HRW have been monitoring the situation in the region for the past five years, and have seen and 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”, punishable by “summary executions… where suspected ONLF supporters have been executed in cold blood.”
Incarcerated in what are often makeshift prisons (e.g. deserted school buildings), prisoners held in appalling conditions, are tortured, abused and intimidated. Ina and Halima, two young women from the town of Saga, were, OO 21/01/2011 report, “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, Ifraah says, no food: “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”; or inmates share what little they have. Abdullahi, held amongst, others without trial for nine months, related to OWRA how their 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. “Little girls”, record OWRA, “13 to 15-year-olds, in prison and suddenly pregnant….at night you hear the girls screaming when soldiers take them from their cells” – their dignity and childhood stolen from them.
The government’s so-called counter-insurgency policy in the Ogaden is, in truth, a form of genocide and is regarded as such by GW. Is it ethnic hatred, fear and loathing of the ‘other’, or simply greed for the regions natural resources – the oil and natural gas that drives the government’s violent, multi-pronged approach? An approach that HRW (CP) makes clear, 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 (UNPO)[xi] state, “there is a shocking lack of international attention directed at the situation” and, despite the “substantial documentation of the violations committed…published by human rights NGOs, governments and media outlets”, nothing is being done.
Let us be clear and state, unequivocally the findings of Human Rights groups: that the Ethiopian military and paramilitary is committing wide-ranging Human Rights violations in the Ogaden, which constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. “The situation” should, as GW demand, be “referred by the UN Security Council to the International Criminal Court (ICC)”.
Such Human Rights violations are not confined to the Ogaden region. GW 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 dismiss allegations of human rights abuse substantiated by reports from international human rights group such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The Ogaden regional president claims, they “peddle lies and propaganda from our enemies”[xii]. However, if the Ethiopian government has nothing to hide, why don’t they 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 – America and sister donor nations, 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.