By Paul Salopek
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published July 9, 2007
JIJIGA, Ethiopia -- The gray-faced young man lying in bed number 15 of the run-down local hospital wasn't much of a talker. In truth, few people are these days in Jijiga, a desert town whose tense streets are patrolled by swarms of Ethiopian police.
But Nur Omar Ali, 25, whose neck was patched with dingy bandages, had a particularly good reason for being silent. His throat had been cut. He'd been attacked and left for dead nine days earlier at his remote village. When he was asked to identify his assailants, the camel herder's eyes shined with hate.
Christians," rasped Nur, clamping a hand to his stitched-up neck. "Ethiopian soldiers."
Then, scowling, he rolled over and turned his back on his hospital visitors. After all, one was a reporter from the United States, a nation closely allied with the Ethiopian government that is conducting a fierce anti-insurgency campaign in the Ogaden Desert -- a civil war in Ethiopia's impoverished Muslim east that appears to be worsening thanks, at least in part, to the global confrontation between the U.S. and Islamic radicalism.
Human-rights groups and media reports accuse Ethiopia -- a key partner in Washington's battle against terrorism in the volatile Horn of Africa -- of burning villages, pushing nomads off their lands and choking off food supplies in a harsh new campaign of collective punishment against a restive ethnic Somali population in the Ogaden, a vast wilderness of rocks and thorns bordering chaotic Somalia.
Ethiopia angrily denies the charges, which it blames on propaganda spread by the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front.
"We don't see any basic violations of human rights," said Bereket Simon, an adviser to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. "Abusing the people doesn't make sense. You abuse people and they look to the subversives. It's counterproductive."
Yet in Jijiga, the only town in the embattled region still open to journalists, residents told of the secret arrests of prominent ethnic Somali businessmen with purported links to the rebels -- hotel owners, construction contractors and traders in qat, the intoxicating plant chewed by millions in the region.
One man in that raw frontier outpost described walking eight days through the bush to escape a war-ruined zone called Fik, where he claimed he saw torched and depopulated villages. And a displaced camel herder told how his village close to the Somalia border had been emptied by the Ethiopian army and its residents trucked to garrison towns such as Shilabo, a counterinsurgency tactic once used by the U.S. in Vietnam, and meant to deprive the rebels of their civilian support base.
"They loaded people into trucks and just abandoned them there," said Farah, 60, who like most people in Jijiga refused to give his full name for fear of police reprisal. "They treated us like animals."
'People are actually starving'
Mostly, though, the whispered talk was about hunger.
The Ethiopian army has locked down immense swaths of the Ogaden, blocking all roads and smuggling trails to commercial traffic, and thus triggering desperate food shortages in a desert already prone to famines. A teacher from the central Ogaden town of Kebredehar said most shops in that area had closed for lack of stocks. The prices of remaining foodstuffs such as rice, he said, had rocketed 400 percent -- far out of reach of ordinary Ogadenis.
"We're forbidden to talk about it, but there is a big problem," said a worker with the Ethiopian Red Cross. "It's not just hunger anymore. People are actually starving."
Humanitarian groups met Friday with the Ethiopian military to appeal for reopening the roads, several aid workers in Jijiga said. The army agreed -- hinting that the current crackdown on the troubled region may be winding down, possibly due to the start of the rainy season.
Nobody, however, expects the lull in fighting to last. Indeed, most people expect the killing to accelerate.
Ogaden has been bloodstained by more than a century of Ethiopian conquest, revolts against European colonial rule, Cold War proxy battles and abortive independence movements. The current cycle of violence began early this year, soon after Ethiopia decided to invade neighboring Somalia to topple an emerging Islamist regime -- with the blessings of the U.S.
As in Afghanistan and Iraq, that blow against a perceived terrorist threat yielded unexpected fallout.
In the case of Christian-dominated Ethiopia, it helped reignite the quiescent rebel movement in the Muslim hinterland of the Ogaden, experts say.
Emboldened by Ogadeni sympathy for their co-religionists across the Somalia border, and taking advantage of the Ethiopian army's preoccupation with taming Mogadishu, the ONLF rebels began successfully attacking towns.
The insurgents have long accused the "colonial" Ethiopian military of mass rapes and summary executions in the isolated villages of the Ogaden. But the rebels have come under some scrutiny too. Recent grenade attacks blamed on ONLF sympathizers killed a handful of civilians in Jijiga. And a devastating rebel assault on a Chinese-run gas and oil exploration project in the Ogaden in April left 74 dead, many of them unarmed workers.
'I played dead for two hours'
"They came and ordered us out of our tents, then lined us up and shot us," said Eskedar Demissw, 27, a driver at the oil camp and the only survivor from his team of 12 laborers. "It took five minutes. I was shot three times in the back. I played dead for two hours."
The ONLF claims that the oil workers were gunned down by confused Ethiopian army guards.
"What the Ethiopian regime is doing in the Ogaden is a catastrophe," said Qamaan Hersi, a rebel spokesman. "As far as the U.S. is concerned, what better way is there to create [Islamic] extremism than to oppress people the way the Ethiopians are?"
In fact, Ethiopia's crackdown in the Ogaden has put the U.S. in an awkward position. Washington is still resisting Ethiopia's request to list the ONLF as a terrorist group. And last week, the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa convened a large meeting of humanitarian organizations to discuss ways of getting aid into the war zone.
American civil affairs soldiers once built schools and drilled water wells around Jijiga. In the Ogaden, all those hearts-and-minds programs are on hold.
"I'm not sure the Americans would be very welcome anymore," said Kassahun Gebregioris, an independent human-rights worker in Jijiga. "The Ogadeni clans associate them too much with the Ethiopians. And they don't forget."
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