from the Ogaden National Liberation Front
Few places are more desolate than southern Ethiopia, where the barren plains suffer hunger and poverty even when the rains fall.
Yet one of Britain's closest African allies is waging a brutal military campaign in this bleak region, burning villages and forcing thousands to flee their homes.
Ethiopia, the recipient of £130 million of British aid this year, is fighting a virtually unknown guerilla war
on the borderlands with Somalia.
Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's prime minister, is determined to crush Somali rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). In April, they raided an oil installation, killing 74 people including nine Chinese workers.
The response by Mr Meles, who was handpicked by Tony Blair in 2004 to serve on Britain's Commission for Africa, was draconian.
Ethiopian troops have blockaded areas seen as rebel strongholds, halting the flow of goods and leaving some 600,000 people dependent on food aid to avoid starvation.
Soldiers have armed local militias to fight the ONLF, carrying out a divide-and-rule policy which could inflame the war. Moreover, the army has singled out civilians for collective punishment.
One 37-year-old woman, who was too fearful of government reprisals to be named, said the army had burned down her village of Fojdeh. "So many troops and trucks came and surrounded us. They said we have been giving food to the rebels. They made us move away from the village and then they burned down every hut," she said.
After being left homeless and destitute, the woman fled southwards to the ramshackle town of Gode, in the centre of the war zone, where she lives with her six children in a shack fashioned from brushwood and cardboard. She knows of three other villages near Fojdeh which suffered the same treatment in August.
To disguise the consequences of its campaign, the government has prevented the creation of refugee camps. Instead, scattered groups of people who have fled their villages live on patches of wasteground across Gode. Others have fled over the border into Somalia.
Not all are victims of the army. Many have been displaced by the ONLF, whose own brutality is unequalled. The rebels routinely burn the homes of anyone who fails to offer food or shelter.
Western diplomats acknowledge that Mr Meles had no choice but to deploy Ethiopia's army to crush the ONLF's challenge. But one diplomat in the capital, Addis Ababa, described the campaign as "counter-productive". Thanks to the army's "over-reaction", support for the ONLF had probably risen, he said.
The 4.5 million people of this region, popularly known as the Ogaden, are largely Muslim Somalis. Many accuse Ethiopia's ruling elite, drawn mainly from the country's Christian Highlands, of neglecting the Ogaden and keeping its people poor.
The rebels recruit most of their fighters from the Ogaden clan, who account for about half of the region's population. But the authorities are exploiting bitter clan rivalries and arming local militias to fight the ONLF.
A government official admitted that soldiers had supplied ammunition to militiamen recruited from non-Ogaden clans. "Many people hate the ONLF. They are the ones who have brought all this suffering down on us," he said.
Turning clan against clan and encouraging them to kill one another is fraught with risk. By choosing to "divide-and-rule", the authorities could escalate the war and stir more hatred.
Ethiopia will receive £130 million of British aid this year - more than any other African country. Critics say that Mr Meles is using his favoured position - and Ethiopia's standing as a key Western ally in the war on terrorism - to avoid any protest over his behaviour.
"Everyone is scrambling to protect their own interests and their relationship with the Ethiopian government who they are petrified not to offend," said Ken Menkhaus, an American expert on the Horn of Africa.
Aside from allowing the United Nations to assess the humanitarian situation, Ethiopia has tried to prevent outside observers from reaching the Ogaden. When the International Committee of the Red Cross voiced concern about the suffering, Ethiopia accused its staff of backing the ONLF and expelled them from Gode.
Privately, senior Ethiopian officials accuse western aid agencies of stirring up the fighting in order to raise money from donors.
Bereket Simon, the information minister, denied that Ethiopia's army had targeted civilians. "We have never compromised our principles and attacked civilians. We know that would only push them towards the fold of the terrorists. So why would we do it?" he said.
In Gode, the suffering is unmistakable and a deep fear of the government prevents anyone from speaking openly. "The people are going through great pain," said a local trader. "All we want is peace."