Ethiopia's 'own Darfur' as villagers flee government-backed violence
Early one June morning, in Kamuda, a village of 200 families in the remote Ogaden region in eastern Ethiopia, 180 soldiers announced their arrival by firing guns in the air.
The village, they said, had been providing food and shelter for the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a separatist rebel group . As the villagers froze in horror, the soldiers plucked out seven young women, all aged between 15 and 18, and left.
The following morning the youngest girl was found. Her body, bloodied and beaten, was hanging from a tree. The next day a second girl was found hanging from the same tree. A third suffered the same fate. The others were never seen again.
Shukri Abdullahi Mohammed, 48, a mother of seven children, lived in Kamuda. As she describes the fate of the seven girls – "the most beautiful girls in the village" – she tightens her headscarf around her neck to indicate the way they were killed. "I will not forget it," she says.
Days later, a 12-year-old boy from the same village was kidnapped by soldiers and gang-raped. Every night, soldiers would knock on doors looking for women to rape. "I did not want to wait until it happened to my family," said Mrs Mohammed. They left Kamuda and made their way across the porous border with Somalia, before travelling a further 300 miles by foot to the hot and humid port town of Bosasso.
About 100 Ethiopians are now arriving here every day. Their stories reveal the brutality of Ethiopia's hidden war, a brutal counter-insurgency that some aid officials believe has parallels with Darfur. Some estimates put the number of people displaced by the violence at 200,000 already.
According to accounts from refugees, Ethiopian troops are burning villages, raping women and killing civilians as part of a systematic campaign to drive them from their homes. They reported dozens of villages destroyed and accused the Ethiopian government of forcibly starving its own people by preventing food convoys reaching villages and destroying crops and livestock.
A former Ethiopian soldier who defected from the army said how he had been ordered to burn villages and kill all their inhabitants. He said the Ethiopian air force would bomb a village before a unit of ground troops followed, firing indiscriminately at civilians. "Men, women, children – we killed them all," he said.
"We were told we were fighting guerrillas – the ONLF," he said. "But we were killing farmers – they were not ONLF."
Those who managed to escape are living in a series of ramshackle refugee camps on the edge of Bosasso. Their shelters are made from pieces of cardboard and old rags, scraps of plastic sheeting and rusting corrugated iron.
Sat outside the shelters, on the grey expanse of dust and stone, voices overlap as refugees list the villages that have been destroyed. Kor u Celista, Gallaalshe, Fooldeex, Yoocaalle – places that were all once home to hundreds of families, now abandoned and empty, the huts burnt to the ground.
Abudllahi Shukri Mohammed, 30, a cattle herder from Dega Bur province tells how he was forced at gunpoint to work as a porter for a group of 300 soldiers. They took his 18 cows and made him and five other nomads carry heavy loads. After three long days marching through the Ogaden, Mr Mohammed tried to escape.
"They caught me and started beating me. They kicked me in the head and hit me with the back of their guns." With his right arm he motions the steady, repetitive smack of the guns against his body. His left arm lies limp on his lap. He has been unable to move it since the attack, his fingers fixed in an ugly formation.
"They beat me for two hours," he says, "then I fell unconscious. They thought I was dead so they left me."
Ethiopia claims it is defending itself against an insurgency launched by the ONLF in a region that has long been marginalised.
It claims villagers have been giving the fighters shelter and food. Analysts say Ethiopia has been attempting to reduce that support by emptying the countryside. Thousands have been moved to towns heavily controlled by the military. Anyone left in the villages is considered a possible ONLF supporter.
The Ethiopian military is not the only destructive force in the region. The ONLF launched its most daring assault in April. The group attacked a Chinese oil installation in Abole, killing nine Chinese and 65 Ethiopians.
It was that attack which sparked the fresh counter-insurgency – a fierce scorched-earth policy. In the Ogaden's main towns, Jijiga and Gode, the prisons are overflowing. "They are arresting anyone who they think might have a connection with the ONLF," says one human rights worker in Bosasso. "Some are being killed if the security forces don't believe they are telling the truth."
Human rights investigators are gathering evidence of widespread use of rape, with women reporting gang-rapes by up to a dozen soldiers. In some villages, men have been abducted at night, their bodies dumped in the village the next morning.
While in Darfur, aid agencies have been able to establish camps and provide humanitarian support, they have been blocked from setting up operations in the Ogaden. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been thrown out and Medicins Sans Frontieres has also been prevented from working. Journalists trying to enter have also been banned – those that have tried have been promptly arrested.
A UN team was allowed into the Ogaden last month to investigate allegations of abuse by Ethiopian troops. Its report was not made public but the team called for an independent inquiry.
But while Khartoum's counter-insurgency in Darfur has been described by the US as "genocide" and by the UN as "crimes against humanity", international condemnation of Ethiopia has, so far, been limited. Indeed, the US has given its backing to Ethiopia. America's top official on African affairs, assistant secretary of state, Jendayi Frazer, visited one town in the Ogaden last month.
On her return to Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, she criticised the rebels and said the reports of military abuses were merely allegations. "We urge any and every government to respect human rights and to try to avoid civilian casualties but that's difficult in dealing with an insurgency," she said.
America sees Ethiopia as its principal Horn of Africa ally in the "war on terror". The US gave tacit approval for Ethiopia's Christmas invasion of Somalia which ousted the Union of Islamic Courts.
It also provided logistical and technical support for the operation and continues to help co-ordinate a response to the insurgency in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, which seeks to destabilise the transitional government, propped up by Ethiopia.
The US provides some $283m (£140m) in military and humanitarian aid to Ethiopia and has trained its military – one of the largest and strongest in Africa.
The Ogaden has become the latest flashpoint in a broader conflict in the Horn of Africa. On one side is Ethiopia and the weak transitional government of Somalia, on the other is Eritrea and two insurgent groups, the ONLF and the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS).
From West's favourite leader to grave-digger of democracy
Sat between a beaming Tony Blair and Sir Bob Geldof, Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, could hardly have wished for a stronger endorsement. The launch of Mr Blair's Commission for Africa report in March 2005 in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, enhanced Mr Meles's position as the British Government's – and the West's – favourite African leader.
Handpicked by Mr Blair to sit on the commission, Mr Meles was viewed as the man to lead the "African renaissance". He was seen as a leader committed to development and democracy.
But within two months of the commission's report being published, Mr Meles's star began to fade. Huge street protests erupted in Addis Ababa in May 2005 following a general election which both the government and opposition claimed they had won. Security forces opened fire on protesters, killing 193 people, and thousands of opposition supporters and leaders were arrested.
More than 100 opposition leaders were put on trial for treason while the police crackdown intensified. Text messages, which had been used to organise the demonstrations in 2005, were banned. The next time Mr Meles and Mr Blair found themselves sat next to each other, at a summit in South Africa, the stiff body language and the lack of eye contact between the pair underlined the deterioration in the relationship.
Britain still gives Ethiopia £130m in humanitarian aid each year – more than any other African country. Like the US, Britain has tried to retain a relatively close relationship with Ethiopia – one of its few allies in a volatile Horn of Africa.