Ethiopians Said to Push Civilians Into Rebel War
Vanessa Vick for The New York Times
The Ethiopian military sealed off parts of the Ogaden region. More Photos
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Vanessa Vick for The New York Times
The Ogaden National Liberation Front rebels use solar panels, radios and satellite phones to communicate with other rebels in the Ogaden. More Photos »
NAIROBI, Kenya — The Ethiopian government, one of America’s top allies in Africa, is forcing untrained civilians — including doctors, teachers, office clerks and employees of development programs financed by the World Bank and United Nations — to fight rebels in the desolate Ogaden region, according to Western officials, refugees and Ethiopian administrators who recently defected to avoid being conscripted.
Ethiopia has been struggling with the rebels for years. But with tens of thousands of its troops now enmeshed in a bloody insurgency in Somalia and many thousands more massing on the border for a possible war with Eritrea, the government seems to be relying on civilians to do more of its fighting in the Ogaden, a bone-dry chunk of territory where Ethiopian troops have been accused by human rights groups of widespread abuses.
In a recent report, government officials in the region called upon elders, traders, women and civil servants to form local “security committees” and mobilize their clans to destroy the rebels and their bases of support. The government says that the rebels are terrorists who have carried out assassinations and bombings, and that civilians have volunteered to fight them.
But by many accounts, the militias are hardly voluntary. One Western aid official said soldiers had barged into hospitals to draft recruits and threatened to jail health workers if they did not comply. In other cases, lists of names were posted on public bulletin boards, ordering government employees to report for duty, according to a member of the regional Parliament and two Ethiopian administrators who have fled the country. Many of those who refused were fired, jailed and in some cases tortured, the administrators and the Parliament member said.
The civilians are serving as guides, porters, translators and foot soldiers, and they are sent into the bush with little or no training to confront hardened guerrilla fighters. In the ensuing battles, many civil servants have recently been killed, according to accounts corroborated by Western officials and aid workers.
“Anybody who works for the government — teachers, doctors, clerks, administrators — has to join a militia,” said Hassan Abdi Hees, who worked as the head accountant in a government office in the Ogaden and is now seeking asylum in Kenya. “I left because I didn’t want to die.”
Several Western officials say they are alarmed about this new strategy, especially when the first signs may be emerging of a humanitarian crisis that aid officials predicted over the summer.
Earlier this year, the Ethiopian military sealed off large swaths of the Ogaden to choke off support for the rebels, preventing much of the commercial traffic and emergency food aid from entering. Western aid officials warned this could cause a famine.
The military has since relaxed some restrictions, but a survey by the aid group Save the Children U.K. found that child malnutrition rates in some areas have soared past emergency thresholds and are now higher than in Darfur or Somalia, widely considered the two most pressing crises in Africa.
In late November, John Holmes, the most senior humanitarian official at the United Nations, came to the Ogaden to assess the situation. While there, he said, he heard reports of civilian militias being formed, and observed that it was increasingly difficult to find health workers, livestock workers and trained professionals to distribute much-needed aid in the region, which now faces a drought.
“There is not a catastrophe there, for the moment,” he said. “But there is a lot of concern the Ogaden could become a serious humanitarian crisis.”
Ethiopian officials deny this.
“Many media and international organizations have been exaggerating the problems,” said Nur Abdi Mohammed, a government spokesman. “There is no food aid problem. There is no malnutrition problem.”
As for militias, Mr. Mohammed said, “What is happening is that the local tribes are forming to fight against the O.N.L.F.,” the Ogaden National Liberation Front, the main rebel group in the area.
“The people want to protect their livelihood,” Mr. Mohammed added.
According to the recent government report, which was published by regional authorities, rank-and-file civil servants are not the only ones called upon to fight the rebels. It also lists several employees who work for programs financed by international donors.
They included a pastoralist development project that receives millions of dollars from the World Bank and the Ethiopian government’s AIDS prevention office, which is supported, in part, by the United Nations and The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. A second government document ordering civil servants to report for duty lists 10 employees from an AIDS office.
One government official said that his entire department, including white-collar professionals, clerks, watchmen and drivers, had been forced to go on reconnaissance patrols to hunt down the rebels. The official, who feared government reprisals if he were identified, said the militia duty interrupted humanitarian programs supported by the United Nations, and that several colleagues were killed while on patrol.
“We don’t know how to operate guns, but the government sent us to the front lines,” the official said.
Other civilians who served in the militias said they were not given camouflage, and even had to buy their own rifles.
“It’s terrifying,” said Ali Mahamoud, a Koranic teacher who said he was yanked out of Arabic class a few months ago and was assigned to a militia. “You can’t see the rebels when they’re shooting at you. And the Ethiopians will kill you if you try to run.”
The rebels said the civilians were easy targets.
“They don’t know the bush,” said Daous, a commander for the Ogaden National Liberation Front.
Some of the region’s best-trained professionals have chosen to flee, including Sadik Mohammed Hajinur, a Sudanese-trained doctor who used to work at a rural hospital. He said that Ethiopian soldiers had demanded that he recruit militia members from his clan and that when he refused, they beat him with rifle butts.
“I faced so many problems from the army,” said Dr. Sadik, who is now seeking asylum in Sweden.
Dr. Sadik and other refugees described the militia program as another example of the lengths to which the Ethiopian government will go to control the Ogaden region, which lies on the border of Somalia and is home to mostly ethnic Somalis, who speak a different language and have a different culture from the highland Ethiopians who rule the country.
Several United Nations officials and Western diplomats said they were discussing the militia program in private meetings, but said they could not comment publicly for fear of provoking the ire of the Ethiopian government, resulting in a possible suspension of humanitarian efforts in the region.
“We are walking a very thin line, and we need to concentrate on saving lives right now,” a United Nations official said.
Ethiopian authorities have already expelled the Red Cross from the Ogaden, accusing aid workers of being spies.
The Bush administration considers Ethiopia its No. 1 ally in combating terrorism in the Horn of Africa, and the American government provides it with roughly $500 million in annual aid. Last winter, American commanders gave Ethiopia crucial intelligence to oust an Islamist movement that had controlled much of Somalia.
But Human Rights Watch says it has documented dozens of cases of severe abuse by Ethiopian troops in the Ogaden, including gang rapes, burned villages and what it calls “demonstration killings,” like hangings and beheadings, meant to terrorize the population.
“This is a mini-Darfur,” said Steve Crawshaw, the United Nations advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.
The Ethiopian government’s response to such criticism is often one word: Eritrea. Ethiopian leaders have accused their tiny neighbor of arming insurgents in Somalia and the Ogaden. Eritrea denies this, but a United Nations report concluded that the country had indeed shipped planeloads of weapons into Somalia.
Ethiopia also blames Eritrea for failing to compromise on the border issue, which has led to a major military buildup on both sides.
As for human rights, Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, said at a recent news conference that “there have been no widespread human rights violations in the Ogaden, not only because we believe in the respect for human rights, but because we know how to fight the insurgency.”
But several soldiers who have recently defected said they had participated in brutal killings. Ahmed Mohammed, 24, said he was born in the Ogaden and had served two years in the national army. In August, he said, his platoon was blockading a road and caught a truck trying to sneak through. The soldiers dragged the driver out and Mr. Ahmed said he watched his commander saw off the driver’s head with a 10-inch hunting knife.
“We left the body by the road,” said Mr. Ahmed, who is now a refugee in Kenya. His account could not be independently verified, but was consistent with those of other soldiers who had defected.
Mr. Mohammed, the government spokesman, dismissed the story, saying: “There is not a single soldier who is abusing human rights. The Ethiopian military is very disciplined and would not abuse its own people.”
Recent refugees said the military had been trying to starve them out and the blockade was like a noose on some parts of the region, cutting off food supplies.
In October, Save the Children U.K. surveyed more than 600 Ogadeni children and found that 21 percent were acutely malnourished, compared with United Nations surveys that found malnutrition rates of 19 percent in an area of Somalia and 13 percent in Darfur, Sudan. The United Nations considers 15 percent the emergency threshold.
“We’ve crossed the line into a humanitarian crisis,” said one Western diplomat who asked not to be identified because he was afraid of reprisals from the government.
Western officials said the Ethiopian government had begun to respond by loosening the restrictions on commercial traffic and food and allowing the United Nations to open field offices in the Ogaden. “There have been positive developments in the last three weeks,” said Marc Rubin, emergency director for Unicef in Ethiopia.
But there is a lot of catching up to do. The amount of emergency food that the United Nations World Food Program has dispatched to the Ogaden this year is a fraction of what it was last year, 19,475 tons compared with 155,249 tons.
Several refugees said they had been reduced to eating grass.
Habsa Ghaffir, who arrived at a camp in Kenya four weeks ago, said that after Ethiopian troops burned her fields and shot her husband, her 4-year-old son starved to death.
“I remember him saying to me, ‘Mom, bring me food, Mom, bring me tea, Mom bring me water,’” Ms. Habsa said.
But she had none.
“It is like they are trying to wipe us out,” she said, nervously snapping twigs between her fingers as she spoke outside her hut. “Even here, we’re not safe.”
United Nations officials said Ethiopian intelligence agents had infiltrated Kenya, and on Nov. 2, there was a mysterious attack that only added to these fears.
According to the Kenyan police, masked men burst into an apartment building in a Nairobi slum and shot five Ethiopian refugees. Two died, along with a guard outside who was shot in the head.
Nothing was taken. Witnesses said the killers went straight to the Ethiopians’ room. The victims had been student leaders in Ethiopia, and the Kenyan police said some of them had previously asked for protection.
The Kenyan police commander, Joseph Maina Migwi, said he could not say whether Ethiopian security agents had been involved.
“But whoever did it,” he said, “were definitely paid professionals.”