It was early one morning in July when 400 Ethiopian soldiers came to Ridwan Hassan Zahid's village of Qorile, 120 miles southeast of Degehebur, Ethiopia, a dusty market town. The small settlement of ethnic Somalis in eastern Ethiopia was suspected of supporting separatist rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), and the government troops were out to exact revenge. They took Zahid, another woman, and eight men to the nearby village of Babase, where, she says, the soldiers chased away residents and burned the village to the ground. "I became like plastic," she says. "I couldn't feel a thing."
On the third day after her capture, the soldiers divided the prisoners into groups. As the other captives looked on, soldiers hung one man from one of the parched region's few trees; another was taken out of sight. Soon it was Zahid's turn. A small group of soldiers dug a hole in the sandy ground. They forced her into it and pinned her down by pressing the barrel of an AK-47 to her throat. As she tried to choke out the words to a final Muslim prayer, she heard two other captives screaming for mercy nearby as a noose was slipped over her head. Two soldiers jerked up on the rope, lifting her out of the hole by her neck, and she lost consciousness.
In Ethiopia's Somali region, a long-simmering rebellion by the ONLF, a separatist group seeking an independent state for Ethiopia's Somalis, is boiling over. Rebels, taking advantage of chaos in neighboring Somalia, attacked a Chinese-run oil exploration site in April, killing 74 people and triggering a massive crackdown by Ethiopia's ethnic-Tigray-dominated government. Government forces have since burned villages, blocked trade routes and carried out summary executions in an effort to quell the rebellion. Nine months later Ethiopia's government appears to have gained the upper hand, but only by essentially declaring war on virtually the entire Ogadeni clan of Somalis—a group that makes up the about half of the region's 4.5 million people.
Hundreds of civilians have died in the fighting (the ONLF estimates 2,000 killed by the government in the past year, though one independent estimate suggests the figure is less than half that), and 1.8 million more may be at risk, as an Ethiopian blockade has cut off commercial food shipments from neighboring Somalia and prevented the region's nomadic people from selling their livestock. Ogadeni clan elders who have tracked the fighting say people from more than 250 villages have been forced to flee the violence.
Amid a sea of crises in neighboring Sudan, Somalia, and Kenya, the plight of Ethiopia's vast Somali region—an area twice the size of England with just 30 miles of paved highway—has been largely ignored in the West. After barring the foreign press from the region for months, the Ethiopian government recently took NEWSWEEK and a group of other foreign reporters on a tightly controlled tour of parts of the region. Amid scenes of malnourished children and whispered stories of government atrocities, the defining impression was of a population gripped by fear.
One 30-year-old man selling clothes in the marketplace in Degehebur says he came to the dusty town five months ago after Ethiopian troops burned his village of Leby, 18 miles southwest of the town. Fifty civilians were killed, he says. "At the time I had a shop, a good house," he says, refusing to give his name out of fear of government reprisal. "We are in trouble. We are caught between the Ethiopian government and the ONLF … between two guns."