Ethiopia Turns to Civilian Patrols
- New York Times | December 14, 2007
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
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.
Fighters of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (Vanessa Vick for The New
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
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 current 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 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,” Mr. Holmes7 said.
“But there is a lot of concern the Ogaden could become a serious
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 that 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 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.”
Vanessa Vick for The New York Times/ Rebel fighters from the Ogaden National
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 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 extremes 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
than 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 contended they could
not comment publicly for fear of provoking the ire of the Ethiopian
government, resulting in a possible suspension of humanitarian efforts in
“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 prized intelligence to oust an Islamic movement that had
controlled much of Somalia.
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
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
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 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.
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.
“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 was trying to starve them out and the
blockade had been like a noose on some parts of the region, cutting off food
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 has 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
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
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 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 Ethiopian victims had been student leaders in their
country, and the Kenyan police said some of them had previously asked for
Kenyan police commander Joseph Maina Migwi said he could not say whether
Ethiopian security agents were involved.
“But whoever did it,” he said, “were definitely paid professionals.”