w w w . S o m a l i T a l k . c o m

Bullets Fly in a Forgotten Land Ogadenia Separatists fight Ethiopia - By Jonathan Alpeyrie

March 2007
ONLF rebellion.

Article by Jonathan Alpeyrie.

Ogadenia is a forgotten land wrecked by war and very harsh living conditions. The region, which is still today at the center of the volatile Horn of Africa, has seen little economic progress since its first taste of brief independence in the first Ogaden war of 1977/78. In 1991, the Meles government came into power. The region remains to this day a barren land with only two main roads a few large towns like Kabri Dahar, Jijiga and Quabribayah, which are controlled by government forces trying to tame the rebellion led by the ONLF (Ogaden National Liberation Front). However, to fully understand the war of today’s Ogadenia, one needs to go back further in history and take a look at the European influence in the region.

With the defeat of the Somali forces and Ogaden rebels in 1978 in the hands of the Russian backed Ethiopian army, Ogadenia was reconquered entirely. Many of the militia survivors retreated to fight another day. Three years later, the ONLF was created to continue the fighting to force the Ethiopian government into giving Ogadenia its long due independence. The ONLF, which was Founded in 1984 by Abdirahman Mahdi, the Chairman of the, Western Somali Liberation Movement Youth Union, systematically recruited their own kin and replaced WSLF in the Ogaden as the WSLF support from Somalia dwindled and finally dried up in the late eighties. By 1993, the ONLF fully consolidated its support among all of the Ogaden Somalis in Somalian territory under Ethiopian rule. In 1994, the ONLF was a fully functional military force and Chairman Admiral Mohammed Omar Osman was reelected for a second term in 2004.

The ONLF announced elections in December 1992 for the five Ogaden districts, and won 80% of the seats of the local parliament. When Ethiopia tried to force ONLF to accept a new constitution and the ONLF refused: the Meles government declared war on them. The rebel faction continues to operate in the Ogaden as of 2006 and is the target of full-scale military operations by the Ethiopian army after ONLF stated that it would not allow Malaysian oil company Petronas to extract oil from the Ogaden, let alone give them independence.

In 2005, Ethiopia proposed peace talks with ONLF, which the rebel group accepted on the condition that talks be held in a neutral country and with the presence of a neutral mediator from the international community. The talks broke down due to Ethiopia's insistence that the two parties meet without an arbitrator and held in countries closely allied in the Horn of Africa. ONLF became a part of the Alliance for freedom and democracy on May 21st 2006, fighting occurred alongside OLF and smaller rebel groups operating in the North like TPDM.

Again in 2006, the Meles government, with the full support of US and UK governments, has vowed to crush the ONLF rebellion once and for all, reinforcing the 15 thousand permanent men garrisoned in Ogadenia with a further: 25 thousand troops, jet fighters, armored cars and some helicopters. Between February and July 2006, the army tried to destroy the rebellion, but failed completely, losing thousands of troops in the process. The ONLF remained undefeated. Why did the government, with such an overwhelming force managed to fail in its plan? They didn’t face more than 5 to 7 thousand ONLF troops through out the region. The answer to this is complex. Above all the ONLF’s strong support base with the local civilian population is key. The systematic brutalization of Ogaden civilians, and the lack of military discipline and cohesion within government troops is another reason they weren’t defeated. Lastly, there were totally inadequate strategies and tactics employed against the rebels.
Indeed, the government has found itself in a sticky spot. Its 250 thousand men army is ill equipped to fight a war on many fronts: against the five active rebel groups operating within Ethiopia’s border, the perpetual tensions on the Eritrean border, and now the rise of Islam in Somalia. Furthermore, its ranks are racked with desertion, and lack of discipline due to the internal ethnic strife, which reigns from within its units.

Meles has given key positions to his own ethnic kin, the Tigray, both in the government, and in the army, making his policies unpopular among lesser Ethnic groups fighting alongside the Tigrays. The officer corps is overwhelmingly from Tigray “terroir”, leaving other ethnic groups less attractive positions within the army. Therefore, blocking any possibilities for them to go up the ladder, the officer corps often uses same ethnic groups to fight each other, pitting Oromos against Oromos, or Sidamas against Sidamas. The poorly led Oromo, Amhara soldier is sometimes forced to desert, finding it unbearable to kill his own kin. As a consequence, a non-negligible amount of government soldiers desert their unit to escape the grueling reality of the Ogaden front.

This is the case of Thomas Gin Ernest an ethnic Hadiyan from Southern Ethiopia, drafted by force into Meles’s army, who decided after serving for six years to desert with a few others to the ONLF. “During our walk to ONLF lines, half of our party changed their minds and returned to the military camp. They were shot for treason soon after” He says this happy to have made the right choice. When captured, Mr. Gin Ernest was given some money so he can go home to his family and be reunited. By treating the prisoners with respect and dignity, the rebels attract more allies to their cause.

More importantly, government forces have created their own monster by using terror tactics against the local population. The government’s military forces are known to use violence and killings against locals Ogadens. These procedures show how Meles’s forces underestimate their enemy. Soldiers will usually enter a village to look for potential ONLF rebels, helpers and sympathizers pick people randomly. In essence, Ogadens sympathize with the struggle and contribute to it, either by joining the fighting units, or supplying them with food, water, and guns, making them all traitors to an angry eye.

Also, many civilians have experienced repeated violence, either personally, or a relative. Alimo Ahment, a 24-year-old Ogaden woman, has a common story to tell. She joined up like so many before her, because her relatives were accused of helping the ONLF, her father was put to jail and tortured for three months These kinds of terror tactics has had the exact opposite results than those expected by the government: Thus, it has increased the number of Ogadens wanting to join up with the ONLF in ranks, and hatred against the government persists within the Ogaden population--creating an entire new generation of freedom fighters in the region.

The widespread tortures, imprisonment, and killings in the region, has seen thousands of students and locals put in jail. It is said that in the main town of Jijiga where 20 thousand souls reside, 10% are currently in military camps or local jails. Most of them are accused of helping the ONLF. Many are put in confinement without trial for a minimum of three months, which is the regular torture period, unless the prisoner is rich enough to pay a bribe. Tortures are a daily reality and a well-orchestrated practice. It starts at 6AM when guards grab the prisoner into a small room, or sometimes an unusable bathroom. There, the interrogation begins, with the simple question. If the prisoner is part of the ONLF organization, and each time the answer is no, he or she is beaten, electrocuted, or raped if the prisoner is a woman. This torture is repeated twice a day for four hours each time. Survivors have recorded extreme examples of pregnant women being tortured.

Shamaad Wali, a 29 year ONLF female fighter recalls: “During my time in prison, I remember the guards throwing in an eight month pregnant woman. They repeatedly beat her until she gave birth, but the baby was already dead. They just threw it away like garbage”. She says with tears in her eyes. The government of course denies such claims, but in each village such stories of tortures and killings are quite common and widespread.

Thirdly, and lastly, government forces have failed to contain the rebellion, which has gained in strength and confidence. On the ground, the heavily burdened Ethiopian soldiers are not able to catch or kill large numbers of ONLF troopers, who operate in small band using hit and run tactics; a pretty common problem for a conventional force. The ONLF has been able to keep the initiative, attacking on their terms, ambushing reinforcing convoys, infantry columns, and villages held by enemy forces. Ethiopian forces lose thousands of troops each year due to desertions and ONLF attacks. To be sent to Ogadenia is considered by soldiers as a punishment. Prisoners all agree that fighting the Ogadens is the worst enemy they can encounter in Ethiopia. Known for their warlike behavior and fighting skills, they are waging an efficient insurgency in Ogadenia.

Governmental troops do not control the land or the local population.

For ONLF cadre, victory is now within reach. From the rebel’s point of view, the situation in Addis is quickly becoming unsustainable, suggesting a partition within the country, due to the rise of ethnic separatism. To put it in one of the commander’s words: “We started in 1994 with less than one hundred soldiers, and now look at us with seven thousand freedom fighters willing to fight and die for the liberation of our people,” says proudly the 50-year-old veteran commander. As it is true that Mr. Meles’s government is fighting on many fronts, and his army cannot defeat these various rebellions throughout the country. Powerful Western allies, such as the United Kingdom, provide him with weapons and money to sustain the war effort, back him; while US funding also contribute to fight against terrorism in Ethiopia and contain Somalia’s Islamic rise. However, it is well established that no terrorist operates in Ethiopia, but for many of his allies in the West, Ethiopia is seen as a Christian state with common values. This can block the spread of Islam in East Africa. This kind of Western strategies and political thought will surely continue to block any attempts by rebels to challenge the government, and its military institutions leading to their replacement.

Bullets Fly in a Forgotten Land Ogadenia Separatists fight Ethiopia
By Jonathan Alpeyrie

At the hotel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a car waited for me at the entrance, and I quickly got in discreetly so people didn’t see the activity. It was a small mini van with two students and a driver, who work for the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in the capital. Lately, I’ve been concentrating on East Africa producing some photo essays of the main rebel groups fighting in Ethiopia. This is my second trip to the country and I was delving into new territory. A long nine-hour bus ride ensued. The driver chewing on leaves, which gives him energy, drove like a maniac. Passing camel herds and trucks way too fast, we meandered through many checkpoints that became more frequent as we moved eastward towards Ogadenia.

Finally in Jijiga, a medium size town with a population of 20 thousand, I immediately sensed the dirt, the poverty and loads of government troops littering the landscape. I was the only white man around. The van pulled into a small, side street where there was a safe house. My guides got me out very fast and took me inside to a small courtyard where children were playing. There I entered the house where 4 ONLF student members were waiting. I ate dinner with them, and they told me to wait until night fell to leave the city without being noticed. It’s too easy to spot a white person in these parts.

In the cloak of darkness, three members loaded their backs with my gear and escorted me. Once outside, we were careful to use small, rarely used and nearly empty streets. Some people noticed us and gave us strange looks, because I was with them. We soon left the outskirts of the city to venture into the wild. We walked very fast to escape the soldiers patrolling around. The first few hours were easy to walk through plain dirt scattered with a few bushes. When we hit the hills, the terrain transformed: rocks, bushes armed with thorns ripped through my skin and clothes. I tired trying to keep up with the students. After walking for 20 KM, they stopped in order for me to sleep a little. I waited for a small rebel force to pick me up and take it from there.

Early in the morning a few hours later, I awoke pressing forward up the hill. We reached a small mountain where I saw a few heads coming out of the bushes. There and then, I knew I had made my first contact with the ONLF. As soon as I arrived on top, a few dozen very nice but curious rebels and their commander Sawini greeted me. Soon after I was introduced to Dohozo who would become my translator and above all my friend throughout the trip. They placed my gear near a trip, which would become my home for one week. But I did not know that yet.

I started shooting with my camera, their everyday life in the bush: praying, cooking, patrolling around the neighboring hills. It was also the month of Ramadan so they were resting. One night I heard gunshots coming from a nearby government positions they told me we were surrounded. For my own security, we had to break our camp when the right time came. A few days later, after a storms and rain of bullets hitting our small force, I heard fighting at night. The next morning they told me they counterattacked with a few men and forced the government soldiers to retreat. We were free to move south from this trap.

We walked for 8 hours straight each day, going up and down the hills. We took a dirt road used by government forces to bring in reinforcements. At any time an ambush could occur, so everyone was on guard. They always placed me in the middle of the column. Each night we made camp while soldiers secured the area, they gave me a plastic cover so I could build a tent to protect myself and gear from the elements. As we moved south, we met more and more civilians, who usually sheered at the presence of the ONLF fighter. This had a doubling effect with a white person accompanying them. The rebels also told me to be careful, as spies can always mingle with the locals.

After days of walking more gunfire was heard, a ONLF unit, which had been attempting to overrun a government position, was held up in a village a few KM away. A few ONLF came back with one wounded man, whom they treated in front of me with a bullet wound. He had been hit on the shoulder while attacking the position, while some of his fellow soldiers were killed straight out right. The others were left behind after a hole was dug and left there. Many civilians came to supply us with food and water as well as information on enemy movement. We waited there for 5 days while the defense minister and his cabinet walked 400 KM to meet us with more men. It is so rare for a Western journalist to come to these parts, that they made the dangerous trip to meet me. He finally came during a storm. We talked about the ONLF, their plans and my plan. Afterwards, they all reunited to talk about the next move.

We went West, with the lead element of the 160 strong group running into an enemy infantry column, and a brief firefight followed. When bullets fly, I hit the ground. If badly wounded, I would have little chances to survive because no city can be reached in less than a five days walk.

We finally came to a large village of 800 strong, all of the villagers gathered by the ONLF so the minister could deliver his speech on the progress of the rebellion and its consequences. War dances are organized inside the village by some ONLF soldiers to stimulate the people. The civilians often join in and some soldiers fire guns in the air. The next day we left the village to move north East.

After a few days walk, the minister, his cabinet and half of the men split to move back towards the Somalis. I continued North with 30 ONLF troopers to finally get back to where I came from four weeks earlier. We walk each day through mud and hills with intermittent storms. One day, while moving through a gully, I heard a gunshot and fell on the ground quickly. I hit my head on a rock and was shot. We keep going to reach a nearby hill, which I could see from a distance. The next morning only 10 soldiers were selected to get me closer to Jijiga. We walked from night until day through the hills until the civilians found us. At this point, I’m beyond tired. They helped to carry my gear. We continued our move North after saying goodbye to Dahozo and the remaining nine ONLF soldiers.

We had to hide more than once as Somali soldiers protected the town. As soon as they left, we rushed forward closer to the city lights glimmering from a distance. When flashlights got closer, we’d hide. Thus, we moved slowly, resting and walking, taking 15 hours to get to the outskirts of the town. The sun would rise in a golden yellow light would reflect on the mosques just as they started their morning prayers. The rebels hid me in another safe house for a few hours until a car picked me up to drive me back to Addis. I said my goodbyes to the rebels and thought I could understand more about their struggle.


Dhagaxbuur: 74 Qof oo Ku Dhintay Weerar lagu qaaday Xarun ay Shiinuhu Batrool Ka Baarayeen...


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