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