As a regional insurgency rages in Ethiopia, people of the Ogaden flee the government’s backlash from Steve Bloomfield in Bosasso 

THE SCRAPS of cardboard, ripped plastic bags and rusting corrugated iron that serve as Asha Abdullahi Ibrahim’s shelter rustle in the warm early morning breeze. Sat on the grey dust and stones outside her makeshift hut, a colourful purple and red dress and headscarf wrapped around her, Ibrahim surveys her new surroundings – a desolate refugee camp hundreds of miles away from her home in eastern Ethiopia.

“This is where we have been forced to live,” she says. “And this is where I will die.”

Ibrahim is one of thousands of refugees in the hot and humid Somali port town of Bosasso who have made the long trek from Ethiopia’s remote eastern Ogaden region. 

They are arriving here at a rate of 100 a day, most making the 300-mile journey from the Ethiopian-Somali border on foot in a steamy heat that rarely drops below 100F.

The reason, Ibrahim says, is simple: “They are trying to eliminate us.” Ethiopian troops are burning villages, raping women and killing civilians in a brutal counter-insurgency in the Ogaden, according to eyewitness accounts from refugees such as Ibrahim who have fled the violence.

In the camps around Bosasso, refugees report that dozens of villages in the Ogaden have been burned to the ground, food convoys blocked, livestock slaughtered and crops destroyed.

Ethiopia claims it is battling a violent insurgency led by a group calling itself the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). The ONLF has been fighting for autonomy in the barren region which borders Somalia for several years, but in recent months its campaign has escalated – and so too has the Ethiopian response.

The ONLF launched its most daring assault in April. Having long complained about Ethiopia drilling for oil in the Ogaden, the organisation attacked a Chinese oil installation in Abole, a small town 75 miles from the regional capital, Jijiga, killing nine Chinese and 65 Ethiopians.

It was that attack which sparked the fresh counter-insurgency, a fierce scorched earth policy that is attempting to starve the ONLF of the support it has within the region.

It is a policy that aid agency officials and diplomats privately say mirrors that employed by the Sudanese government in Darfur. Ethiopian air force jets have bombed villages, with ground troops storming in afterwards, destroying what is left of the village and killing civilians.

An Ethiopian soldier who deserted from the army and fled to Bosasso said he had been ordered to fire on villagers indiscriminately. “Men, women, children – we killed them all,” he said.

The ONLF has wide support in the region and villages provide food for ONLF fighters. By forcing people to move to the region’s towns, where Ethiopian troops are in control, the government hopes to drain the ONLF’s support network.

According to refugees and human rights officials, the policy has led to a deliberate starving of those left in the villages. Trucks carrying food through the region have been blockaded, while government troops have targeted the region’s large pastoralist communities, seizing their livestock. Crops have also been destroyed.

In the Ogaden’s main towns, Jijiga and Gode, the police cells and prisons are overflowing. “They are arresting anyone who they think might have a connection with the ONLF,” says one human rights worker in Bosasso. “Some are being killed if the security forces don’t believe they are telling the truth.”

Human rights investigators are gathering evidence of widespread use of rape, with women reporting gang-rapes by up to a dozen soldiers. In some villages men have been abducted at night, their dead bodies dumped in the village the next morning.

While in Darfur, aid agencies have been able to establish camps and provide humanitarian support, they have been blocked from setting up in the Ogaden. The Red Cross has been thrown out of the region and Medicins Sans Frontieres has also been prevented from working there. Journalists trying to enter the region have also been banned – those who have tried to enter have been promptly arrested.

A United Nations team was allowed into the Ogaden last month to investigate allegations of abuse by Ethiopian troops. Its report was not made public, but the team called for an independent investigation.

But while Khartoum’s counter-insurgency in Darfur has been described by the US as “genocide” and by the UN as “crimes against humanity”, international condemnation of Ethiopia has, so far, been limited.

Indeed, the US has given its backing to Ethiopia. America’s top official on African affairs, assistant secretary of state Jendayi Frazer, visited one town in the Ogaden last month. On her return to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, she criticised the rebels and said reports of military abuses were merely allegations.

“We urge any and every government to respect human rights and to try and avoid civilian casualties, but that’s difficult in dealing with an insurgency,” she said.

The Ogaden has become the latest flashpoint in a broader conflict in the Horn of Africa. On one side is Ethiopia and the weak transitional government of Somalia, on the other is Eritrea and two insurgent groups, the ONLF and the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS), which is made up of remnants of the Union of Islamic Courts.

Somalis often refer to the Ogaden as “region five” – the fifth point on the five-pointed Somali star that signifies the regions of “Greater Somalia”. Following the 19th-century “scramble for Africa”, France, Italy and Britain all claimed parts of Somalia. A fourth region was incorporated into northeastern Kenya, while the fifth became part of Ethiopia.

During the rule of the Islamic Courts last year, one of the group’s leaders, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, called for the reunification of “Greater Somalia”. Ethiopia highlighted the Courts’ increasingly bellicose language as a reason to invade Somalia and install the transitional government in Mogadishu.

The Ethiopian government commands large support from the US, which sees Meles Zenawi’s regime as its principal Horn of Africa ally in the war on terrorism. The US gave tacit approval for Ethiopia’s Christmas invasion of Somalia, which ousted the Union of Islamic Courts. It also provided logistical and technical support for the operation and continues to help co-ordinate a response to the insurgency in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, which seeks to destabilise the transitional government propped up by Ethiopia. The US provides $283 million in military and humanitarian aid to Ethiopia and has trained its military, one of the largest and strongest in Africa.

Until recently, 27-year-old Kassahun was a member of that military. Originally from Addis Ababa, he had been stationed in northern Ethiopia, close to the border with Eritrea. In 2004, his division was moved to the east.

“We were told we were fighting guerrillas – the ONLF. We were given two commands: to beat the ONLF and to defend our land from attackers from Somalia. But we were killing farmers.”

After several months, Kassahun and 15 other soldiers in his unit complained to their commander. “When we asked why we are beating these people, they put us in the hole. There were 16 of us underground for six months. Some of us they killed. They said we must be members of the ONLF.”

Kassahun managed to escape and found his way to Bosasso. His family back in Addis Ababa were not so fortunate: government soldiers came to the family home and accused his father and sister of supporting Eritrea, Ethiopia’s sworn enemy to the north. Neither has been seen since. Kassahun does not know if they are dead or alive.

He now lives in the same camps that are home to those people his former colleagues continue to terrorise. Abudllahi Shukri Mohammed, a 30-year-old cattle herder from Dega Bur province, has suffered at the hands of Kassahun’s ex-colleagues. He was forced to hand over his 18 cows and work as a porter for a unit of 300 Ethiopian soldiers marching through the Ogaden in May.

After carrying heavy loads for three days, Mohammed tried to escape. “They caught me and started beating me. They kicked me in the head and hit me with the back of their guns.” With his right arm he motions the steady, repetitive smack of the guns against his body. His left arm lies limp on his lap. He has been unable to move it since the attack, his fingers fixed in an ugly formation.

“They beat me for two hours,” he says, “then I fell unconscious. They thought I was dead so they left me.”

This is the third Ramadan that Kadra Shekih Hassan has not heard from her son. He disappeared one morning and no-one has seen him since. Ethiopian officials near her village of Korahay think he joined the ONLF. Hassan, a petite woman of 40, has been arrested six times in the past 12 months and accused of providing support to the ONLF, something she denies.

The last time she was arrested her clan was forced to pay 5000 birr (£275) to release her. One month later, soldiers surrounded her house. She managed to escape and fled to a neighbouring village. Once her remaining children were able to join her, the family began the long walk to Bosasso.

Like Ibrahim, Hassan and her family now live here, among the rubbish dumps and ramshackle huts of a refugee camp. Despite the desperate surroundings, Kadra is happy. “I feel a peace here,” she says. “I hope the situation at home improves and we have peace, but for now we can stay here.”