The bullet tore through Ibrahim Hamad’s torso and lodged in his hip. The 26-year-old teacher was at home with his elderly father when government forces swept through his town in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, burning huts and killing civilians. “The young girls were the first to die. The soldiers shot them and gathered the bodies and burned them,” he said. The troops demanded that surviving men join their ranks, threatening those who refused with torture, imprisonment and death.
“When they came to my home, I told them, ‘I am just a schoolteacher, I will not leave my family,’ ” said Hamad. In a bleak whisper, he recounted the ordeal that followed. “They strangled my father with a wire and hung his body in a tree. Then they shot me and left me for dead.”
Hamad now struggles to survive in this remote refugee camp in northern Kenya, joining thousands who have fled a reign of terror by the Ethiopian army. Little noticed by the world, Ethiopia is waging war against its own people in the Ogaden desert. Long-simmering tensions erupted last April when separatist rebels attacked a Chinese-run oil field. The Ethiopian government responded by ejecting humanitarian agencies and launching a scorched-earth campaign in the region.
The targeting of the predominantly ethnic-Somali Ogaden population has led to accusations of ethnic cleansing. In October, Human Rights Watch:ABE8kZuMg2AJ:hrw.org/english/docs/2007/10/03/ethiop17010.htm+hu man+rights+watch+ogaden+frighteningly+familiar+pattern&hl=en& ct=clnk&cd=5&gl=us warned that events in Ogaden were following a “frighteningly familiar pattern” to those in Somalia’s Darfur region, noting “ethnic overtones” to attacks and accusing Ethiopia of “displac[ing] large populations” and “deliberately attack[ing] civilians.” Government forces have been implicated in escalating looting, burnings and atrocities. Recently, soldiers have begun a brutal campaign of forced conscription, often torturing or killing those who refuse to join.
The Ethiopian government has suppressed most news from the region, sealing Ogaden’s borders and denying access to the media. Last May, three New York Times reporters researching the crisis were held for five days and had their equipment confiscated. Ethiopian officials have been quick to dismiss mounting reports of bloodshed as propaganda. But in this camp, refugees fleeing Ogaden tell stories of rape, torture and mass murder perpetrated against civilian villages by Ethiopia’s military.
However, it is the U.S. government, not Ethiopia’s, that elicits the most anger from Hamad and the other Ogadenis seeking shelter in Dadaab. The bullet that shattered Hamad’s hip, and the gun that fired it, were likely supplied by the United States. The soldier who pulled the trigger was almost certainly compensated with U.S. military aid.
The U.S. has historically provided Ethiopian forces with arms, funding and training. In recent years, the bond has deepened, with Ethiopia’s military serving as a proxy for American interests in a region increasingly viewed as a crucial front in the war on terrorism. Since 9/11, military aid to Ethiopia has soared, growing at least 2 1/2 times by 2006. A close intelligence-sharing relationship between the governments has burgeoned.
In the face of mounting evidence of atrocities, some U.S. officials are questioning the no-strings-attached backing of Ethiopia’s army. “This is a country that is abusing its own people,” said Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.), chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, accusing the Bush administration of “look[ing] the other way” as Ethiopia’s abuses worsen. Last fall, the House passed the Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act, sponsored by Payne, to limit military aid to Ethiopia. It awaits action by the Senate. “The United States cannot afford to allow cooperation on the war on terror,” Payne said, “to prevent us from taking a principled stance on democracy and human rights issues.”
Ironically, unbridled support of Ethiopia’s army in the interest of combating terrorism may serve as a powerful catalyst for anti-U.S. sentiment. “We hate the U.S.A. more than the Ethiopians,” one Ogadeni told me. “It is guns and money from the U.S.A. that are killing our people.”
If Washington wants to fight the rising tide of terrorism in the Horn of Africa, it cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the abuses of its closest ally in the region. The U.S. wields unique influence over Ethiopia; how it uses that influence will determine Ogaden’s future. Legislators should continue to press the Bush administration to help stop the bloodshed. Current levels of U.S. aid should be made contingent on Ethiopia halting its attacks on civilians. That might sacrifice some goodwill with Ethiopian officials -- but it could save the people of the Ogaden.