/ 6 May 2005

Desert of death and dreams

The Dida Galgalu desert is a good place to hide. -Perennial drought and famine extract their daily toll here, where warring nomadic tribes battle over livestock and shifta (bandits) prowl the dead land in search of bounty from the odd supply lorry that chances over the twisted network of rough tracks.

The local Borana people call this arid moonscape “the Plains of -Darkness”, after the piles of ancient volcanic rocks that lie like black skulls on the white, windswept earth.

Isolated northern Kenya is also a good place to die.

Somali warlords, ruthless in their quest for wealth, run guns across the shimmering plains. Daytime temperatures can top 50°C, and the nights are bitterly cold. Muddy wells provide the only water. And when the heat bakes them dry, man and beast perish, and sink into the sands to become bone.

And no one cares. Since colonial times, the authorities in Nairobi have ignored the desert and its dwellers.

That’s why Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) guerrillas, fighting for secession from Ethiopia for the southern ethnic groups of the country since 1993, have established bases in the vast Dida Galgalu.

Yet Kenya’s government denies their presence in its territory.

“We are invisible to the world. No one knows our struggle. They call us terrorists, but it is [Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles] Zenawi’s regime that is terrorist,” said Mega Yaballo, a rebel fighter in an OLF camp in a valley in Kenya’s desert.

At almost 40-million of a population of 63-million, the Oromo, of which the major clans are the Borana, Gujii, Walaga, Arsii and Hararge, are the multi-religious majority of Ethiopia.

But, being mostly illiterate nomads, they have little socio–economic power and Zenawi’s minority northern Tigray ethnic group, which forms Ethiopia’s political elite and controls the country’s resources, has ruled the Oromo since 1991.

“The Tigray govern by dictatorship, because they are only six million … We Oromo want a share of the wealth of Ethiopia for the oppressed majority and the only way we can get that is to fight for our own country, the Democratic Republic of Oromia!” declared Kurri Dima, who described himself as an OLF “activist and facilitator”.

The former teacher said he had been “hiding” in northern Kenya for the past 12 years, but had maintained contact with “sympathisers” in Addis Ababa.

“They inform me that what is -happening in Ethiopia today is shameful: if you speak out against Zenawi, you are interrogated, detained without trial, and then you simply disappear.

“We want freedom of ownership, freedom of speech, political freedom!” Dima spat.

In a recent report, the United States State Department accused the Ethiopian government of arresting, torturing and killing people linked with the OLF. But Zenawi’s administration branded it “baseless and frivolous … based on rumours, lies and innuendoes”.

Dima scoffed at the government’s denial of abuses: “When my family was wiped out in the infantry raid by state troops, when I held my -sister’s body in my two hands, was that a rumour? Or a lie?”

He said it was “disgraceful” that the Organisation of -African Unity had chosen to be headquartered in Addis Ababa, “the -centre of a -murderous regime”.

Ethiopian forces often cross into Kenya in pursuit of rebels. Periodically, they occupy the town of Moyale, on the border between the two countries, raiding the homes of Kenyans they accuse of harbouring Oromo “terrorists”.

According to the OLF, at least 163 “innocent Kenyans” have been killed in the crossfire since it began the armed struggle.

Landmine blasts have also claimed the lives of Kenyans, and the OLF as well as sources in -Kenya’s military allege that Ethiopian defence force soldiers are planting mines on roads in Kenya … in flagrant contravention of the mine ban treaty Ethiopia signed late last year.

President Mwai Kibaki’s government, though, seems passive in the face of what is clearly an illegal foreign invasion of its soil.

But however much East Africa’s economic hub wants to deny its part in Ethiopia’s civil war, some of its citizens are playing a significant role: many of the OLF fighters at the desert base brandish dirty Kenyan birth certificates.

They don’t, however, consider Kenya their home.

“We are Oromos, not Kenyans. When we win the fight against the regime, we will return to our ancestor’s land in southern Ethiopia,” said Arbale Huka, clutching a crumpled identity card indicating his Kenyan nationality.

“Please, Mr South Africa, help us. Tell [Nelson] Mandela we are a liberation movement like the ANC [African National Congress]. Zenawi has a big army, like the Boers,” Huka pleaded.

The guerrilla’s commander pushed him aside and scolded him for “begging”, before stating: “Look at you South Africans; you defeated the apartheid [forces] who had all the weapons in the world! They also had tanks and planes and big bombs, while the ANC fighters only had the small guns, like us! But victory came for you. Victory will be ours too.”

But, here in the dusty valley where his ragtag band of rebels with their single-shot rifles and dirty camouflage uniforms survive, the rugged commander’s optimism seems misplaced.

Far to the south, in the town of Marsabit, the grave of slain OLF leader Metsaben Jettane Ali stands as a symbol of the Oromo struggle for liberation. But it, like Ali’s -people, is neglected, overgrown with thorn scrub and coated in filth.

“We have embalmed Jettane’s body, and it will only begin to decay in 27 years time. But long before then, when we are free, we will rebury him in our liberated homeland of Oromia,” said Dima.

There’s hope, but little else, in this desert of death and dreams.