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11 Jul 2008 06:00
Suleikha Mohamed Adan, a 30-year-old widow and mother of five, was living a difficult nomadic life in the harsh Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia when government soldiers came to her house and arrested her.
Her husband and father were killed last year by government forces, who accused them of the same crime for which she was arrested: sympathising with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a group fighting for self-determination for the Ogaden region.
“My five children were crying when they tied my hands behind my back and kicked me to the ground,” said Adan, who now lives in Kenya, as she wiped the tears from her face.
After two nights, Adan found herself in an underground prison in the town of Godey where she was kept for 15 months with hundreds of other prisoners.
“Soldiers would take me out to beat me up and sometimes rape me,” she said, sitting in her room in Eastleigh, Nairobi. “Younger women were the soldiers’ favourites. While I was there I saw two old men hanged from the roof with a wire and they both died.”
Adan escaped and feels very lucky to have got away from the worsening situation in Ogaden, a region that has been embroiled in conflict for decades.
Somalia and Ethiopia have twice gone to war over the region, which is populated by ethnic Somalis, and which each country claims as part of its territory.
The Ethiopian military campaign has intensified since the ONLF attacked a Chinese-run oil installation in April last year, killing 75 people, including nine Chinese workers.
A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) released late last month accuses the Ethiopian regime of committing widespread abuses against civilians. “The Ethiopian army’s answer to the rebels has been to viciously attack civilians in Ogaden,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at HRW.
“These widespread and systematic atrocities amount to crimes against humanity. Yet Ethiopia’s major donors—Washington, London and Brussels—seem to be maintaining a conspiracy of silence around the crimes.”
Ethiopia has become a close ally of the United States since the September 11 2001 attacks. Western governments and institutions—including the US, the United Kingdom, and the European Union—give the country at least $2billion in aid each year.
Many of the civilians living in the conflict zone in Ogaden are nomads who are constantly on the move in search of fresh grazing.
Maryan Nur Ahmed (52) said her house, in a village near the town of Shilabo, was raided at night by the Ethiopian military.
Jailed by Ethiopian forces, she was repeatedly tortured but the soldiers considered her too old to be raped. Instead, they raped her daughter when she visited the prison.
“They used to say [an] old woman is [no use],” said Ahmed, who is now also in exile in Kenya. “I have 10 children, but my youngest child is the only one with me here in Kenya. I do not know if the others are safe.”
She said that the soldiers often tortured and killed prisoners. After five of her fellow inmates were killed, she decided to escape. “One night, I realised the guard was falling asleep and I used my chest to walk like a snake,” she said, describing how she wriggled out of the prison.
HRW has also condemned Ethiopian forces for imposing a series of measures aimed at cutting off economic support to the ONLF, including a trade blockade of the war-affected region and the obstruction of humanitarian assistance.
“The government’s attacks on civilians, its trade blockade and restrictions on aid amount to the illegal collective punishment of tens of thousands of people,” said Gagnon. “Unless humanitarian agencies get immediate access to independently assess the needs and monitor food distribution, more lives will be lost.”
In July last year the Ethiopian government expelled the Red Cross from the region. It has since permitted some United Nations agencies and NGOs to operate, but only under tight controls.
HRW has also criticised the ONLF for violating the laws of war, including summary executions of Chinese and Ethiopian civilians during the Obole attack and the killing of suspected government collaborators.
The Ethiopian government has denied HRW’s allegations. Foreign journalists who have attempted to conduct independent investigations have been arrested.
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