Caught in Ethiopia's War

It was early one morning in July when 400 Ethiopian soldiers came to Ridwan Hassan Zahid's village of Qorile, 120 miles southeast of Degehebur, Ethiopia, a dusty market town. The small settlement of ethnic Somalis in eastern Ethiopia was suspected of supporting separatist rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), and the government troops were out to exact revenge. They took Zahid, another woman, and eight men to the nearby village of Babase, where, she says, the soldiers chased away residents and burned the village to the ground. "I became like plastic," she says. "I couldn't feel a thing."

On the third day after her capture, the soldiers divided the prisoners into groups. As the other captives looked on, soldiers hanged one man from one of the parched region's few trees; another was taken out of sight. Soon it was Zahid's turn. A small group of soldiers dug a hole in the sandy ground. They forced her into it and pinned her down by pressing the barrel of an AK-47 to her throat. As she tried to choke out the words to a final Muslim prayer, she heard two other captives screaming for mercy nearby as a noose was slipped over her head. Two soldiers jerked up on the rope, lifting her out of the hole by her neck, and she lost consciousness.

In Ethiopia's Somali region, a long-simmering rebellion by the ONLF, a separatist group seeking an independent state for Ethiopia's Somalis, is boiling over. Rebels, taking advantage of chaos in neighboring Somalia, attacked a Chinese-run oil exploration site in April, killing 74 people and triggering a massive crackdown by Ethiopia's ethnic-Tigray-dominated government. Government forces have since burned villages, blocked trade routes and carried out summary executions in an effort to quell the rebellion. Nine months later Ethiopia's government appears to have gained the upper hand, but only by essentially declaring war on virtually the entire Ogadeni clan of Somalis—a group that makes up the about half of the region's 4.5 million people.

Hundreds of civilians have died in the fighting (the ONLF estimates 2,000 killed by the government in the past year, though one independent estimate suggests the figure is less than half that), and 1.8 million more may be at risk, as an Ethiopian blockade has cut off commercial food shipments from neighboring Somalia and prevented the region's nomadic people from selling their livestock. Ogadeni clan elders who have tracked the fighting say people from more than 250 villages have been forced to flee the violence.

Amid a sea of crises in neighboring Sudan, Somalia, and Kenya, the plight of Ethiopia's vast Somali region—an area twice the size of England with just 30 miles of paved highway—has been largely ignored in the West. After barring the foreign press from the region for months, the Ethiopian government recently took NEWSWEEK and a group of other foreign reporters on a tightly controlled tour of parts of the region. Amid scenes of malnourished children and whispered stories of government atrocities, the defining impression was of a population gripped by fear.

One 30-year-old man selling clothes in the marketplace in Degehebur says he came to the dusty town five months ago after Ethiopian troops burned his village of Leby, 18 miles southwest of the town. Fifty civilians were killed, he says. "At the time I had a shop, a good house," he says, refusing to give his name out of fear of government reprisal. "We are in trouble. We are caught between the Ethiopian government and the ONLF … between two guns."

Such stories, of course, are almost impossible to verify. Ethiopia has firmly denied reports of atrocities and has placed the blame on the ONLF, which it considers a terrorist organization backed by archfoe Eritrea and Islamist militias in nearby Somalia. In his last public remarks on the subject, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told reporters in late November that he was "absolutely confident that there hasn't been any widespread violation of human rights" in the region. Reports of army atrocities amount to "baseless allegation[s] and a smear campaign against our government," says Abdullahi Hassan, the regional president of Ethiopia's Somali region. "This is our people, and we cannot abuse human rights. That has never happened and this can never happen." Speaking to reporters in the town of Gode in one of the region's more stable districts, Hassan says development in the area is on the rise, trade routes to Somalia are open, and "the situation is completely calm now." The government has "completely destroyed" the ONLF.

Most residents—interviewed in the presence of government translators—voice a similar assessment. But not all do. In a village west of Gode, at a development project where the government is trying to settle nomads on irrigated farmland, a 35-year-old man says violence in the region is continuing. "The Ethiopian government, after they fight the rebels, they often turn on us and kill women and children," he says. "We're very scared. I'm afraid speaking to you now. There's lots of spies. They're everywhere." He estimates that more than two dozen civilians are killed monthly in the area around Gode, before abruptly cutting off the interview as a crowd gathers.

A blockage of commercial traffic with neighboring Somalia has also contributed to malnutrition. The embargo, together with locusts and drought, have forced grain prices up—many Somalis say prices have doubled in the past year. The one doctor in the hospital in Gode, Zilalim Eschetu, estimates that 75 percent of the children who visit the hospital are malnourished. "It's a visible crisis," he says. Among the patients in Eschetu's malnutrition ward is two-year-old Sugah Hash, whose emaciated legs curl helplessly on her mother's lap. "We had no food for a few months, so we had to run to this hospital," says Mariam Ali, her mother.

Ethiopian government officials say the embargo was imposed to keep arms and supplies from reaching the rebels and insist that Ethiopia has lifted most trade restrictions. Human Rights Watch, however, suspects that the government has been deliberately targeting its Somali population. "There is no question that in the last eight months the Ethiopian military went on a very intensive scorched-earth campaign," says Leslie Lefkow, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who has tracked the crisis. To be sure, the ONLF has also committed atrocities in the region. Somali clan elders in the regional capital of Jijiga say the rebels have mined roads, launched grenade attacks on civilians, and stolen livestock from herders. However, analysts say the government has committed the lion's share of abuses.

Western governments don't seem to have put much pressure on Ethiopia to ease the situation. Ethiopia has been a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism. Zenawi's government has allowed the CIA and FBI to interrogate foreign terror suspects flushed out of Somalia in secret prisons in Ethiopia, as the Associated Press first reported in April. The U.S. military has also trained Ethiopia's army and in 2006 sold $6 million in weapons to Ethiopia, according to the U.S. defense department—more than any other African country. In December, with U.S. intelligence and logistical support, Ethiopia invaded Somalia to oust an Islamist government that briefly controlled southern Somalia. Somalia has been in chaos ever since, as supporters of the former Union of Islamic Courts government have joined clan militias in battling Ethiopian troops and forces loyal to the U.N.-backed transitional government.

One Ethiopian security official says Somalia's Al Qaeda-linked Islamic militias have played a key role in fueling the ONLF insurgency in Ethiopia, providing funding and arms to the rebels. A spokesman for the ONLF denies any such connection, and Western diplomats say it's unclear whether the two insurgencies are connected.

Via the United Nations, the United States been providing food aid for the Somali region, but privately international aid officials say the assistance isn't reaching the worst-affected areas. They have good reason to be discreet: earlier this year Ethiopia expelled the International Committee of the Red Cross from the Somali region, accusing both the country's expatriate and Ethiopian staff of funneling support to the ONLF.

The U.N. has also been tight-lipped about troubles in the Ogaden. In September it sent a secret assessment of the human rights situation in the region to the Ethiopian government and called for a wider probe of alleged atrocities. Nearly five months later, says Frej Fenniche, a spokesman for the U.N.'s High Commission on Human Rights, "we are waiting for the answer from the government."

Meanwhile, the ONLF, fuelled by money from Ethiopian Somalis living in the United States and Britain, vows to continue its guerrilla fight by launching surprise attacks on Ethiopian troops and then melting back in to the region's nomadic communities. "It's a cat-and-mouse game," says Abdi Rahman Mahdi, a rebel spokesman.

As recently as last week, Mahdi says, Ethiopian forces burned a village southeast of Degehebur. Verification of his claim is difficult given the region's scant communication links and travel restrictions. But in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, hundreds of miles to the west of the fighting, Ethiopia's dirty war is barely visible. The lone state-run television agency shows only Potemkin-like pictures of development projects in the Somali region, and the country's tightly restricted private newspapers are effectively prevented from reporting on the situation.

The conflict has been visible enough for Ridwan Hassan Zahid, who miraculously survived her would-be executioners. Left for dead, she was found the next day by Somalis from a nearby village who came to bury the corpses. The other nine were not so lucky. Some had been hung from trees, others hung over holes in the ground like Zahid. Some of the men had been stripped naked and their tongues had been cut out.

Zahid hid in the countryside for three days, but eventually she was told the army had learned she was still alive and was searching for her. Then began a two-week odyssey on foot, camel, and finally by truck to safety in a neighboring country, which she asked NEWSWEEK not to disclose.

She complains that her neck still pains her and she can't use her right hand. "We never had links to the ONLF," she says of her fellow captives.

"I am worrying still," Zahid says. "When I sleep at nights I have dreams."

For those caught in the middle of Ethiopia's dirty war, even sleep, it seems, is no respite.