By Les Neuhaus | February 19, 2014
An underfed Ethiopian Somali boy with polio receives medical treatment at a health post in Bisle in the drought-stricken remote Somali region of Eastern Ethiopia, also known as the Ogaden. (AP Photo/ Luc van Kemenade)
Refugees in Kenya who come from Ethiopia’s eastern Ogaden region, where the predominant population is ethnically Somali, are calling on the Kenyan government to protect them as harassment and kidnappings increase, according to various reports.
Most recently, two officials with the Ogaden National Liberation Front — a rebel insurgent group operating inside Ethiopia since 1984, were said to be abducted in January while in Kenya for peace talks with Ethiopian government officials. They operate inside the Somali Regional State, which stretches along Somalia’s western border.
“A source inside Ethiopia informed the Ogaden National Liberation Front that the two abducted ONLF officers … were seen in a (Nairobi) military hospital undergoing treatment for extensive wounds caused by torture,” an ONLF statement said on Feb. 10. “The source further informed ONLF that the abductee had resisted the torturers attempts to make them accept to claim that they willingly came to Ethiopia in order to surrender and sign a peace agreement.”
The ONLF said Kenyan police officers were arrested for involvement in the abduction and a report by The Associated Press backs up that claim. However, the Ethiopian government is giving conflicting accounts of whether it acknowledges the abductions or not.
According to the ONLF statement, an Ethiopian “spokesperson claiming to be an advisor to the president of the Ethiopian regional administration in Ogaden, in an interview with VOA (Voice of America) Somali, said that the two abductees came willingly and are kept somewhere inside Ethiopia while negotiating with the Ethiopian government and will soon speak (on) Ethiopian TV.”
While another Ethiopian government official, Shimelis Kemal, told the AP that he had no information about the alleged kidnapping of Ogaden officials in Nairobi. Court documents in the case of the Kenyan police charged with the abductions reveal Sulub Ahmed and Ali Hussein were taken to Ethiopia.
Ahmed and Hussein were abducted in Nairobi on Jan. 26. The two men are members of the ONLF. Sulub participated in the second round of talks between the Ethiopian government and ONLF last year and both were in Nairobi for the third round of talks, which were expected to begin in the coming weeks.
Abdi Rahman Mahdi, the chief negotiator for rebels, told AP in a telephone interview from London that, “on the day they were abducted, Ahmed, a negotiator, and Hussein, a member of the negotiation team’s secretariat, were invited for lunch by an unknown person. When the two walked out of the restaurant after lunch, six men came out of two cars and attempted to grab them, but they resisted causing a melee, Mahdi said, reconstructing (the) event from witnesses and accounts given to him by the Kenya police.”
Mahdi said both men were detained when one of the kidnappers produced a police identification card while shouting “for help from the crowd gathering around to see the commotion, claiming that he was arresting two terrorists ‘who were planning to bomb the country.’ He then claimed members of the crowd, along with the policemen, shoved Ahmed and Hussein into vehicles. Mahdi said the two were driven to Moyale, a town on the Kenyan-Ethiopian border, “where they were picked up by helicopters.”
The African Rights Monitor Organization, a non-profit group dedicated to raising awareness of human-rights violations in conflict and post-conflict countries, issued a statement on Jan. 28, saying, in part, “We call on the Ethiopian government to immediately and unconditionally release the abducted and to abstain from any similar future actions. We also call upon the Kenyan government to guarantee the security of the refugees on Kenyan soil.”
The ONLF significantly stepped up its insurgency in recent years. It stands accused of the “summary execution of dozens of Chinese and Ethiopian civilians in the context of its April 2007 attack on (an) oil installation,” the “practice of killing suspected government collaborators, and the indiscriminate mining of roads used by government convoys,”Human Rights Watch said in a summary report in 2008.
Further, HRW said, “Those who ordered or carried out such acts are responsible for war crimes. Many civilians feel trapped with no refuge from ONLF pressure or the abuses by Ethiopian troops.”
However, the Ethiopian government has attacked villages in the Ogaden through the years and itself stands accused of massive human-rights abuses — on civilians and ONLF members alike — on a much wider scale. A more detailed report by HRW outlines satellite photographs showing burned and bombed out villages.
“The Ethiopian government has repeatedly dismissed or minimized concerns about the human rights and humanitarian situation in Somali Region,” HRW said. “Over the past year, (HRW) has documented the execution of more than 150 individuals, many of them in demonstration killings, with Ethiopian soldiers singling out relatives of suspected
ONLF members, or making apparently arbitrary judgments that individuals complaining to soldiers or resisting their orders are ONLF supporters.”
Executions involved strangulation, and bodies left in the open to warn off villagers. Mass extrajudicial detentions are routine. Possibly, thousands of individuals have been arrested and held in military barracks.
“…Sometimes multiple times, where they have been tortured, raped, and assaulted.”
The summary further accused the Ethiopian government of routinely confiscating livestock, which are the main asset among the largely pastoralist population, restricting access to water, food and other essential commodities, and obstructing commercial traffic and humanitarian assistance have been used as weapons in an economic war aimed at cutting off ONLF supplies and collectively punishing communities that are suspected of supporting the rebels.
“These crimes are being committed with total impunity, on the thinnest of pretexts,” HRW said.
Journalists have also been targeted in the ongoing Ogaden region. In 2011, two Swedish freelance journalists were locked up in Ethiopian prisons for 438 days for illegally entering the country and committing acts of terrorism.
The Ethiopian courts provided video footage of the two journalists allegedly collaborating with the ONLF. On Dec. 27, 2011, they were sentenced to 11 years in jail. They were eventually released after the death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Negotiations between the Ethiopian administration and the ONLF broke down in October 2012 after the Ethiopian government side walked out of the talks, according to the AP.
It is not known if peace talks between the Ethiopian government and the ONLF will resume soon.