Saturday, September 15, 2007

War on Terror? or Genocide?

I find it awfully difficult to understand why the US government, and Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Jendayi Frazer in particular, do not see the contradiction in excusing the Ethiopian government for civilian casualties "because that's difficult [to avoid] in dealing with an insurgency" while labeling similar practices by the Sudanese government in Darfur as genocide. People in the region must surely wonder at our double standard.

Refugees claim mass killings in Ethiopia
By Shashank Bengali

The Ethiopian government is starving and killing its own people in the remote eastern Ogaden region, according to refugees, who describe a terrifying four-month crackdown in which security forces have sealed off villages, torched homes and businesses, commandeered food and water sources, and beaten, raped or executed anyone who resists.

Hundreds of civilians already might have been killed in the crackdown on a separatist movement known as the Ogaden National Liberation Front, according to interviews with dozens of Ogadenis who have gathered in a steadily growing refugee camp in this steamy port city 300 miles from the Ethiopian border. . . .

(Last week, after visiting one town in the Ogaden, Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer condemned the rebels and said reports of military atrocities were unsubstantiated. "We urge any and every government to respect human rights and to try and avoid civilian casualties," Frazer said, "but that's difficult in dealing with an insurgency.")

"They strangled my wife with a rope," said Ahmed Mohammed Abdi, a 35-year-old farmer from Degehabur province, who came home one day this month to see his wife's body lying by the door, his 1-month-old son still suckling at her breast. That night, he fled into the bush and began a seven-day trek to the relative safety of northern Somalia.

"If you come and try to identify the dead body, the soldiers will beat you also," said the wiry, wide-eyed Abdi. "I was afraid to be killed, so I ran away."

A top aide to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi rejected the allegations. The government has barred reporters and international relief groups from most of the region, a vast desert that stretches from the central Ethiopian highlands to the border with Somalia.

In July, Ethiopia expelled the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross from the Ogaden, accusing its workers of aiding the rebels. Last week, the aid agency Doctors Without Borders said it also had been denied access, and it warned of a major humanitarian crisis.

Some aid workers worry that the Ogaden could become a second Darfur, referring to the Sudanese government crackdown on insurgents in that country's Darfur region, which the United States has labeled genocide.

In this instance, the United States has come out in support of Ethiopia, one of its most important African allies in the war on terrorism. The United States has helped train Ethiopia's military -- one of the largest and best equipped in Africa -- and backed its recent invasion of Somalia to topple a fundamentalist Islamic regime there.

Last week, after visiting one town in the Ogaden, Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer condemned the rebels and said reports of military atrocities were unsubstantiated. "We urge any and every government to respect human rights and to try and avoid civilian casualties," Frazer said, "but that's difficult in dealing with an insurgency."

The accounts given by dozens of refugees in Bossasso this week paint a grim picture: Ethiopian forces burning or blockading scores of towns and villages in a strategy seemingly aimed at starving the population, which widely supports the insurgency. Since June, soldiers have confiscated food and medicine from shops, stolen camels and livestock and blocked people from using water wells, refugees said. Few commercial trucks have been allowed in, and relief workers say that food and humanitarian aid also has been stopped for most of the summer.

The people, mainly ethnic Somali nomads and farmers, are surviving on the meat and milk of their remaining goats. "They burned down my house," said Fatima Abdi Mohammed, a 40-year-old mother of six from a village near the eastern town of Warder. When she tried to protest, soldiers beat her with the handles of daggers, she said. "There is no water, no food, no health services. If people leave to fetch water with camels, they are killed or beaten." Many refugees said women in their villages had been raped.

Khadar Sherif Ahmed, 22, a villager from Degehabur, said he had watched security forces storm a mosque and fatally stab five people -- the oldest an 80-year-old man, the youngest a child of 8.

Bereket Simon, a senior aide to Prime Minister Zenawi, denied that soldiers were abusing or killing civilians. "We are singling out the terrorists. We know how to deal with insurgents," he said. "This army is well trained, and they know their mission." Earlier this month, Ethiopian forces escorted a U.N. fact-finding mission through parts of the Ogaden, but the team wasn't allowed to visit areas that refugees described as the worst affected.

Ethiopian officials accuse the separatist movement of fighting Ethiopian troops in Somalia and of receiving weapons and funding from archenemy Eritrea. The movement grew out of decades of neglect by successive governments in Addis Ababa, which left the region the least-developed part of one of the world's least-developed nations. Land-line and mobile phone networks barely function; walkie-talkies are the most reliable form of communication.

Roughly 1,000 refugees have made it to Bossasso, a port on the Gulf of Aden several hundred miles from the heart of the Ogaden, and there are new arrivals nearly every day. The U.N. refugee agency doesn't know how many Ogadenis have fled in recent months, although it thinks that several hundred are in Somaliland and neighboring Djibouti. "There hasn't been a refugee flood," said Alexander Tyler of the Somalia office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "That could be a reflection of the control that Ethiopia still has over the area."
Read more!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Escaping bombs in Mogadishu

Journalists in Somalia face more danger than ever before,
yet they persist in struggling to get their story out. Here's some insight into what they go through — and why.

Body of Somali journalist
Ali Iman Sharmarke

By Sahal Abdulle
First Published 2007-09-11, Last Updated 2007-09-11 12:24:48

I am in a car full of journalists driving from the funeral of a colleague murdered hours earlier in Mogadishu for doing his job. We don't get far.

An explosion throws our vehicle up and fills it with excruciating heat. Black smoke billows about us. I can feel the pressure rushing up inside my clothes, my neck splits open.

Climbing from the smoking wreck, blood spits through the fingers I clamp to my throat.

It was a remotely detonated bomb. Death is often random in Mogadishu, but in this case we were the target.

Journalist, friend, and founder of local media house HornAfrik, Ali Iman Sharmarke, lies dead beside the wreckage.

Amid the chaos and pain, I scan the crowd, looking for a doctor to help, or maybe the killer.

Somalia has become one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a journalist. I spent the last year there, staying in my family house, during some of the worst violence to hit Mogadishu in the last two decades.

I saw countless burned bodies in hollowed-out houses, the corpses of 90-year-olds and infants ripped to pieces. I watched colleagues die trying to get the Somali story out to a world already jaded by wars in Iraq, Darfur and Afghanistan.

Riven by conflict since the 1991 ouster of a military dictator left Somalia in anarchy, Mogadishu is wracked by an Islamist-led insurgency against the government and its Ethiopian military allies.

My colleagues and I in Somalia often talked about why we did the job. Some of us had left lives and families in the West. Mine was in Canada.

Ali and I asked each other that question many times. He too had a Canadian passport. Ali believed until the end that he was giving Somalis a voice and, like me, kept coming back.


We all had our own way of coping. A motley crew of reporters used to hide out at my Mogadishu home. They teased me about the hours I spent every day with my eyes closed, blocking everything out, listening to John Coltrane.

When the violence woke us before dawn, I tended to my garden. I planted 72 new species this year. The Australian at head office in Nairobi called me The Constant Gardener.

I once forced a reluctant taxi driver to help me save a tortoise. It was caught in the crossfire on a city street. I adopted him. You need to protect something amid such danger.

When I told my 11-year-old son, Liban, about the plants and the tortoise and his homeland, he sent me a text message: "Are you sure these bombs aren't going to your head, Dad?"

Swaying by the wreck in Mogadishu on Aug 11, sure that I've lost my left eye, that I am bleeding to death, that whoever detonated the bomb is near, a local man comes to our rescue.

The man recognises Ali, saying he would be homeless today had the journalist not helped him in hard times.

We race in his car towards Madina hospital, where my parents brought me in my childhood to see an Italian doctor.

The driver speeds through the city and I tell him I don't want to die in an accident on the way to hospital.

I had made myself a favourite of doctors and patients at the hospital this year, often berating journalists for intrusive behaviour: "One day you'll need these doctors to sew you up!"

Now that I need their help, the overworked doctors treat me with the same painstaking care as so many thousands of others I had seen wounded and wheeled through to the emergency room.

I'm with my family in Canada now. I don't know what I'll do -- if I'll go back.

Journalists in Somalia are in more danger than ever before, but if we all leave, there'll be no one to tell the story. Read more!