[DEBATE] : Ethiopia Is Said to Block Food to Rebel Region
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Sun Jul 22 17:44:20 BST 2007
July 22, 2007
Ethiopia Is Said to Block Food to Rebel Region
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
NAIROBI, Kenya, July 21 — The Ethiopian government is blockading
emergency food aid and choking off trade to large swaths of a remote
region in the eastern part of the country that is home to a rebel
force, putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk of starvation,
Western diplomats and humanitarian officials say.
The Ethiopian military and its proxy militias have also been siphoning
off millions of dollars in international food aid and using a United
Nations polio eradication program to funnel money to their fighters,
according to relief officials, former Ethiopian government
administrators and a member of the Ethiopian Parliament who defected
to Germany last month to protest the government's actions.
The blockade takes aim at the heart of the Ogaden region, a vast
desert on the Somali border where the government is struggling against
a growing rebellion and where government soldiers have been accused by
human rights groups of widespread brutality.
Humanitarian officials say the ban on aid convoys and commercial
traffic, intended to squeeze the rebels and dry up their bases of
support, has sent food prices skyrocketing and disrupted trade routes,
preventing the nomads who live there from selling their livestock.
Hundreds of thousands of people are now sealed off in a desiccated,
unforgiving landscape that is difficult to survive in even in the best
"Food cannot get in," said Mohammed Diab, the director of the United
Nations World Food Program in Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian government says the blockade covers only strategic
locations, and is meant to prevent guns and matériel from reaching the
Ogaden National Liberation Front, the rebel force that the government
considers a terrorist group. In April, the rebels killed more than 60
Ethiopian guards and Chinese workers at a Chinese-run oil field in the
"This is not a government which punishes its people," said Nur Abdi
Mohammed, a government spokesman.
But Western diplomats have been urging Ethiopian officials to lift the
blockade, arguing that the many people in the area are running out of
time. "It's a starve-out-the-population strategy," said one Western
humanitarian official, who did not want to be quoted by name because
he feared reprisals against aid workers. "If something isn't done on
the diplomatic front soon, we're going to have a government-caused
famine on our hands."
The blockade, which involves soldiers and military trucks cutting off
the few roads into the central Ogaden, comes as Congress is
increasingly concerned about Ethiopia's human rights record.
Ethiopia is a close American ally and a key partner in America's
counterterrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa, a region that has
become a breeding ground for Islamic militants, many of whom have
threatened to wage a holy war against Ethiopia.
The country receives nearly half a billion dollars in American aid
each year, but this week, a House subcommittee passed a bill that
would put strict conditions on some of that aid and ban Ethiopian
officials linked to rights abuses from entering the United States. The
House also recently passed an amendment, sponsored by J. Randy Forbes,
a Virginia Republican, that stripped Ethiopia of $3 million in
assistance to "send a strong message that if they don't wake up and
pay attention, more money will be cut," Mr. Forbes said.
Ethiopia's pardon on Friday of 30 political prisoners who had been
sentenced to life in prison could ease some criticism. But Senator
Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, is pushing ahead with measures
to more closely vet assistance to the Ethiopian military. According to
human rights groups and firsthand accounts, government troops have
gang raped women, burned down huts and killed civilians.
American officials in Ethiopia said they were trying to investigate
the situation but that the Ogaden was too dangerous right now for a
fact-finding mission. American officials said they had heard
persistent reports of burned villages and that the blockade was
putting the area on the cusp of a crisis.
Villagers say that anyone who criticizes the government risks getting
killed. According to Ogaden Online, a Canadian-based news service that
has been highly critical of the Ethiopian government and covers the
region through a network of reporters and contributors, some equipped
with satellite phones, four young men who were videotaped by The New
York Times at a community meeting in an Ogaden village in May were
later tortured and executed.
The claim could not be fully verified independently, but their
identities may have been discovered by Ethiopian soldiers who had
arrested three journalists for The Times in the Ogaden and confiscated
their notebooks, cameras and computers.
"The army is out of control," said Jemal Dirie Kalif, the member of
Parliament who defected.
The blockade has been in place since early June, and thousands of
people have already fled on foot and by camel. Two weeks ago,
Abdullahi Mohammed, a 17-year-old student, walked from his village
deep in the Ogaden to the nearest town with a bus station. He carried
with him a few pieces of bread. He said that when he stopped to ask
villagers in the Ogaden for food, they asked him for some instead.
"They had nothing," he said.
Though good rains this year have fed the few crops in the area and
provided a little cushion, "The most these people can last without
facing serious problems is one month, maybe two," said David Throp,
country director for Save the Children UK.
Even if relief trucks are allowed in to all the critical areas, the
food might not reach the people who need it. According to humanitarian
workers and several former Ethiopian officials, including Mr. Kalif,
food aid is embezzled in two stages. First, soldiers skim sacks of
grain, tins of vegetable oil and bricks of high-energy biscuits from
food warehouses to sell at local markets.
"The cash is distributed among security officers and regional
officers," a former government administrator from the Ogaden region
said in a recent telephone interview on condition of anonymity because
he still works with government officials.
Then the remaining food is hauled out to rural areas where the
soldiers divert part of it to local gunmen and informers as a reward
for helping them fight the rebels. The former administrator said he
also knew of specific cases in which army officers stole food from
warehouses and gave it to the families of women whom their soldiers
had raped, as compensation.
Several Western humanitarian officials estimated that 20 to 30 percent
of the donor countries' food aid to the Ogaden — aid that last year
was valued at more than $70 million — routinely disappears this way.
To cover their tracks, the soldiers and the government administrators
who work with them tell the aid agencies that the food has spoiled, or
has been stolen or hijacked by the rebels, humanitarian officials
Relief workers in Ethiopia have known about these problems for several
years, a humanitarian official said, and have tried to set up
committees of local elders to oversee distribution. But that did not
work either, and aid officials eventually concluded that as long as
the majority of the food was getting through, they would not stop the
When informed about these allegations, Mr. Diab of the World Food
Program said, "This is the first I've heard of them."
Mr. Mohammed, the government spokesman, denied that Ethiopian troops
were pilfering or mishandling foreign aid. "We don't do that," he
As the food crisis looms, Western diplomats are also concerned about a
separate plan by the regional government in the Ogaden to divert a
share of its own budget for development projects — like schools and
farming — to the Ethiopian military.
This seems to be part of the Ethiopian government's strategy to do
whatever it takes to crush the rebels, who have deep popular support
and, according to the government, are getting arms and training from
neighboring Eritrea, Ethiopia's bitter enemy.
The people of the Ogaden are mostly Somalis and ethnically distinct
from the highland Ethiopians who have ruled the country for centuries,
and the long battle over the region has been steadily escalating this
year. The country director of one Western aid agency, who recently
returned from a field visit there, said he saw two villages that had
been burned to the ground and several schools that had been converted
into military bases, with foxholes.
Humanitarian officials say the military is building up militias and
setting the stage for clan-based bloodshed. The rank and file of the
Ogaden National Liberation Front tend to be members of the Ogaden
clan, and so the government has turned to other clans to form
anti-rebel militias. In the past few weeks, thousands of men have been
"Those Ethiopians are smart," Mr. Kalif, 32, said. "They know Somalis
are more loyal to clans than anything else." Tactics like these, he
said, drove him to defect June 20 while attending a conference in
Wiesbaden, Germany. He was affiliated with the ruling party, and had
been representing an area in the eastern Ogaden for the past seven
He described a scheme with a United Nations polio program, which was
corroborated by two former administrators in the Ethiopian government
and a Western humanitarian official, in which military commanders gave
prized jobs as vaccinators to militia fighters, and in the end, much
of the polio vaccine was never distributed.
"Army commanders are using the polio money to pay their people, who
don't pass out the vaccines, so the disease continues and the payments
continue," said Mr. Kalif. "It's the perfect system." United Nations
officials in Geneva said they did not know whether that was happening,
but that they would investigate.
When asked how he knew about the polio scheme, Mr. Kalif said:
"Everybody out there knows. They're just too scared to talk."
"If I don't get asylum and they send me back to my country, I'm dead,"
he added. "But I was sick of being a parrot. I have no regrets."
Will Connors contributed reporting from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
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