Four men sitting at a downtown Minneapolis coffee shop recently told me a story that sounded too far-fetched to be true.
Could a humanitarian crisis following the pattern of Darfur, Sudan actually be unfolding while capturing hardly a second of the world’s collective attention, or Minnesota’s?
Even worse, could it actually be true, as these four Minnesotans insist, that this unimaginable massacre is substantially being sustained by U.S. tax dollars and moral support?
Is it possible that entire African
villages are being wiped out Darfur-style by marauding helicopter gunships
belonging to a close American ally, and that new refugee camps are being formed
virtually overnight, as we speak, thanks to Uncle Sam?
This sounded like the vilest
strain of anti-American propaganda. But after a few hours speaking with
these gentlemen, and doing a few more hours of research and checking,
their story seems all too definitely, tragically, true.
The four men are in an ideal
position to know. They are members of Minnesota’s community of immigrants
from Ogaden, Ethiopia – a Montana-sized patch of desert that
has been the scene of global superpower struggles for several decades.
Every day for the past several
months, these four men, along with hundreds of other Ogaden immigrants in
Minnesota, have spent hours every week on their cell phones talking to
loved ones who give them seemingly endless eyewitness accounts of
crimes and horrors in a war zone.
“We hear about mothers being forced to betray their own sons to the
Ethiopian Army, of fathers being handed guns and ordered to kill their own
sons on the spot or to be killed themselves,” one of the men said.
“Every Ogadeni in Minnesota has
friends or family who have been jailed, tortured, or killed. It seems
there is no end to it. We could tell you stories all day for a whole week
and still have more stories to tell you.”
The men asked that their names not
be published, because they said Ethiopian government spies live in
Minnesota who would help the Ethiopian authorities hunt down their family
members in Ogaden to jail them, torture them or worse as a punishment for
talking with the press.
Having the second-largest population of refugees per capita
of any U.S. state (after Florida), and likely the nation’s top state in diversity of refugees, Minnesota has once again become an early-warning
system for crimes against humanity being perpetrated in a faraway country
– this time in eastern Ethiopia.
Minnesota’s Ethiopian immigrant
community is estimated between 13,000 and 20,000, the lower number being
the latest U.S. Census figure, and
the higher a number given by local Ethiopian immigrant groups.
About a fourth of the state’s
Ethiopian immigrants are from Ogaden, whose natives, in contrast to
Ethiopia’s Amharic-speaking Christians, are Somali-speaking
Muslims. And therein lies the problem.
For decades, ordinary Ogadeni
herders and farmers have lived on a literal battlefield over which
Ethiopia and Somalia, acting as proxies for global powers, have
waged waged an epic-length conflict.
A conventional war was fought in 1977-78. More often, counter-insurgency attacks by the Ethiopian government against supposed Ogaden separatists — or now, “terrorists” — have targeted civilians and entire villages, creating vast refugee flows.
The Ogaden landscape today is
littered with the hulks of tanks and rusting weapons used in battles since
1948. That was the year that Britain, then the region’s dominant global
power, ceded Ogaden to Ethiopia, even though nearly all of its five
million inhabitants are ethnically and culturally Somali.
During the Cold War period, the
region’s global powers were the Soviet Union and the United States.
Today, the great global struggle
being waged locally is the “War on Terror.”
Official U.S. foreign policy holds
that the Horn of Africa is one of the world’s top breeding grounds for
radical Islamist terrorists.
An Islamist governnment in Sudan, plus a powerful Islamist faction
in Somalia with the likely support of
nearby Eritrea, have led to the U.S.
embrace of Ethiopia as a close ally in the War on Terror – it being “the
only democratic nation in the Horn of Africa.”
But Minnesota’s large Ethiopian
population challenges that formulation.
If Ethiopia is a democracy how
come thousands of its citizens are fleeing as refugees and asylees to our
state, insisting Ethiopia is a tyranny?
A report published last month by
Human Rights Watch lends credence to the horrific stories told by the four
Ogadeni men at the Minneapolis coffee shop.
The report’s title, “Collective
Punishment,” refers to the practice of wiping out villages based on
rumors that insurgents live there. The report’s subtitle is “War Crimes
and Crimes Against Humanity in the Ogaden.”
Despite Ethiopia’s attempts to
block information about human rights crimes from escaping the Ogaden,
Human Rights Watch said it had received reports of “at least 87 burnings
and forced displacements of villages, many of which involved extrajudicial
killings, torture, and rape across numerous areas of the Somali Region,”
meaning the Ogaden.
Since the late 1970s, when
Ethiopia and Somalia waged a conventional war over the Ogaden, between two
and three million refugees have poured out of region into neighboring
Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti – and then onwards to a global diaspora
In the most recent violence, tens
of thousands of Ogadenis have already been displaced, and an Ethiopian
economic and aid blockade threatens to escalate the humanitarian
catastrophe by orders of magnitude as a result of drought and famine,
Human Rights Watch said.
“The situation is critical,” the
As for the question of funding,
the U.S. is the largest single source of foreign military aid to Ethiopia.
Moreover, total U.S. military aid to the country increased dramatically
after 9/11, when Ethiopia became a close ally of the U.S. in the “war on
According to the
Center for Public Integrity, the U.S. provided $16.8 million in
military aid to Ethiopia in the three years following 9/11, compared to
$928,000 in the three years before 9/11. That is a small percentage of
Ethiopia’s annual $300 million defense budget, but critics say that unofficially,
U.S. support of Ethiopia and its military is far higher.
Overall U.S. assistance to
Ethiopia totaled $474 million in 2007 alone, according to the
U.S. Department of
State. Including other major sources of foreign aid, especially the UK
and the European Union, Ethiopia receives almost $2 billion in aid
“Americans are also a victim in
the Ogaden,” one of the men in the coffee shop said. “Do they know their
tax dollars are supporting a tyranny like this? If they knew, wouldn’t
they want it to stop?”
To reach Doug McGill: firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: In this story’s original version I bluntly characterized the government of Eritrea as Islamist, which was incorrect and misleading. The Eritrean government is composed of members of the country’s sole legal political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, which follows no formal ideology. Yet in 2007, the U.S. and the U.N. both accused Eritrea of providing weapons and support for prominent Islamist factions in neighboring Somalia, as part of Eritrea’s long-running conflict with its neighbor, Ethiopia. Strong evidence has been offered to back this claim. Nevertheless, as I said, the PFDJ is not formally aligned. And it remains even more emphatically true that average Eritreans, who have their own problems with their government, suffer for having the “Islamist” label unfairly tagged onto their entire nation by a U.S. government that is following its own “War on Terror” propaganda campaign. I’m sorry that my original wording sounded like that tag.