The first time I heard Fatima tell her story, I answered in the natural way.
“They killed my husband,” she said.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said.
“And they killed my son,” she said.
“Oh, I’m so sorry for your losses,” I said.
“And they killed my brothers and some of my brothers’ children,” she said, staring at me with eyes that seemed quite without hope and yet that also seemed to ask me, with astonishing tenacity, ‘Are you really listening, do you really understand?’”
I didn’t know what to say to Fatima at this point, as my repeated condolences seemed pointless. So instead I stood up a bit straighter, I took a deep breath, and felt my feet on the ground. I looked back at Fatima with eyes that said that I was willing to stand there and to listen for as long as she wanted.
“And they have killed many of my uncles,” Fatima said.
The Ogaden War
At the Village Market in Minneapolis, the major social hub for Somali-speaking Ethiopian refugees living in the Twin Cities, endless stories like Fatima’s are being urgently swapped every day. They are tales of evil that is so profound it would be unkind of me to suddenly start describing those crimes in detail right now.
You might well not believe the stories anyway. And even if you believed them, you might not believe that such unimaginable crimes could be happening in the world right now, in a little-known corner of Africa called the Ogaden of Ethiopia.
Where are the TV news teams parachuting into refugee camps? Where is the definitive account of the Ethiopian government’s mass destruction of the people and culture of the Ogaden?
Here is more of Fatima’s story (she like the other witnesses in this story offered only their first names, fearing reprisal against their relatives in Ethiopia if they are identified):
“One day the soldiers came and started shooting, they killed my husband in front of me. Then they tortured and beat me in the same place they killed my husband. On that same day the soldiers also confiscated my home and all of my property and all of my money, leaving me homeless and destitute.”
Fatima is a devout Muslim woman who wears a veil and will not shake a man’s hand except through the cloth of her robe. But after telling me this story she stretched out her legs and took off her shoes, to show me her bare feet which are twisted and deformed, from the beatings she said. Today, she limps with a cane.
We in Minnesota have a special role in telling about the Ogaden crisis, because Minnesota is home to the largest diaspora population of Ogaden refugees in the world. Some 5,000 Somali Ethiopians have fled to Minnesota in recent years, fleeing precisely the crimes against humanity that Fatima and others describe.
Last week, I walked through the Village Market and spoke with a dozen Somali-speaking immigrants from the Ogaden region. This is what is happening in the Ogaden today, they said:
• People are thrown alive into bonfires by Ethiopian soldiers;
• Men and women are strangled to death by soldiers who wrap a wire around their necks and pull the wire on either side;
• Innocent goat herders are rounded up by Ethiopian soldiers and lynched from trees;
• Young girls are snatched from their homes by Ethiopian soldiers, put in prisons and gang-raped day after day, their dead bodies finally tossed like garbage on the street.
One Ogadeni Minnesotan said to me: “We could tell you stories like this all day and night for a week, and at the end we still would not have told you all the stories of all the killing and suffering that is happening in the Ogaden today.”
A single crazy person, or a small group of organized zealots, could orchestrate lies and propaganda about such horrors being committed on a genocidal scale. But how could it happen that the first 12 people that you meet at the Village Mall all tell the same types of stories over and over, with the details matching perfectly?
An American Ally
All of these horrific crimes and tortures are, the Minnesota Ogadenis say, committed by uniformed Ethiopian soldiers. Ethiopia is an official ally of the U.S. and receives millions of dollars in U.S. tax-funded military aid every year.
The Ogaden is a Texas-sized patch of land in Ethiopia that is inhabited by some four million Muslim, Somali-speaking citizens, most of them nomadic pastoralists.
The sparse grassland and shrubland of the Ogaden has been a battlefield for years between Ethiopia and Somalia, with each of those two nations often acting as proxies for global superpowers including Britain, the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
In 1956, when Britain left the Horn of Africa, it set up decades of conflict by handing over the Ogaden, which is populated by ethnic Somalis who are Muslims, to Ethiopia which is mainly ethnic Oromo and Amhara, and Christian. A war was fought over control of the Ogaden between Ethiopia and Somalia in 1977-1978.
In 1984, a separatist militia, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), was formed to pursue autonomy or independence for the Ogaden by violence if necessary. In 2007, the ONLF attacked a Chinese-run oil facility in the Ogaden, killing Ethiopian soldiers as well as more than 70 Chinese and Ethiopian civilians.
In response, Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, launched a brutal counter-insurgency against the “terrorist” ONLF in the Ogaden. The recent atrocities against ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden have been a part of that campaign, with entire villages being wiped out on the mere suspicion of harboring ONLF fighters. Families and friends of ONLF soldiers are often killed or terrorized and family members tortured to give up information on their relatives.
Here is the testimony of a man named Hassan at the Village Market:
“I was in my home. One night Ethiopian soldiers broke down the door and took me to a military camp in Dhagahbur and beat me. I didn’t commit any crime and none of my family members are in the ONLF. They used the butt of their guns to hit me anywhere on my body where they thought it would hurt the most. I was put in jail just like this on three different occasions and placed in a tiny, dirty cell. I spent ten months in prison without ever being charged, without any explanation. Every day I was beaten and I suffered many cuts, sores and infections, but there was no hospital and I got no care.”
There has been virtually no major media coverage of the Ogaden crisis, and the U.S. and other governments have taken virtually no action. This is partly because the Ogaden has been sealed off to journalists and aid organizations, with the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders forced to abandon operations there in 2007.
But the Internet is teeming with detailed accounts of specific atrocities much like those described at the Village Market, and many YouTube videos graphically show the results of beatings, torture, killings, looting and rape.
“Still in Prison”
Based on interviews with refugees, thousands of whom have gathered in camps in northern Kenya, and other sources, some human rights groups have also been warning about the Ogaden crisis for several years. In 2008, Human Rights Watch published a 139-page report called “Collective Punishment” that documented “widespread and systematic atrocities” and “war crimes and crimes against humanity” committed by the Ethiopian military against Ogadeni citizens.
The report detailed “routine mass detentions,” “extrajudicial executions,” “rape of women in military custody,” and documented the destruction (sometimes by satellite photographs) of at least a dozen Ogaden villages. Yet the scale of village burnings and other crimes described in the report “is believed to be significantly larger” than those officially documented in the report, its authors warned.
Here is the testimony of a man named Abdulrahman at the Village Market:
“We talk to our friends and family back home, but we never feel safe, because we know that they could be captured, tortured or killed just for talking to us on the telephone. It is a kind of psychological torture we all still suffer in Minnesota. Also there are Ethiopian government collaborators who live here in Minneapolis, who tell the Ethiopian army if we criticize the government, and our family and friends in Ethiopia could be jailed or killed as a result. America is a free country but in this way we are not psychologically free. It is as if we were suffocating and still in prison.”
The atrocities in the Ogaden have even reached the U.S. Congress where Rep. Donald Payne (D-New Jersey), the chairman of the House Subcommitte on Africa, has repeatedly criticized Ethiopia for “deliberating targeting civilians” with “routine raping and hanging” innocent citizens in the Ogaden region. He says the Ogaden crisis is “by far one of the worst” human rights tragedies he has witnessed in his life.
In October last year, Britain balked at committing foreign aid to Ethiopia after Douglas Alexander, the British international development secretary, discovered on a visit to the Ogaden that the crisis was far more severe than he had thought.
In the U.S., various think tanks and social justice groups have called for the U.S. government to similarly pressure Ethiopia. But the U.S., which regards Ethiopia as an ally in the Horn of Africa which helps to rout Islamist terrorists in neighboring Sudan and Somalia, has so far ignored these warnings and calls to action.
The Minnesota Ogadenis, through their constant cell phone conversations with relatives back home, are unearthing troves of new intelligence about the nature and extent of the Ogaden crisis. For example they report:
• A network of political prisons throughout the Ogaden. An enormous prison in the Ogaden capital city, Jijiga, has been known for years to house thousands of innocent civilians rounded up by the Ethiopian military on suspicion of knowing or harboring ONLF fighters. But the Minnesota Ogadenis say that prison quarters are attached to every military garrison throughout the occupied territory of Ogaden including in the cities of Dhagahbur, Aware, Kabridahar, Fiiq, Wardere, Gode, and Garbo. Many Minnesota Ogadenis have spent months or years in these prisons, or have relatives currently suffering there. They offer details about conditions in the prisons, the crimes routinely committed by the authorities against the prisoners, and the names of those who run the prisons.
• Burning people alive in Garbo, Ethiopia. The torture and killing methods used by the Ethiopian military against the Ogadenis changes over time, with new methods evolving that are ever-more cruel and perverse. For a time, strangling people with rope or wire, with two soldiers pulling on either side, was widely reported. Burying children alive has been reported, as has the sodomization of young boys. Sources in the Ogaden told the Minnesota Ogadenis that this past July, Ethiopian soldiers killed six Ogadenis by throwing them alive into a bonfire.
• Attacking nomads outside of town markets. Most Ogadeni towns have markets where nomads bring their livestock to sell, after which they buy food and clothing before returning to their grazing lands. According to Minnesota Ogadenis, these nomads frequently are attacked by Ethiopian soldiers who lie in wait for them outside of town where they steal their food, clothing and provisions and often kill the nomads while doing so.
At one point during my day at the Village Market, a few of us gathered in an office space at the market. Fatima was there along with four other women in veils, and a half-dozen Ogadeni men as well who told me their stories.
We sat on chairs in a circle. As I was listening to another person in the group, I saw Fatima suddenly cover her face with her hands and put her head down towards her lap. Everyone stopped talking.
No one in the group made a move towards Fatima to comfort her. Rather, they allowed her the dignity of her own suffering. Anyway the comfort was simply the supportive presence of the group itself, and everyone knew that was enough.
If was not enough, it was in any case all the comfort there was.
Within a few seconds, Fatima straightened up, daubed her eyes, and everyone continued telling their inconceivable, impossible, true stories of the Ogaden.
Douglas McGill is a former staff reporter for The New York Times and bureau chief for Bloomberg News. To reach Doug McGill: firstname.lastname@example.org. And visit The McGill Report at www.mcgillreport.org.