Ethiopia: Ogaden struggle makes the NY Times

The June 18 New York Times features a front-page above-the-fold story by Jeffrey Gettleman, “In Ethiopian Desert, Fear and Cries of Army Brutality”—the first significant account in the “newspaper of record” of the forgotten war on the Ogaden people (which apppears proudly on the Ogaden Online website). The lead photo features dread-locked rifle-toting guerillas of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), with whom Gettleman trudged across the desert, in an area closed to outsiders by Ethiopian government decree. He visited war-ravaged villages where residents told him account after harrowing account of government troops burning homes, killing and abducting residents, and engaging in wholesale rape and torture with impunity.

Georgette Gagnon, deputy director for the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, says: “What the Ethiopian security forces are doing may amount to crimes against humanity.” Human Rights Watch issued a report in 2005 documenting a atrocities by government troops against members of the Anuak tribe in western Ethiopia. After the report came out, the researcher who wrote it was banned by the Ethiopian government from returning to the country. Similarly, three New York Times journalists who visited the Ogaden were imprisoned for five days and had all their equipment confiscated before being released without charges.

The villagers Gettleman visted said abuses have intensified since April, when the guerillas attacked a Chinese-run oil field, killing nine Chinese workers and more than 60 Ethiopian soldiers and workers. The Ethiopian government vows to crush the guerillas but denies all accusations of abuses against civilians. “Our soldiers are not allowed to do these kinds of things,” said Nur Abdi Mohammed, a government spokesman. “This is only propaganda and cannot be justified. If a government soldier did this type of thing they would be brought before the courts.”

The people of the Ogaden desert are mostly ethnic Somalis, and came under Ethiopian rule in 1897, when the British ceded their claim to the area. In 1977-78, Somalia went to war with Ethiopia in a fruitless effort to annex the Ogaden. When the ONLF took up arms in 1994, the central government responded by imprisoning and (rights groups say) assassinating Ogaden civil leaders. The Ogaden is part of the Somali National Regional State, one of nine ethnic-based states within Ethiopia’s federal system. On paper, all states have the right to secede, if they follow the proper procedures. But the rebels say the government crushed civil separatist initiatives, fearing that if the Somalis broke away, so would the Oromos, Afar and other ethnic groups.

The Ethiopian government calls the Ogaden guerillas terrorists, and says they are backed by regional rival Eritrea. One of the reasons Ethiopia invaded Somalia last year was to prevent the guerillas from using it as a base. Ethiopian officials have been pressuring the US State Department to add the ONLF to its list of “foreign terrorist organizations.” Until recently, US officials have refused, saying the rebels had not threatened civilians or American interests. “But after the oil field attack in April,” said one US official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “we are reassessing that.”

Gettleman notes that Ethiopia is seen in Washington as a strategic terror war ally. He writes: “The Bush administration, particularly the military, considers Ethiopia its best bet in the volatile Horn — which, with Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea, is fast becoming intensely violent, virulently anti-American and an incubator for terrorism.”

However, he also notes that the harsh repression there is becoming a propaganda liability for the US. The 2005 national elections were billed as a “milestone on the road to democracy,” he writes, but instead “turned into Ethiopia’s version of Tiananmen Square,” with government troops opening fire on demonstrators, rounding up tens of thousands of opposition supporters. Many opposition members are now in jail or in exile.

“There are no real steps toward democracy,” said Merera Gudina, vice president of the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces, a leading opposition party. “No real steps toward opening up space, no real steps toward ending repression.”

Some on Capitol Hill are disenchanted. “This is a country that is abusing its own people and has no respect for democracy,” said Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-NJ), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa. “We’ve not only looked the other way but we’ve pushed them to intrude in other sovereign nations,” he added, referring to US strategic aid for the Somalia invasion.

Gettleman finds that “American policy toward Ethiopia seems to be in flux.” Administration officials are trying to increase the amount of “non humanitarian” (read: military) aid to Ethiopia to $481 million next year, from $284 million this year. But key Democrats in Congress, including Rep. Payne, “are questioning this, saying that because of Ethiopia’s human rights record, it is time to stop writing the country a blank check.”

See our last posts on Ethiopia and the Ogaden struggle.

  1. Ethiopia responds to Gettleman
    An lengthy official statement from the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry in response to Gettleman’s story (online at EthioBlog) begins:

    In May, Jeffery Gettleman, a journalist from the New York Times with two colleagues, was expelled from Ethiopia. The group had specifically asked to visit Ethiopia as tourists, not as journalists, and had requested assistance from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to obtain tourist visas. It was given. Mr. Gettleman also contacted the Ministry for assistance when there was a query over his camera equipment at the airport. Again, it was given. His subsequent behavior then mimicked that of an intelligence officer, or even a secret agent, rather than that of a reporter. He even crossed the international border into Somalia and then returned to Ethiopia clandestinely. Indeed, as his report makes it clear he had an agenda, not the aim of producing the sort of balanced and fair report that readers of the New York Times might expect. Mr. Gettleman is clearly angry that he was arrested and detained by security forces even though he was hardly behaving in a way that New York Times journalists normally behave outside Africa. His writing reflects this.

    There’s plenty more if you want to read it—seven paragraphs of the usual accusations of loaning-comfort-to-terrorists.

    Behailu Damte on African Path employs similar rhetoric, seemingly blind to the irony of accusing Gettleman of “venting rage”:

    Journalist Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times recently vented his rage at the Ethiopian authorities for arresting him for his illegal venture as a secret agent in the unstable Ogaden. However, to carry out his revenge, he was forced to abandon his basic journalism values that once helped him get from Cornell University to New York Times. Most of all, he ended up justifying the terrorist acts of a rebel group, while victims of such acts were still mourning in Ethiopia.

    Again, there’s plenty more for those with the appetite…

    1. Thank from Ethiopia to Jeffery Gettleman reports on Ogaden
      I am an Ethiopian who live in Addis Ababa and want to extend my appreciation to the dedicated journalist who exposed the plight of Ethiopians in the Ogaden region. I know the Tigrayan ethnic minority regime of Ethiopia tried to convince these journalist by giving a bribe and all they can as they used to do for all Local media journalists and some foreigners who come for investigative reports. As an Ethiopian, I am proud of Jeffery Gettleman’s efforts. Thank You NYC for having and sending such a journalist to Ethiopia.

      Please also try to expose the hidden genocide perpetrated against Oromos (the largest ethnic group which is about 40 million) by the Tigrayan ethnic groups (3 millinon) who are holding all the political and economic power of the country through deceiving President Bush and Tony Blair as if they are fighting terrorism. They are rather committing genocide against their own Ethiopian citizens and Somalis.

      1. Jeffery Gettleman reports on Ogaden
        Jeffery Gettleman reports on Ogaden region he reported the truth the daily misery,unjustice, killing rape detention our people they receive from the ethiopian forces
        on a daily basises.

        Iam from ogaden region and the ethiopian forces they kill 3 of my uncles they took them night time from godey town and they shot them from the head and they don’t allow them to bury my uncles they were innocent civilian and they commited no crime.

        ethiopian forces they are commiting crime against the humanity they are not allowed outside journalist like Jeffery Gettleman to tell the truthe and report the unjustice killing disapearance.(media black out)

        ethiopia cut out ogaden region from the rest of the world, no roads, no hospitals, no education, no media, the live is unpearable.

        the world are ignoring the suffering of the ogaden people on the hands of the ethiopian forces. the ogaden region is under-developed.
        since the ethiopian imperalist invaded our country nothing have changed except more killing more torture, more arrest and desapearance.
        our people crying for justice and recognition but the world have ignored and the western countries supporting and giving the ethiopian government aid and military hard ware which is been use to kill and crush the ogaden people.

        the journalist mr.fery Gettleman he is our hero he shed a light the suffering of ogaden people and iam hoping he will report more and i would like the other international journalist to see and visit the ogaden region and report the mass murder ethiopia forces commiting to ogaden people.
        which is against the human rights of our people.

        ogaden people they need freedom and justice like everyone else. ethiopia is invaded ogaden region and also invaded somalia which against the international law. ethiopia is new isreal of africa invading countries and killing innocent people discremenatly. look what they doing to mogadishu residents attacking with helicopters tunks and anything they can fire ethiopia must be stop before they invade any more african countries .

        ethiopia have a green light from america to invade somalia
        and wipe out the somali nation from the earth. is this a justice is this a mad world time will tell.

        ahmed halgame