Why We Don’t Hear About the Conflict in the Ogaden

When an American reporter started digging, he was forced out of Ethiopia.

An abandoned tank sits in the flatlands on the northern outskirts of Ethiopia’s Ogaden region

I had fallen in love. Ethiopia does that to people. It sneaks up on you with its lush, mountainous landscape, its delicious coffee, its beautiful people as warm and welcoming as any in the world. And before you know it, you’re sitting in a restaurant in New York or Nairobi, and all you want to do is speak Amharic, taste injera, and drink honey wine.

The trouble with love, though, is that sometimes it isn’t mutual.

In recent months, reports have begun to spill out of Ethiopia detailing human rights abuses and misuse of food aid in its eastern Ogaden region. Human Rights Watch issued a report urging Ethiopia to stop “abuses [that] violate the laws of war.”

The U.S. government considers Ethiopia an important ally in the war on terror, since it shares borders with Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia, the latter invaded by Ethiopia this past Christmas with Washington’s approval. Ethiopia has not been able to extricate itself from Somalia, and the military has been accused of possible war crimes there. Mogadishu even has a new nickname: “Baghdad on the Sea.”

In addition to sending nearly half a billion dollars in aid money to Ethiopia every year, more than to any other sub-Saharan African country, the United States also supplies the Ethiopian military with funds, arms, and special forces training from Army Rangers.

Yet with all the recent negative attention focused on Ethiopia, it is easy to forget that the country had been on the right track. In 2005, poverty was down, growth was up, the local press was flourishing, and the capital, Addis Ababa, was brimming with hope and excitement about upcoming elections.

When the results of those elections were made public, however, many felt that something was amiss. The opposition, enormously popular in the capital, came up suspiciously short. They called the elections fraudulent. Many election observers agreed. Protests took place throughout the country.

At this moment, with the international community watching, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his ruling party had a chance to show the world that it was indeed a burgeoning democracy. Instead, it took several steps backward and made Western leaders like Tony Blair, who’d appointed Zenawi to his Commission for Africa, look foolish.

Protestors at the 2006 Great Ethiopian Run in Addis Ababa shout for the release of then-jailed opposition leaders, taking advantage of one of the only permitted public gatherings of the last two years

During post-election demonstrations, at least 30,000 people were arrested, and more than 100 were killed. Snipers were used on protesters. All the top opposition leaders were arrested, as was the mayor-elect of Addis Ababa.

I, too, was arrested. At the time I was working for a regional African newspaper, and I had been caught taking photos of federal police beating young boys. For 12 hours I sat on a dirt floor in an old customs house, and, because I am American, I was largely ignored. The detained Ethiopians were beaten and forced to crawl over sharp rocks and hop up and down on bloodied feet. The lucky ones were released after a few weeks. Others were taken to rural prisons and not heard from for months.

The crackdown was remarkably effective. Fledgling newspapers were shut down, and their editors jailed along with the opposition leaders. Average Ethiopians once again became hesitant to speak out in public about anything potentially sensitive. Government agents are everywhere, friends would whisper to me when I tried to initiate conversations about politics.

Initially, I scoffed at their reluctance to talk and told them they were being dramatic. I did not understand that after this short period of euphoria and political engagement, Ethiopia had quickly sunk back into an era of repression and suspicion, an atmosphere of fear exactly like the ones that had defined the country’s previous regimes, one socialist and one monarchic.

Just how naive I was in 2005 did not become clear, however, until this summer, when I began reporting on the region of Ethiopia known as the Ogaden.

The Ogaden is a hot and unforgiving landscape populated almost entirely by ethnically Somali pastoralists; it takes up a large swath of the Somali region of eastern Ethiopia. Depending on whom you ask, it has a population of 4 million or 7 million people.

Long ignored, the government has started to pay closer attention to the region in recent years, not only because of security concerns posed by rebel groups and Islamists from neighboring Somalia, but also because it has realized it has a valuable asset in the possible oil deposits there.

In April, an Ogadeni rebel group attacked a Chinese-run oil field and killed more than 70 Chinese and Ethiopian workers. After the attack, the Ethiopian military swooped in and vowed “to hunt down” the rebels. They began this effort by closing all roads into the region to commercial and humanitarian traffic, and then terrorizing the civilian population.

When three journalists from the New York Times traveled to the region to try to understand why the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a relatively unknown group, had lashed out so violently, they were detained by the Ethiopian military, threatened, had all their equipment confiscated, and were finally released without charge five days later.

Because I was contributing reporting to the Times, the Ethiopian government began to pay attention to me as well. I would later discover that my phone had been tapped months earlier, and there were rumors that I was being followed. While I knew I was under some kind of surveillance, I also knew that I had to begin reporting in earnest on the Ogaden, and so I sought out people who had fled that region and had ended up in Addis Ababa.

In Addis, there are several neighborhoods populated by ethnic Somalis, and one was made up almost entirely of internally displaced people from the Ogaden. I started spending time there, meeting secretly in living rooms with cautious, veiled women and angry men, young and old.

They would tell me their stories and show me their scars. One elderly woman even removed her hijab, exposing her shoulder and back, to show me the grotesque, deep scar hidden there. Ten months earlier, she had been stabbed with a bayonet by an Ethiopian soldier. “He asked me to stand up, and I guess I did this too slowly for him,” she said, focusing her rheumy, blue-rimmed eyes on mine. “He meant to hit my face.”

Every person I interviewed had a similar story. Their villages had been burned. Their men and women had been jailed, tortured, and raped. Many had been killed. One student I spoke with said, “There are only two options for us: Join the rebels or flee.”

After a Times piece detailed these accusations, aid workers and officials within the government became more willing to speak about other things that were happening in the Ogaden, but none would comment on the record or meet publicly. They were afraid to jeopardize their operations in the country. The government had effectively cowed not only the civilian population, but also aid groups, the United Nations, and foreign embassies.

In addition to having my phone tapped, I was now sure I was being followed by plainclothes intelligence agents. On several occasions, after I exited a taxi, the driver would be interrogated by police.

One day, two men in civilian clothes identifying themselves as police officers showed up at my house and questioned my cook, a 15-year-old girl who’d just finished the eighth grade and knew nothing about my work. She was shaken by the experience, and I knew things had changed.

I began to consider leaving Ethiopia. My love for the country collided with my ever-increasing fear and disdain for those who were making my life, and the lives of those who knew me, difficult. For the first time in two years of living in this beautiful place, I was afraid to leave my home. The government’s goal was intimidation, and it was working.

Everyone around me told me to leave, including the U.S. ambassador, who offered to escort me to the airport. It was not an official expulsion, but there was a real chance that I would be arrested and charged under local laws if I stayed. The next day, I reluctantly bought a ticket and packed my bags.

Early on a Saturday morning, I hailed a taxi to take me to the American Embassy. As we pulled away from my house, I noticed my landlord looking out from his door. He had seen me put luggage into the taxi, and I knew he would immediately call the police with this information.

Earlier that week, I had learned that the man I had lived not 200 yards from for two years, the man I paid my rent to and chatted amiably about America with, was an unofficial government spy. In 2005, he had identified and turned in dozens of neighborhood people he suspected of supporting the opposition party. He even appeared on the state-run TV channel urging the ruling party and the police to more effectively punish the city’s young people.

I urged the taxi driver to hurry. At the embassy, I was greeted by the ambassador, who shook my hand and tossed my suitcase into the trunk of his waiting SUV. “I wonder if there’ll be any Ethiopian intelligence guys waiting for you at the airport,” he said, chuckling.

There were not. Only glassy-eyed airport employees and passengers going about the business of waiting. I boarded the plane, and without any fanfare except my own nervous breathing, flew away from Ethiopia—the country I loved that, in the end, didn’t love me back.