(Waridaad) - The rebels march 300 strong across
the crunchy earth, young men with dreadlocks and AK-47s slung over their shoulders. Often when they pass through a village, the entire village lines up, one sunken cheekbone next to another, to squint at them. "May God bring you victory," one woman whispered.
This is the Ogaden, a spindly-legged corner of Ethiopia that the urbane officials in Addis Ababa, the capital, would rather outsiders never see. It is the epicenter of a separatist war pitting impoverished nomads against one of the biggest armies in Africa.
What goes on here seems to be starkly different from the image that Ethiopia - a country that the United States increasingly relies on to fight militant Islam in the Horn of Africa - tries to project.
In village after village, people said they had been brutalized by government troops. They described a widespread and long-standing reign of terror, with Ethiopian soldiers reportedly killing civilians, gang-raping women and burning down huts at will.
It is the same military that the U.S. government helps train and equip - and provides with prized intelligence. The two nations have been allies for years, but recently they have grown especially close, teaming up last winter to oust an Islamic movement that controlled much of Somalia and rid the region of a potential terrorist threat.
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.
But an emerging concern for U.S. officials is the way the Ethiopian military operates inside its own borders, especially in war zones such as the Ogaden.
Villagers said the abuses have intensified since April, when the rebels attacked a Chinese-run oil field, killing nine Chinese workers and more than 60 Ethiopian soldiers and employees. The Ethiopian government has vowed to crush the rebels but denies that it abuses 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."
Even so, the State Department, the European Parliament and many human rights groups, mostly outside of Ethiopia, have cited thousands of cases of torture, arbitrary detention and extrajudicial killings - enough to raise questions in Congress about American support of the Ethiopian government.
"This is a country that is abusing its own people and has no respect for democracy," said Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa and global health.
"We've not only looked the other way, but we've pushed them to intrude in other sovereign nations," he added, referring to the satellite images and other strategic help the U.S. military gave Ethiopia in December, when thousands of Ethiopian troops poured into Somalia and overthrew the Islamist regime.
According to Georgette Gagnon, deputy director for the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, Ethiopia is one of the most repressive countries in Africa.
"What the Ethiopian security forces are doing," she said, "may amount to crimes against humanity."
The violence has been particularly acute against women, villagers said, and many have recently fled.
Anab, a 40-year-old camel herder who was too frightened, like many others, to give her last name, said soldiers took her to a police station, put her in a cell and twisted her nipples with pliers. She said government security forces routinely rounded up young women under the pretext that they were rebel supporters so they could bring them to jail and rape them.
"Me, I am old," she said, "but they raped me, too."
Source: NY Times, June 17, 2007
BY JEFFREY GETTLEMAN