ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- After the battle he was given the ugly task of counting the bodies and separating them--Ethiopian from Chinese. This wasn't an easy job. Each time he finished the tally, he'd forget the number and have to start again. This happened to Omar Muktar four times. He was shocked by what he had just seen and participated in.
He counted the body of a Chinese oil worker who lay partially covered by a cardboard box. Next, there was the body of a uniformed teenager, one of the Ethiopian guards assigned to protect the Chinese. A group of five bodies lay across a wooden set of stairs near the barracks, where staff from China's Zhoungyan Petroleum Exploration Bureau [ZPEB] lived, just outside the town of Abole, in Ethiopia's Ogaden desert.
These are Muktar's recollections. On April 24, 2007, he along with several hundred separatist rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front [ONLF] attacked the Chinese-run oil installation near Abole. They entered the barracks in time to see the Chinese flee. Those who were too slow tried to hide under beds or in closets before they were shot at close range. Sometimes they were shot in the head, Muktar said, which made it very difficult to identify them later.
Survivors were marched outside, lined up and executed by the ONLF. The separatists rebels had warned the foreign oil companies, including ZPEB, against working with a government that was waging war against them. For the ONLF, any oil money to be made would almost certainly go toward buying more of the weapons and ammunition used to suppress them.
The government in Addis Ababa was humiliated by the ONLF attack, which underscored its inability to provide security to international businesses operating in remote parts of the country. Worse still, the attack occured just as Ethiopia was beginning to attract foreign investment. The oil companies were shaken, and demanded meetings with top officials and security guarantees. The government complied. Within weeks, the military launched a counter-insurgency campaign, which continues today, and is characterized by the destruction of towns and villages, beatings, executions and the forced resettlement of thousands.
Ethiopia's Ogaden is home to a Somali-speaking people--an ethnic extension of the lawless nation to the east--and a profound sense of marginalization exists among them. Their homeland is one of the poorest and most underdeveloped regions of Ethiopia. But while many accuse Ethiopia's Christian-led government of persecuting the Ogadeni because they are Muslim, the real reason likely has more to with the oil and natural gas that may lie beneath their ancestral land.
Ethiopia remains one of America's most important allies in the Horn of Africa, receiving more than $1 billion in aid from Washington in 2008 alone. But Ethiopia is quickly becoming a public relations nightmare for the United States. Since 2008, as many as 40 villages have reportedly been destroyed, and many of the people have been displaced. The inhabitants were then ordered to move to larger towns nearby, but many refused, instead becoming refugees in neighboring Kenya and Somaliland--an island of stability since it broke-away from Somalia in 1991. The UN High Commission for Refugees reported that an average of nearly 500 Ethiopian Ogadenis arrived in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camps each month throughout 2009. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians now live there, along the remote Somali border in northeastern Kenya. Those with some money, means or connections might live in the nearby towns of Garissa or Wajir, or the Eastleigh section of Nairobi--where I met Muktar.
We were first introduced at the New Hiddig Palace, a small hotel on a dead-end street in Eastleigh, a Nairobi neighborhood run by ethnic-Somalis, who are the majority in this section of Kenya's capital city. Refugees, many living here illegally, feel comfortable and reasonably secure meeting in the New Hiddig--away from police who beat them or Ethiopian intelligence officials, who also cause trouble. Muktar told me that his village was first harassed by the military in the summer of 2006 when the Chinese arrived in Abole. Most of the locals employed by the Chinese were Christians, either Amhara or Tigray, the politically dominant ethnic groups in Ethiopia. His village elders began complaining to local authorities that Ogadenis were not being hired. They were told that the decision was the federal government's, completely out of the hands of local or regional authorities.
At night they heard music from the workers' camp and saw them mingling with soldiers, barbequing meat behind the barbed wire fences, which separated the oil field workers' camp from the villagers. This pattern continued for several weeks, with workers leaving their camp early each morning and returning at dusk, when they would enjoy a life that was closed-off to the Ogadenis. Then the Chinese cleared the nearby villages for road construction and seismic testing. "We were ordered by the military to abandon our house, and this was without being paid anything in compensation. Within days, Chinese bulldozers, backed by Ethiopian army tanks, began clearing our village," Muktar recalled.
Houses and nearby farms were torched, and bulldozers were called in to level the ground. The Chinese bulldozers had been busy: in previous months they had done the same in other villages throughout the region. The ONLF--which is believed to have connections with Hizbul Islam, one of two main Islamist insurgent groups in neighboring Somalia--saw in the destruction an opportunity, and began recruiting young men throughout the region by appealing to their sense of injustice at being colonized by "highlanders" (the Amhara and Tigray ethnic groups from the north) and the Chinese. For months, Muktar said, "we listened to them. But we never believed them until our village was cleared. Then I joined the rebels, and we killed the Chinese and the Christian highlanders too."
But after the battle, after the ugly task of counting the bodies and separating them, Muktar said he was disgusted and felt trapped by the rebel and government brutality. With help from his family and money borrowed and saved, he crossed into Kenya illegally and over the course of months, drifted slowly south until he reached Nairobi.
Teetering on the Edge
After the 2007 attack, the conflict between the ONLF and Ethiopian military intensified. The counter-insurgency campaign was re-ignited and featured a crippling cross-border trade embargo and restrictions on the movements and activities of...