On the front line of an invisible Ethiopian famine, government forces stand between the dying tribes scattered across a closed hinterland and outside aid.
By Damien McElroy
Ethiopian Woyanne security regime hiding the worsening crisis in the country’s southern Somali region has infuriated important donors. Western officials privately warn that a damaging stand-off with the country is unfolding.
[It is these same shameless U.K. and other Western officials who are bankrolling the unpopular regime of Meles Zenawi to steal elections and stay in power by committing unspeakable atrocities against the people of Ethiopia and Somalia.]
International relief agencies should be celebrating notable breakthroughs in the rush to stop a fresh wave of mass starvation in Ethiopia. Addis Ababa this week conceded that 6.4 million people were on the brink of death and agreed to open up the worst hit parts of the country to shipments of outside assistance.
But hard-won access to the bleak garrison town of Kebri Dehar in the Somali region, also known as the Ogaden, has unveiled the harsh realities of a regime determined to crush a rebel army.
The government strives to proclaim it has the upper-hand against the vicious insurgency waged by the Ogaden National Liberation Front. The desert raiders have waged a war of ethnic separation from Christian-dominated highlands since peace talks broken down in 2005.
In efforts to bolster its claims to have crushed the group, the government has staged Potemkin scenes in Kebri Dehar. Half-filled hospitals are marshalled by clean but uncrowded schools with plasma screen televisions. Meanwhile the streets appeared to have been emptied.
“The groups have been eradicated and the food is now moving freely,” declared local administrator, Bashir Ahmed Abdi.
Nothing rings true in the boast. Two aid workers were kidnapped near Kebri Dehar just this month and are thought to have been spirited over the border to Somalia. British officials in the town reported it was flooded with Kalashnikov-carrying soldiers as recently as Wednesday. Skirmishes between the army and rebel fighters take place with regularity in the surrounding bush.
Five brigades of the Ethiopian army are based in Kebri Dehar’s garrisons. Those caught in the middle of the war are too afraid to speak out against the government line.
School teacher Abdi Wahadi tried vainly to hide his embarrassment that his class size had been reduced to just six pupils, claiming that 70 were expected to enrol by the end of the week, even though the year started in September.
At the hospital the reluctance to acknowledge the impact of the war was clear in the maternity ward. One lone woman sat with a baby. An aid worker shamefacedly explained that two other women with far more malnourished children had disappeared.
“The others must be taken out,” she said. “I’m not sure where they could have gone because the children are severely malnourished. I hope they are within the city limits.”
A UN official went further. “The people’s movements are severely restricted by the government,” the official said. “If they are starving they get past the roadblocks to get into town; if they have any goats left they don’t go to the watering hole because the army targets these; if they are ill they can’t get into the hospitals to be treated.”
In the town’s market, there are hardly any goods. A diplomat in Addis Ababa said the overstretched Ethiopian army, which maintains an expeditionary force in neighbouring Somalia, has indiscriminately blocked movements in the region.
A government ban on truck has stopped food distribution efforts, according to World Food Programme officials. But it has also cut off supplies of consumer goods and durables that used to be imported from Somalia. “It’s difficult to come here,” said nomad Mohammad Farah, “when we get here we have nothing to sell and nothing to buy.”
Oxfam reported this week that two million people are on the brink of starvation in Ethiopia’s Somali region and that the long-term prospects of recovery were blighted by the loss of 60 per cent of cattle and 50 per cent of goats.
Frustrations over the Ethiopian government’s refusal to throw open the doors to foreign assistance threaten a schism between Addis Ababa and its Western allies. “The events in Somali demonstrate too clearly the flaws in Ethiopia’s willingness to engage with us as government and its actions on the ground,” said a European diplomat. “A lot of governments are awkward on both fronts but by mixing its messages Ethiopia has got away with too much, for too long.”