Washington, D.C. — A human rights advocate has told the United States Congress that the current situation in the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia has striking similarities to Darfur in the run-up to the humanitarian crisis in 2003 and 2004.
"The Ogaden is not Darfur," Saman Zia Zarifi, the Washington advocate for Human Rights Watch, told the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health at a Tuesday hearing on the state of Ethiopia's democracy.
"But the situation in Ogaden follows a frighteningly familiar pattern - a brutal counterinsurgency operation with ethnic overtones in which government forces deliberately attack civilians and displace large populations, coupled with severe restrictions on humanitarian assistance."
The long-simmering conflict in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia's Somali state has escalated in recent months. In April, the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) attacked a Chinese oil installation, resulting in the death of 77 people, including nine Chinese oil workers. In response to this attack, the Ethiopian government launched a counterinsurgency campaign.
Zarifi accused the Ethiopian military of "trigging a looming humanitarian crisis." He reported that Human Rights Watch has learned that the Ethiopian military has killed hundreds of civilians in their counterinsurgency campaign.
Most worrying, according to Zarifi, is the widespread sexual violence: "We have spoken to several rape victims who were gang-raped to the point of unconsciousness by Ethiopian soldiers who took them from their homes and raped them either at the army bases - suggesting that the army allows such abuses - or in the bush. Some of the girls were killed after the rapes, and a few suffered serious injuries and infections and later died."
Another panelist, Fowsia Addulkadir, a founding member of the Ogaden Human Rights Committee of Canada, said that the rapes are spreading HIV/Aids at an alarming rate.
Jendayi Frazer, the top diplomat for the United States on Africa, also testified before the committee, emphasizing the importance of finding a political solution to the crisis before the Ogaden region becomes engulfed in a major humanitarian crisis. Frazer had just returned from a visit to Goda, an area of the Ogaden region.
"The United States has seen numerous allegations of human rights abuses conducted by all parties, including reports of burned villages and population displacements," Frazer said.
Frazer said that both the Ethiopian military and OLNF have restricted humanitarian access and commercial trade in the region. According to Frazer, three aid workers were killed when their vehicle hit a landmine placed by the ONLF in July.
Additionally, Frazer said that the government of Eritrea continues to support the ONLF. Top ONLF officials denied this charge in a recent interview with AllAfrica. Frazer was especially critical of Eritrea, a country that Frazer said last month the United States was considering adding to the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The Ethiopian government has consistently called for the ONLF to be labeled by the United States as a terrorist organization. Frazer hesitated to go that far when asked if the U.S. had considered such an act:
"We really looked at the ONLF differently after the killing of the Chinese workers in the Ogaden, but we have not declared it a terrorist organization."
Zarifi took a different line, stating that the ONLF is "widely viewed as a secular nationalist group," adding, "Indeed, prior to Ethiopia's demand that U.S. forces withdraw from the Ogaden, the U.S. military apparently cooperated with the ONLF in efforts to monitor the region for alleged terrorist activity."
Subcommittee chair Donald Payne encouraged the American administration to pursue negotiations with the ONLF. "The ONLF have indicated that they want to be part of Ethiopia and are willing to have negotiations. However, no one seems interested in dialogue," he said. "I met with the ONLF right here in Washington a week ago."
Frazer said that State Department officials have met with ONLF officials and the United States has urged the ONLF to renounce violence as a first step toward negotiation.
Zarifi, however, had harsh criticism for the administration's policy on the Ogaden: "We are alarmed by any indication that they will have to wait. How much worse can it get? We cannot afford to have another Darfur-like situation in Africa before the administration takes a stronger line."