"Why I'm coming back home to Ethiopia after 16 years in exile" was the headline of an article on AlJazeera written by a an Ethiopian Oromo seasoned journalist and political analyst Mohammed Ademo on announcing his long overdue home coming. "I want to witness firsthand how my country is undergoing massive change which was unthinkable just a few months ago," Mohammed wrote. That was a remarkable testimony of the wind of change blowing in Ethiopia today. But a testimony no Ethiopian Somali shares. Here is why.
April 24, 2007 was a momentous date for the civilians of Somali Regional State (SRS) of Ethiopia. A major attack on a Chinese Oil exploration site in the Somali Region by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) triggered a huge military crackdown aimed at eliminating the rebel group, but ultimately escalated beyond control. While the crimes being committed in Somali Regional State can be safely likened to Darfur of the recent past, the human rights and humanitarian crisis continues to besiege the former. As early as June 2008, Human Rights Watch (HRW) had described a 'critical situation' as hundreds of civilians were killed, maimed, jailed and fled to neighboring countries including Somalia and Kenya; tens of thousands were also internally displaced. Their only crime was being suspected of sympathizing with the rebel group.
In less than a month, I became a victim of Ethiopia's 2007 military campaign in SRS though I was in Addis Abeba at the time. In May 2007, outside of my dormitory room at Addis Abeba University's (AAU) main campus-Sidist Kilo- I was making a ritual ablution for afternoon prayers as I saw one of my classmates rapidly charging towards me. I assumed he might be in a hurry to catch up on an afternoon class and therefore coming back to pick up his notebooks from the students' residential buildings. However, when he approached me, it was an entirely different story.
It was obvious that my friend's familiar smile was absent from his face. Again, I wondered what could have possibly gone wrong. I never thought for a moment that he was worried about my life, and the imminent danger I was facing which he had just seen for himself. About few minutes later, in a low whisper he said, 'three men from Ethiopia's Intelligence Services are roaming around the campus asking students for your name and whether they know you in person.' I was taken aback in horror as I had been engaged in my daily activities soon to attend an afternoon session in a favorite class of mine, completely oblivious. Of course, I was terrified, but not extraordinarily alarmed due to my familiarity with becoming a sudden victim of the brutality of intelligence services as well as overnight raids which is a norm where I was brought up in the Somali Region.
Like a delicate building falling apart at the touch of a bulldozer, I saw a complete devastation of everything I had dreamt of in terms of my personal career growth, family and my community. In the summer of 2007, I was expecting to obtain my bachelor's degree in Educational Planning and Management but devastatingly witnessed my academic career falter just three months before my graduation. Subsequently, I remained without a proper diploma and was even denied getting the academic credits which I had thus far earned from the AAU.
I only had two options, to fall into the hands of the intelligence officers or to escape. I chose the latter which at the time posed the least amount of risk. However, as a student from Ethiopia's Somali Region who left behind all his family members, fleeing from the country to an unknown destination was both a challenging and bitter experience which has remained a painful memory for me since. I had neither prior international travel experience nor enough money that would take me to a safe place. To complicate things further, I was very reluctant to share what was going on with my late older brother for his own safety and security purposes.
I felt robbed of a normal life by a security system that does not distinguish between the innocent and the guilty. For me, this incident marked the end of any hope of continuing my studies and attending classes at AAU, the end of sitting and reading in my favorite place on campus and of ever returning. My only option was to immediately escape, and though a hard pill to swallow, I accepted the reality and fled the scene. I sneaked under big trees and behind student dorms like a smuggler sneaking around. From that point forward, I embarked upon a rocky and harsh journey towards safety. After several days of hardship and uncertainty, I eventually arrived in Dadaab refugee camp; the world's largest refugee camp located in Kenya.
Loss of loved ones and separation from family members
I was surprised that merely assisting a journalist who was carrying out his duties legally would cause separation from my beloved family members. Because of this, I have not seen most of my family members for over 15 years. I did not know that the only older brother who invested a lot on my upbringing and education, would be punished simply because I helped a New York Times journalist on his quest to understand the internal dynamics of the Ogaden region. When the security forces failed to capture me, they arrested my brother instead and put him in Jail Ogaden, a hell on earth and a notorious prison located in Jigjiga, Somali Region. Multiple human rights organizations such as HRW have reported extensively on the abuses carried out in Jail Ogaden. Most recently on July 5th, 2018 HRW published an 88-page report specifically on Jail Ogaden documenting the constant abuse and use of horrific torture techniques, lack of access to medical care, lawyers, food and even family.
I was horrified to learn that my brother was not only fired from his job but that his innocent children were also affected. Ultimately, I was most devastated to receive the news that he had died from a disease that he contracted from the unhygienic environment in Jail Ogaden which could have been prevented. I did not anticipate that I would be denied from being with my family during such a difficult time or to participate in my brother's funeral who was very dear to me. My story is similar to thousands of Ethiopian Somalis currently forced to live in exile.
Torture and mass incarceration
Tens of thousands of Somali civilians living in the south-eastern parts of Ethiopia are still experiencing serious human rights abuses, which can only be described as a looming existential threat. Torture, beatings, collective punishment, mass incarceration and a persistent economic embargo which has resulted in food shortages is a norm in the Somali Region and the everyday lives of civilians.
When I compare myself to those who have fallen into the hands of the notorious law enforcement agents in the region, I consider myself to be extremely fortunate. In 2009, after taking courses on integration into Dutch society, I re-established myself, embraced my new world and continued with my disrupted studies here in the Netherlands. On 6th September 2009, I started studying a bachelor's degree in European Public Health from Maastricht University.
Dramatic changes in Ethiopia, except in SRS
It is undeniable that the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has taken very swift, encouraging and unexpected but significant political measures in just a few months. One of these dramatic changes includes the resolution that removed three rebel groups from the country's terrorist list. Indeed, this is a positive step taken towards encouraging the peaceful promotion of various political goals in Ethiopia, paving the way for a system where basic rights enshrined within the constitution are fully protected.
Having said that, the newly appointed Prime Minister is not immune from criticism in terms of the government's unchanged policy towards the Somali Region. In the eastern periphery of the country, a culture of impunity and crimes against humanity continue to persist. If not meaningfully addressed, this can amount to potentially damage the reputation of the new Prime Minister as an agent of change and reform.
At this very moment in the Somali Region, mass arrests, the use of torture in detentions centers and deprivation of basic rights is common-practice. The current President of Somali Regional State, Mr. Abdi Mohamud Omar (commonly known as Abdi Iley) has been found implicated not only in orchestrating the systemic violence in the region, but actively participating in the lynching, murder and mass arrest of civilians from all walks of life. Under his command, paramilitary forces in the region known as the 'Liyu Police', a special police force created in 2007, have frequently been involved in extrajudicial killings, rape, torture and violence against the people in Somali Region. Yet, there is no clear sign that the government of Ethiopia is working to hold anyone accountable for the well documented crimes committed in the region by senior officials.
Yesterday, following international uproar as a result of the latest report by HRW, news started to trickle that Abdi Iley visited Jail Oganden and afterwards released all prisoners. The SRS communication bureau claimed the effort was Abdi Iley's earlier promise to transform Jail Ogaden into a Mosque. Residents in the area witnessed the jail was cordoned off by federal security forces who freed some of the high profile prisoners including ex-Police Chiefs Yusuf Jallale, Abdirashid Adaawe and Ibrahim Diliq, deputy regional leader Abdullahi Itoobiya, and ex-Security Chief Jamil Muhumed Gas. The truth is, Abdi Iley' had staged similar stint in February 2018, to join the foray of prisoners release by the federal government, and claimed to have released 1, 500 prisoners. We soon learned that the "freed" prisoners were not only 1, 500, but most were rearrested after photo shots. And jail Ogaden is not the only prison SRS uses to exterminate dissidents. Currently close to 1000 ONLF members are held as prisoners in Bayahow village near Gode.
Thus, at this time, my only concern is whether the plight of the Somalis for the last 27 years or so will attract the attention of the new Prime Minister whose priority is to preach "love and forgiveness." As a concerned citizen, my demands and the demands the Somali people, the third largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, are clear and concise; injustice has prevailed in the region for far too long, so there must be accountability, and justice must be served in a region where the threat of President Abdi Iley is acutely felt in every household.
In a bid to protest against this injustice in their region, Somali elders and have been in Addis Abeba for the past three months, pleading an audience with Prime Minister Abiy. The Prime Minister has yet to meet with them and listen to their concerns. Clearly, this indicates that the Somali plight is not included among the Prime Minister's top priorities.
The current condition of the Somali Region is both a tragedy and a test for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's vision, core values and the new foundations he vowed to lay down to protect the inalienable rights of all peoples. Addressing widespread injustice and ending the patronage system in SRS and ensuring peace and stability are some of the pillars of a peaceful Ethiopia. Right now, that is far from happening and that is why I am not coming home after 14 years in exile. The new Ethiopia may be making home for all its sons and daughters who were unjustly pushed out of the country for decades, but it is not making home to its people of Somali origins. Removing Abdi Iley may herald in the beginning of the change the center is enjoying currently. AS