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Horrors of Ethiopia war get little notice

Hundreds have died as ethnic Somali rebels fight for autonomy. Troops are accused of indiscriminate killings.

March 23, 2008|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

NAIROBI, KENYA — The teenager awoke under a pile of corpses to a pricking sensation on her face. Ants were biting her eyelids and the inside of her mouth.

The pain, however, brought relief to the 17-year-old.

"I thought, 'I'm alive,' " Ridwan Hassan Sahid remembers. She felt blood oozing from rope burns around her neck and the weight of a body against her back. But fearing that the Ethiopian soldiers who had left her for dead in a roadside ditch would return, she quickly brushed away the ants and shut her eyes, then slipped back into unconsciousness.

The brutal assault and her miraculous escape mark one of the most chilling stories to emerge from an unfolding tragedy in eastern Ethiopia that has largely escaped the attention of a world transfixed by the humanitarian crisis in neighboring Sudan's Darfur region.

Ever since exiting colonialists arbitrarily stuck a triangle-shaped wedge of land with 4 million ethnic Somalis inside Ethiopia's border, violence and suffering have plagued the region. Now, many of them have been caught up in a war between the Ethiopian government and a separatist group known as the Ogaden National Liberation Front.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed and tens of thousands were displaced in the last year alone, though exact figures are unknown because the area is remote and Ethiopian officials restrict access for humanitarian groups and journalists.

Survivors such as Sahid offer the only glimpse of the tragedy. The petite young woman, who lives at a secret location, shared her story recently with The Times.

Now 18, Sahid at times seems to be an average teen, picking absent-mindedly at her henna-stained fingernails and blushing when strangers express interest in her.

But behind her soft brown eyes is a weariness that belies her age, and a necklace of scar tissue rings her throat where the rope cut into her skin.

She recounts her ordeal without emotion. Only occasionally does her veneer crack long enough for a tear to roll down her check, which she self-consciously laughs off and wipes away.

"I wonder sometimes," she says, "what kind of life I can have now."

She grew up in the village of Qorile with eight siblings. The family, like most everyone else in the area, were semi-nomadic cattle and sheep herders.

Ever since she can remember, Ethiopian authorities have been seen as the enemy.

"We feel as if we are living under occupation," she says. "We grew up afraid of them."

The Ogaden conflict dates to the 1940s, when, after World War II, European nations lost or began to relinquish their colonies in the Horn of Africa.

After some years under British administration, Ogaden and surrounding areas were placed under Ethiopian control, but the decision was never accepted by the ethnic Somalis living there, spurring two wars between Ethiopia and Somalia and spawning a string of rebel movements seeking autonomy or unification with Somalia.

Ethiopian officials accuse the Ogaden rebels of using terrorist tactics, including bombs, land mines and harassing the civilians it claims to represent. In April 2007, the rebels killed more than 70 people at a Chinese-run exploration facility in the region.

The attack prompted what aid groups and witnesses call a heavy-handed response by the Ethiopian government. Troops are accused of burning down villages believed to be rebel havens, raping women, forcibly recruiting young men into government militias and imposing a commercial blockade that sent food prices and malnutrition rates soaring.

"They used mass indiscriminate measures to collectively punish the entire population," Human Rights Watch researcher Leslie Lefkow said.

Ethiopian officials deny any widespread human rights abuses and blame rebels for the violence. "They are working with internationally known terrorists," said Zemedkun Tekle, spokesman for Ethiopia's Information Ministry.

Sahid says her family always tried to stay out of the fray: "We are not political people."

But she found herself caught in the middle in July, when several hundred Ethiopian troops surrounded her village. Her father was away tending animals in the fields and her mother was shopping in a nearby town. Sahid was washing her face when soldiers kicked in the door that morning.

"You are guerrillas," they shouted as they ransacked the house, stealing food and supplies, Sahid remembers. She escaped through a back door and huddled with other frightened villagers. Soon soldiers gathered them all at a well and read names from a list of "spies" and rebel sympathizers.

"Nobody knew who would be selected, but you knew if your name was called, you would be killed," says Fathi Abdulla, 22, a cousin of Sahid who lives in the same village. Sahid froze when she heard her name called. She and 10 others were taken to the school, which became a makeshift prison for interrogation and torture.

"They took us one by one," Sahid says.

Soldiers accused her of taking supplies to rebels. They tied her hands and legs together behind her back.

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