Somali women fighters from the Ogaden region of Ethiopia.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
Tue Jan 22, 2008 11:52am
By Barry Malone
OGADEN, Ethiopia, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Mariam Qorana had worried about getting caught between the Ethiopian army and separatist rebels even before a bullet flew through the wall of her hut and hit her below her right breast 10 days ago.
"I was afraid," says the mother of 10, struggling to speak to foreign journalists who have arrived at her bedside in the remote Gode Hospital in Ethiopia's Ogaden region.
The 24-year-old low-level insurgency in the vast, ethnically Somali area flared in April, when Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebels killed 74 people at a Chinese-run oil field and warned foreign companies not to invest.
Ethiopia responded with a swift offensive, and accused the ONLF of being "terrorists" sponsored by arch-foe Eritrea. Both sides accuse each other of human rights abuses, which both deny.
Qorana has no idea which side shot at her hut.
Taking journalists -- accompanied by government minders -- on the first tour of the region since the flare-up, the Ethiopian government says the conflict is over, development is on the rise and Ogaden is tasting real peace.
"The situation is very calm now. We have completely destroyed [the ONLF]," Regional President Abdullahi Hassan told journalists on the recent trip.
The ONLF denies that, and there is little doubt armed conflict and suffering have not gone away.
Zelalem Eshetu, the doctor treating Mariam at Gode Hospital, said he has admitted 12 people with gunshot wounds in the last three months, mostly civilians.
Aid groups have said the fighting is blocking vital trade routes and creating refugees and that as a result of conflict and bouts of flooding and drought, some 953,000 people need aid.
Around the hospital, several women sit cradling their severely malnourished children. Reporters crowd around one two-year-old whose emaciated face stirs memories of the 1984 famine that briefly brought Ethiopia world attention.
Under international pressure, the government last year licensed 19 groups to work in the region and let the United Nations open three relief offices.
'I HATE THEM BOTH'
The government took journalists to irrigation projects, dams, roads under construction and nomad settlement projects. Development officials are enthusiastic in explaining their work.
But many locals say development has been hampered by fighting and that the vital trade in animals is still affected.
At the Gode animal market, nomadic herders, the majority of the Ogaden's population, arrive to trade goats, sheep and camels, many having travelled long distances on foot.
Those interviewed through official interpreters say there are no problems, prices haven't risen in the last year, trade routes have not been blocked and they've seen no fighting.
But one young man walks close to the group and whispers that he speaks English.
"Business is very difficult for us," he told Reuters. "Because there is fighting between the government and the ONLF we can't move our animals. We are stuck."
He starts to walk backwards, his eyes darting around the watching faces in the crowd.
"Government soldiers are here," he says. "And people who talk are thrown in prison or killed."
These fears are repeated right across the sandswept region whenever people are approached by foreigners or catch sight of the ever-watchful government guides, one of whom wears a hat bearing the slogan "Our dreams, our future."
In Dega Habur town, men sit lazily chewing narcotic khat leaves in the searing afternoon sun, while soldiers armed with AK-47s stroll around, some also chewing the drug.
"My sister was raped by three government soldiers," says an old woman who refuses to give her name. "They burned her village and she had to run far away."
The government is not the only source of fear. Locals say the ONLF steals food and forces people to fight by killing those who refuse. Elders in the regional capital, Jijiga, blame the ONLF for assassinations and regular grenade attacks in town.
"They slaughter livestock, burn farmland and make people miserable," says Salub Abdallah Mohammed, a 50-year-old elder.
At Gode Hospital, a young man who has come to visit his sister is in no doubt who is to blame for the Ogaden's plight.
"I hate them both," he said, refusing to give his name. "The government and the ONLF. They should take their fighting far into the desert and continue with it until they are both gone. Then we can stop being frightened."