Oct 11, 2010

Ogaden: Coercion Towards Joining Security Forces

Recent reports by refugees from the Ogaden region in Ethiopia have uncovered state pressure towards joining the pro-government police force - common means of coercion include false promises regarding monetary rewards and open threats to recruits and their families

Below is an article published by the Lethbridge Herald:

Ethiopian refugees in Kenya say they are being tricked into joining a government security force in a violent region of Ethiopia, and that their families face retaliation if they refuse.

Ethiopia's government says it is unaware of anyone coercing refugees to return or join the new police force it set up in the volatile eastern Ogaden region, which borders chaotic Somalia and is home to a long-simmering rebellion led by Ethiopians of Somali origin.

Putting a local face on Ethiopia's security forces, which Human Rights Watch accused of rape, torture and executions in a 2008 report, is essential to clinching a peace deal with a faction of the rebels. A rebel spokesman said the deal could be reached this month.

The refugees, though, say abuses are still happening, and that many of them are being tricked or coerced into joining the new police force.

"Whenever (the recruiters) meet a young man, they say if you don't go with us, your family (in Ethiopia) will be beaten," said 27-year-old Nur, a refugee who says he fled to neighbouring Kenya nearly two years ago after Ethiopian troops killed his brother and uncle.

Nur said about 10 of his friends have joined the new force. The recruits are lured by the promise of money and an escape from this dusty refugee camp in eastern Kenya, and are frightened by threats to their families.

Nur and 16 other Ethiopian refugees interviewed by The Associated Press late last month asked that their full names not be used to protect them from reprisals. All but one said they had either been recruited, approached by recruiters, or had seen family members join.

The refugees said that recruiters promise money and either a job or the opportunity to go and see how peaceful the region is before returning with their families.

Such offers can be enticing. Even a little cash is a fortune in the Dadaab camps because the Kenyan government prohibits refugees from leaving or seeking work.

The recruits travel in groups of up to 25 by vehicle to the border and then to the Ethiopian town of Suf. There they are given uniforms, guns and training, said the deserters, who said they got some of their information from men who had stayed.

Ethiopia is a military powerhouse in East Africa and a U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaida-linked insurgents in neighbouring Somalia. Last year [2009] it received $865 million in U.S. aid, plus an unpublished amount for counter-terrorism assistance.

It also has a history of forcing its citizens to join pro-government forces, said Leslie Lefkow, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. She said she has heard dozens of stories of forced recruitment. Family members could be beaten, detained or forced to pay money if they couldn't furnish a recruit, she said.

That's what Abdisalam, 38, said happened after he rescued his younger brother and two friends from the recruiters.

"They threatened to kill me," Abdisalam said quietly, as he sat hidden from the baking sun and prying eyes in the mud-walled sitting room of a local youth leader.

Less than a week after he persuaded his brother to return to the overcrowded Dadaab camp, their sister in Ethiopia was jailed. Family members were told it was in retaliation for her brother's "anti-government" activities.

"They said I am a rebel and working against the government," he said. "I told them I'm only saving my brother. Now my sister is in jail. The war that we fled has followed us and we are not safe anywhere."

Ethiopia government spokesman Shimeles Kemal confirmed that the government was talking to one rebel faction and regional authorities had founded a new police force in the Ogaden aimed at "mopping up" the rest of the rebels. But he said he was unaware of any recruitment by government agents in refugee camps.

"That's not possible," he said. "It's not in line with the principles of the regional government ... I have no knowledge of such incidents."

The rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front, founded in 1984, accuses the ethnically Tigray-dominated government of starving Ethiopia's ethnically Somali region of resources and killing its residents. The conflict is also complicated by clan loyalties.

"They are going to claim they have an agreement with the ONLF (rebels) soon," said Abdirahman Mahdi, a London-based rebel spokesman. "Their strategy before was to recruit militias and fight us. This is a new strategy because there is a lot of pressure from the international community for a settlement but people are still very angry."

Mahdi said his faction of the ONLF would not negotiate unless another country was willing to act as a credible guarantor.

In Dadaab, many refugees say they no longer believe peace is possible. Among them was a woman who arrived to speak to AP veiled from head to foot. She was too fearful even to give her first name.

Through a translator, the woman said that five months ago Ethiopian forces came to her home in the Ogaden. They killed the men, she said, and gang-raped the women before throwing them into a fire. After the translator stepped outside, she disrobed in the fading light, pressing a journalist's hand against the bands of puckered burn tissue across her torso.

"I can't forget what happened," she said later. "How can I trust the government speaking of peace?"