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Story Publication logo May 7, 2007

Ethiopia region faces ethnic Somali uprising


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U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops grabbed headlines in late 2006, invading Somalia to drive the Islamic...

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GODE, Ethiopia — The town of Gode sits on an arid plain of brittle yellow scrub brush in Ethiopia's eastern Somali region. It looks like a place a John Wayne character might live and die.

And to be sure, people are dying here as violence from warring factions in the neighboring nation of Somalia spills over into Ethiopia.

"The worst are bullet injuries to the abdomen," said Solomon Muluneh, a 31-year-old Ethiopian general practitioner, one of only two doctors within 100 miles. "When you open the abdomen, you pray because it is a very difficult area."

The bullet wounds are the product of fighting between Ethiopian-government sponsored militias and local rebels. Ethiopian forces crossed into Somalia last year in an ongoing effort to counter the gains made by the Islamic Courts Union, which U.S. officials say has al Qaeda links. Ethiopia accuses the Somalian Muslim group of planning to invade this region and backing the local rebel force, known as the Ogaden National Liberation Front, or ONLF.

Washington sees this lawless region of the Horn of Africa, the continent's gateway to the Middle East, as a linchpin for regional security. U.S. military forces, working with Ethiopian troops, have used this area as a strategic base from which to gather intelligence and coordinate airstrikes on targets in Somalia.

Gode — which sits along the main road that runs from Ethiopia's ethnic Somali region to Somalia's capital of Mogadishu — has the hard-bitten feel of a frontier town. Aside from a handful of government buildings, it is a warren of rickety shelters patched together from mud, wattle and tarps bearing logos of international relief agencies. Beyond the town, tiny thatch dwellings of nomadic Somali herders dot the dusty plain.

But Gode, with a population of 100,000, is more important than it seems. It is at the heart of a region important to U.S. interests, where experts say chronic neglect of the ethnic Somalis, including the dominant Ogaden clan, by Ethiopia's government has sown the kind of anarchy where terrorism thrives.

"That is a brilliant ground for terror because if you want to sustain terror, you will need to have recruits. When you have people who are idle and disorderly and poor and helpless, you have got free fodder," said Peter Edopu of South Africa's Institute for Security Studies.

There is no road connecting Gode directly to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, about 400 miles northwest.

The government has left the region on its own to cope with a cycle of flood and famine that kills hundreds of people each year. Unemployment is estimated at well over 50 percent and food here costs three times what it does in the rest of Ethiopia.

The only thing that comes cheap are guns.

An array of rebel factions opposed to Ethiopian rule have operated here as part of a regional and cultural feud first fueled by British rule in the 19th century. Ever since British colonists begrudgingly bequeathed the area to an Ethiopian emperor more than a century ago, ethnic Somalis here have fought with the "habeisha," or highlanders, as they call the non-Somali Ethiopians.

The rebels want independence for this region, where their Ogaden clan has traditionally lived. But they have formed an alliance with factions inside Somalia that covet the region as part of a "Greater Somalia" along with parts of Djibouti, Eritrea and Kenya where ethnic Somalis live.

The U.S. interest in Gode is plain to see. Barriers block vehicle access to Gode's airstrip and a local hotel, where a U.S. Army Civil Affairs Battalion camped out before they left the area last year.

In a campaign to win hearts and minds, U.S. soldiers drilled wells for water, vaccinated livestock and, according to local lore, barbecued a crocodile dragged from the muddy river.

The U.S. military shares intelligence and expertise with Ethiopia's army and used Ethiopian airstrips to launch airstrikes on suspected al Qaeda redoubts in southern Somalia in January.

"We have a very special relationship with this country because of the things we share," U.S. Ambassador Donald Yamamoto said. "Ethiopia and the U.S. have a commonality of issues. And it's not only the war on terrorism. . . . It's fighting poverty, it's fighting HIV/AIDS, it's fighting malaria."

So far, however, those issues have meant little for Gode's residents. They may live in Ethiopia, but they consider themselves Somalis.

Of the 5.5 million people living this part of Ethiopia, 90 percent are Somali-speaking Muslims and can trace their lineage more than a thousand years back to the same clans now dominating Somalia.

In the stalls at the market, everything from tins of pineapple and cooking oil to cellophane-wrapped shirts has been bought in Somalia.

Whatever the Ethiopian government can't or won't provide, people find in Somalia.

"We don't get adequate drugs from the central government," said Muluneh, who earns less than $200 a month. "Since we have a shortage, we are forced to use the drugs coming from Somalia. There is no quality control. But you can find antibiotics, IVs, anti-malarials, any kind of drug."

Experts, such as Edopu, say the Ethiopian government and the United States would be wise to do more to help Gode instead of focusing on security issues alone. Otherwise, they risk pushing ordinary people into the arms of the insurgency.

Ethiopian officials blame the rebels for the region's woes.

The size of the force is unclear, but the Ethiopian government says it has ties to extremists in Somalia. It has claimed responsibility for several attacks in recent months, including an attack against Ethiopian soldiers guarding a Chinese-run oil field near the Somali border in April that killed 65 troops and nine Chinese workers.

Two weeks after Ethiopian troops invaded Mogadishu in late December, the Ethiopian Red Cross reported more than 200 casualties from fighting between the rebels and government-backed militias. The rebels claimed to have taken control of more than two dozen towns in the region during the same period.

"The main problem in this region is the opposition," said Gode's mayor, Sheik Moktar. "The ONLF is the only barrier for development in the region because they are burning everything that we build here."

Others in Gode said an intricate network of government-paid informants infiltrates everything from dusty coffee stalls to the compounds of international relief agencies. One trader said that district officials warned Gode's merchants not to talk to American journalists visiting the region.

But the Ethiopian administration says it has good relations with the people of the area.

"Somali-speaking people inhabiting our region, they are Ethiopians, they have full rights," Information Minister Bereket Simon said. "They can secede from Ethiopia if they want. Their right is respected to this level so they have never enjoyed better."

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