BOSSASSO, Somalia — The Ethiopian government is starving and killing its own people in the remote eastern Ogaden region, according to refugees, who describe a terrifying four-month crackdown in which security forces have sealed off villages, torched homes and businesses, commandeered food and water sources, and beaten, raped or executed anyone who resists.
Hundreds of civilians already may have been killed in the crackdown on a separatist movement known as the Ogaden National Liberation Front, according to interviews with dozens of Ogadenis who've gathered in a steadily growing refugee camp in this steamy port city 300 miles from the Ethiopian border.
"They strangled my wife with a rope," said Ahmed Mohammed Abdi, a 35-year-old farmer from Degehabur province, who came home one day this month to see his wife's body lying by the door, his 1-month-old son still suckling at her breast. That night, he fled into the bush and began a seven-day trek to the relative safety of northern Somalia.
"If you come and try to identify the dead body, the soldiers will beat you also," said the wiry, wide-eyed Abdi. "I was afraid to be killed, so I ran away."
A top aide to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi rejected the allegations. The government has barred reporters and international relief groups from most of the region, a vast desert that stretches from the central Ethiopian highlands to the border with Somalia.
In July, Ethiopia expelled the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross from the Ogaden, accusing its workers of aiding the rebels. Last week, the aid agency Doctors Without Borders said it also had been denied access, and it warned of a major humanitarian crisis.
Some aid workers worry that the Ogaden could become a second Darfur, referring to the Sudanese government crackdown on insurgents in that country's Darfur region, which the United States has labeled genocide. In this instance, the United States has come out in support of Ethiopia, one of its most important African allies in the war on terrorism.
The U.S. has helped train Ethiopia's military — one of the largest and best equipped in Africa — and backed its recent invasion of Somalia to topple a fundamentalist Islamic regime there. Last week, after visiting one town in the Ogaden, Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer condemned the rebels and said reports of military atrocities were unsubstantiated.
"We urge any and every government to respect human rights and to try and avoid civilian casualties," Frazer said, "but that's difficult in dealing with an insurgency."
The accounts given by dozens of refugees in Bossasso this week paint a grim picture: Ethiopian forces burning or blockading scores of towns and villages in a strategy seemingly aimed at starving the population, which widely supports the insurgency.
Since June, soldiers have confiscated food and medicine from shops, stolen camels and livestock and blocked people from using water wells, refugees said. Few commercial trucks have been allowed in, and relief workers say that food and humanitarian aid also has been stopped for most of the summer.
The people, mainly ethnic Somali nomads and farmers, are surviving on the meat and milk of their remaining goats.
"They burned down my house," said Fatima Abdi Mohammed, a 40-year-old mother of six from a village near the eastern town of Warder. When she tried to protest, soldiers beat her with the handles of daggers, she said.
"There is no water, no food, no health services. If people leave to fetch water with camels, they are killed or beaten."
Many refugees said women in their villages had been raped. Khadar Sherif Ahmed, 22, a villager from Degehabur, said he'd watched security forces storm a mosque and fatally stab five people — the oldest an 80-year-old man, the youngest a child of 8.
Bereket Simon, a senior aide to Prime Minister Zenawi, denied that soldiers were abusing or killing civilians.
"We are singling out the terrorists. We know how to deal with insurgents," he said. "This army is well trained, and they know their mission."
Earlier this month, Ethiopian forces escorted a U.N. fact-finding mission through parts of the Ogaden, but the team wasn't allowed to visit areas that refugees described as the worst affected.
Ethiopian officials accuse the separatist movement of fighting Ethiopian troops in Somalia and of receiving weapons and funding from archenemy Eritrea.
The movement grew out of decades of neglect by successive governments in Addis Ababa, which left the region the least developed part of one of the world's least developed nations. Land-line and mobile phone networks barely function; walkie-talkies are the most reliable form of communication.
Long-simmering tensions flared in April when fighters from the Ogaden National Liberation Front raided a Chinese-run oil installation in the region, killing 74 people. Within weeks, Ethiopian forces had launched their reprisals.
Now the walkie-talkies have been confiscated, the land lines are dead and anyone caught using a cell phone risks a beating or worse, refugees said. Ogadenis caught on the roads also are dealt with harshly.
Sadiq Mohammed Ali, a 34-year-old businessman from Korahe province, was transporting a herd of goats to Bossasso last month with four employees when soldiers stopped their trucks and demanded their papers.
Two of the men were Somalis, and they were unharmed. But Ali and his two cousins, all Ogadenis, were forced out of their vehicles, blindfolded, undressed and thrown to the ground, Ali said.
A shot rang out, and one of his cousins yelled in pain. When the soldiers went to inspect the body, Ali made it to his feet and ran into the bush. He walked for six days before reaching Somalia, but now is stuck in Bossasso, afraid of what may have befallen his wife and five children at home.
"I have no news from my family and no way to go back," Ali said. "I am stranded here."
Roughly 1,000 refugees have made it to Bossasso, a port on the Gulf of Aden several hundred miles from the heart of the Ogaden, and there are new arrivals nearly every day. Getting here requires walking north for a week or longer in blood-boiling heat, evading soldiers, before reaching the border with the semi-autonomous Somaliland region.
Some refugees remain there while others hitch rides to Bossasso, which has a population of several thousand Ethiopians. In Bossasso, many live in tumbledown shacks made of sticks and cardboard, paying $2 a month to Somali landlords.
The U.N. refugee agency doesn't know how many Ogadenis have fled in recent months, although it thinks that several hundred are in Somaliland and neighboring Djibouti.
"There hasn't been a refugee flood," said Alexander Tyler of the Somalia office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "That could be a reflection of the control that Ethiopia still has over the area."
Mohammed Ali Farah, a 40-year-old from Warder who watched soldiers burn down his tiny cafe in June, then strangle three women who refused to vacate their cafe next door, said many villagers were too scared to leave.
"Historically (the military) used to fight us," Farah said. "They used to arrest and punish us. But such extensive killing, we've not seen before."
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Jason McLure contributed to this report from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.)