NAIROBI, Kenya — One morning in June, a handful of Ethiopian soldiers came to the town of Lehelow, in the far eastern Warder district, and called the tribal elders together, said Mohammed Abdi, who's 26. "Bring all the young boys," one of the soldiers said.
The elders trotted out 26 men, including Abdi, who ran a tea stall and looked after his family's camels. He was told to bring his rifle, which he often carried to protect his animals from hyenas, but he'd never fired it except in occasional target practice.
"I was very worried about being killed," he recalled.
A few days later, Abdi was forced into battle near the village of Qurarad, a three-hour walk from his home. He was among about 120 militiamen; behind them were 140 Ethiopian soldiers. When the fighting began, Abdi said, he crouched behind the nearest tree and aimed his weapon across a valley at rebel fighters — but didn't fire at anyone.
Twenty militiamen died that day, Abdi said, and the government forces retreated. Back at the base, soldiers abused two of the recruits with the butts of their guns.
Later that week, Abdi's brothers and sisters gave him some money and clothes and stood watch as he fled into the bush toward Somalia, where hundreds of Ogaden refugees already had gathered. After a few weeks, he got word that government soldiers had forced his older brother Ali into battle to replace him and that he'd been killed.
Now Abdi is huddled in the Nairobi neighborhood of Eastleigh, a low-rent Somali enclave that, despite its regal-sounding name, is little more than a sprawling open sewer crisscrossed by tin-and-clapboard shacks and questionable-looking guesthouses. In one of those houses, he shares a 50-square-foot room with five or six other Ogaden refugees.
"There are a lot of people who suffer like this," Abdi said. "Sometimes when I think back on that battle where I was forced to fight, I feel like a madman. Just because of that battle, I lost everything."