- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2007

GODE, Ethiopia — This town is located on an arid plain of brittle yellow scrub brush in Ethiopia’s eastern Somali region. It looks like a place where a John Wayne character might live and die.

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

“The worst are bullet injuries to the abdomen,” said Dr. Solomon Muluneh, 31, an Ethiopian general practitioner — one of only two physicians in 100 miles. “When you open the abdomen, you pray, because it is a very difficult area.” Dr. Muluneh sees a few bullet wounds each week at his clinic and thinks many insurgents afraid to show their faces in his state hospital seek treatment for similar injuries from traditional healers or in Somalia.

The bullet wounds are the product of fighting between local rebels and militias sponsored by the Ethiopian government. Ethiopian forces crossed into Somalia last year in a continuing effort to counter gains made by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which has been linked to al Qaeda. Ethiopia accuses the ICU of planning to invade this region and backing the local rebel force, known as the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

Washington sees this barren and 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 region as a strategic base from which to gather intelligence and coordinate air strikes on al Qaeda-related targets in Somalia.

Along the main road from Ethiopia’s Somali region to Mogadishu, Gode 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 bigger than it seems — and more important. While it is at the heart of a region important to U.S. interests, analysts say chronic neglect of the ethnic Somalis, including the dominant Ogaden clan, by the government in Addis Ababa 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.

On its own

There is no road connecting Gode directly to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, about 400 miles to the northwest. The government has left the surrounding 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 things that come cheap are guns.

Rebel factions opposed to Ethiopian rule have operated here as part of a regional and cultural feud fueled by British rule in the 19th century. Ever since British colonists grudgingly bequeathed the Somali region to an Ethiopian emperor more than a century ago, Somalis here have fought with the “habeisha” — highlanders as they call the non-Somali Ethiopians.

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

The strong U.S. interest in Gode is plain to see. Dirt-filled barriers block vehicle access to Gode’s airstrip and a local hotel, where a U.S. Army civil affairs battalion camped out before leaving the region last year.

In a campaign to win hearts and minds, U.S. troops drilled bore holes 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 send air strikes on suspected al Qaeda redoubts in southern Somalia in January. U.S. officials have acknowledged questioning suspected terrorists in Ethiopian prisons.

‘Special relationship’

“We have a very special relationship with this country because of the things we share,” said U.S. Ambassador Donald Yamamoto. “Ethiopia and the U.S. have a commonality of issues. And it’s not only the war on terrorism. I mean, that’s only one of many areas — It’s fighting poverty, it’s fighting HIV/AIDS, it’s fighting malaria.”

So far, such pronouncements have meant little to people in Gode. They may live in Ethiopia, but they consider themselves Somalis.

Of the 5.5 million people living in the region, 90 percent are Somali-speaking Muslims, and can trace their lineage more than a thousand years back to the same clans dominating Somalia today.

In the stalls at the market, everything from tins of pineapple and cooking oil to cellophane-wrapped shirts has been bought in Somalia. The cars here have Dubai plates and are not allowed to drive elsewhere in the country — they’ve been shipped via Mogadishu, just a day’s drive from here.

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 Dr. Muluneh, the Ethiopian physician, 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.”

Finger-pointing

Analysts like Mr. 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, in turn, blame the Ogaden National Liberation Front for the region’s woes.

The size of the ONLF is not clear, but the Ethiopian government says it has ties to extremists in Somalia. It has claimed responsibility for several attacks in recent months, including a devastating attack against Ethiopian soldiers guarding a Chinese-run oil field near the Somali border late last month.

Rebels killed 65 troops and nine Chinese workers and took another seven Chinese hostage during the dawn raid. In a statement, the ONLF warned foreign oil companies not to operate in the region.

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

In the remote town of Degebhur, rebels killed 26 officials and lynched the chief of police within days of the Ethiopian army’s occupation of Mogadishu, according to international aid groups.

“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 district officials have warned Gode’s merchants not to talk to American journalists visiting the region.

But the Ethiopian administration claims it has good relations with the people of the Somali region.

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

Zoe Alsop is a Nairobi, Kenya-based freelance journalist. Freelancer Nick Wadhams contributed to this report, which was assisted by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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