The McGill Report — Media for Global Minnesotans
With spies and cellphones, Ethiopian terror touches Minnesota
By Douglas McGill
Updated 7/16/2008 1:06:49 PM
MINNEAPOLIS, MN – The four men sitting at a downtown coffee shop here
recently told me a story that sounded too far-fetched to be true.
Could a humanitarian crisis following the pattern of Darfur, Sudan
actually be unfolding while capturing hardly a second of the world’s
collective attention, or Minnesota’s?
Even worse, could it actually be true, as these four Minnesotans insist,
that this unimaginable massacre is substantially being sustained by U.S.
tax dollars and moral support?
Is it possible that entire African villages are being wiped out
Darfur-style by marauding helicopter gunships belonging to a close
American ally, and that new refugee camps are being formed virtually
overnight, as we speak, thanks to Uncle Sam?
This sounded like the vilest strain of anti-American propaganda. But
after a few hours speaking with these gentlemen, and doing a few more
hours of research and checking, their story seems all too definitely,
The four men are in an ideal position to know. They are members of
Minnesota’s community of immigrants from Ogaden, Ethiopia – a
Montana-sized patch of desert that has been the scene of global
superpower struggles for many decades.
Every day for the past several months, these four men, along with
hundreds of other Ogaden immigrants in Minnesota, have spent hours every
week on their cellphones talking to loved ones who give them seemingly
endless eyewitness accounts of crimes and horrors in a war zone.
“We hear about mothers being forced to betray their own sons to the
Ethiopian Army, of fathers being handed guns and ordered to kill their
own sons on the spot or to be killed themselves,” one of the men said.
“Every Ogadeni in Minnesota has friends or family who have been jailed,
tortured, or killed. It seems there is no end to it. We could tell you
stories all day for a whole week and still have more stories to tell
The men asked that their names not be published because they said
Ethiopian government spies live in Minnesota who would help the
Ethiopian authorities hunt down their family members in Ogaden to jail
them, torture them or worse as a punishment for talking with the press.
Having the second-largest population of refugees per capital of any U.S.
state (after Florida), and likely the nation’s top state in diversity of
refugees, Minnesota has once again become an early-warning system for
crimes against humanity being perpetrated in a faraway country – this
time in eastern Ethiopia.
Minnesota’s Ethiopian immigrant community is estimated between 13,000
and 20,000, the lower number being the latest U.S. Census figure, and
the higher a number given by local Ethiopian immigrant groups.
About a fourth of the state’s Ethiopian immigrants are from Ogaden,
whose natives, in contrast to Ethiopia’s majority Amharic-speaking
Christians, are Somali-speaking Muslims. And therein lies the problem.
For decades, ordinary Ogadeni herders and farmers have lived on a
literal battlefield over which Ethiopia and Somalia, acting as proxies
for global powers, have waged an epic-length conflict.
A conventional war was fought in 1977-78. More often, counter-insurgency
attacks by the Ethiopian government against supposed Ogaden separatists
— or now, “terrorists” — have targeted civilians and entire villages,
creating vast refugee flows.
The Ogaden landscape today is littered with the hulks of tanks and
rusting weapons used in battles since 1948. That was the year that
Britain, then the region’s dominant global power, ceded Ogaden to
Ethiopia, even though nearly all of its five million inhabitants are
ethnically and culturally Somali.
During the Cold War period, the region’s global powers were the Soviet
Union and the United States.
Today, the great global struggle being waged locally is the “War on
Official U.S. foreign policy holds that the Horn of Africa is one of the
world’s top breeding grounds for radical Islamist terrorists.
Islamist governments in Sudan and Eritrea, and a prominent Islamist
faction in Somalia, have led to the U.S. embrace of Ethiopia as a close
ally in the War on Terror – it being “the only democratic nation in the
Horn of Africa.”
But Minnesota’s large Ethiopian population challenges that formulation.
If Ethiopia is a democracy why are thousands of its citizens fleeing as
refugees and asylees to our state, insisting Ethiopia is a tyranny?
A report published last month by Human Rights Watch lends credence to
horrific stories told by the four Ogadeni men at the Minneapolis coffee
The report’s title, “Collective Punishment,” refers to the practice of
wiping out villages based on rumors that insurgents live there. The
report’s subtitle is “War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity in the
Despite Ethiopia’s attempts to block information about human rights
crimes from escaping the Ogaden, Human Rights Watch said it had received
reports of “at least 87 burnings and forced displacements of villages,
many of which involved extrajudicial killings, torture, and rape across
numerous areas of the Somali Region,” meaning the Ogaden.
Since the late 1970s, when Ethiopia and Somalia waged a conventional war
over the Ogaden, between two and three million refugees have poured out
of the region into neighboring Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti – and then
onwards to a global diaspora including Minnesota.
In the most recent violence, tens of thousands of Ogadenis have already
been displaced, and an Ethiopian economic and aid blockade threatens to
escalate the humanitarian catastrophe by orders of magnitude as a result
of drought and famine, Human Rights Watch said.
“The situation is critical,” the report says.
As for the question of funding, the U.S. is the largest single source of
foreign military aid to Ethiopia. Moreover, total U.S. military aid to
the country increased 17-fold after 9/11, when Ethiopia became a close
ally of the U.S. in the “war on terror.”
According to the Center for Public Integrity, the U.S. provided $16.8
million in military aid to Ethiopia in the three years following 9/11,
compared to $928,000 in the three years before 9/11. That is a small
percentage of Ethiopia’s annual defense budget, but critics say that
unofficially, U.S. support of Ethiopia and its military is far higher.
Overall, U.S. assistance to Ethiopia totaled $474 million in 2007 alone,
according to the U.S. Department of State. Including other major sources
of foreign aid, especially the UK and the European Union, Ethiopia
receives almost $2 billion in aid annually.
“Americans are also a victim in the Ogaden,” one of the men in the
coffee shop said. “Do they know their tax dollars are supporting a
tyranny like this? If they knew, wouldn’t they want it to stop?”
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