Keep quiet about atrocities, Ethiopia warns aid workers
Written by: Joanne Tomkinson
Aid workers in Ethiopia’s remote Ogaden region are currently facing an impossible dilemma. In order to carry on helping people in the east of the country, the government has warned them that they better keep quiet about allegations of army atrocities in the area.
International humanitarian staff have spoken anonymously to the Boston-based Christian Science Monitor
about public executions, rapes, torture, arbitrary detentions and beatings of civilians by government forces in Ogaden, where most people are ethnic Somalis.
Aid workers also accuse separatist rebels in the Ogaden National Liberations Front (ONLF) of terrible crimes against civilians who refuse to help them.
Relief agencies were expelled from Ogaden
during Ethiopian government crackdowns on the ONLF in late 2007. They are now gradually being allowed to return with food and medicines – but only if they stay silent about what they see.
“We have two options: either we come out with a nasty press release tomorrow on protection of human rights, and we will have to leave behind a substantial population still facing atrocities, or we just do our work,” an aid worker said to the Monitor.
Ogaden’s residents have greeted aid workers enthusiastically, eager to share their stories with humanitarians. “They have begged us to stay,” an aid worker tells the paper.
Conflicting reports from locals, and a ban on journalists entering the area, mean that allegations are hard to verify. The government denies its troops have committed any atrocities.
“I can assure you that the government is not in the business of killing people and putting them in mass graves,” government spokesman Bereket Simon told the Monitor.
The need for aid workers in Ogaden is great. Food and water are in short supply and medical supplies in the Somali area ran out long ago. The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights still has no access to investigate allegations, and the World Food Programme’s food aid distributions have been hampered by conflict in the area.
“You always come down on the same side,” the director of one organisation operating in the region said to the Monitor. “It’s better to keep yourself operational and to do something.”
Some frustrated aid workers are beginning to speak out discreetly, but it’s dangerous. International staff run the risk of being expelled or seeing their operations closed down, but the stakes are even higher for local staff. Many said they didn’t want to say anything to the Monitor for fear they might be imprisoned or killed.
One local aid worker who talked to the paper said: “It’s a relief to speak with you. You hear these things and they weigh on your heart.”
But for now, most aid workers are just getting on with the job of delivering humanitarian relief.
When does the moral duty to bear witness outweigh the need to try to save lives? Or where is it more important to stick by people who are suffering, even if it means not speaking out about what’s going on?
Does it depend how many aid agencies are on the scene? Is it possible to tell the truth and keep running a relief programme?