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Hundreds of people are displaced in the Ogaden, the eastern region of Ethiopia, every month; it is one of the largest sources of refugees worldwide. They flee from violence and persecution at the hands of both the military and insurgent rebels. Some regions in the Ogaden have been in a perpetual state of civil war since the 1990s.
I was interested with stories from that region. In the summer of 2016 I meet a young boy from that region and he narrated to me the horrors described in this book. The name of the town he grew up and his real name have been changed for security reasons.
This is a true story. I have only added a few stylistic devices used as embellishments to make the story even more interesting and lively, and to add a sound depth to the young boy’s rudimentary thoughts and tales of events.
This story is not about me (the author), all opinions, expressions, and occurrences are that of the Ali, who is the main protagonist in this book. I am not from Ethiopia and I have no political affiliation in Ethiopia or any country in the World. I just love stories.
I struggled to find an editor, to proof read my book. I sent a copy of this book to hundreds of editors, and a big number of them told me they need the money, but they "fear" the violence in the book. This is part of an email that one editor sent me, it’s on its original form and I haven’t altered its originality. Pardon me if there are any grammatical errors.
"This book covers a very emotional and disturbing topic. I feel that I need to recuse myself from editing this book as it is too disturbing to me to read the entire thing. I apologize, but I cannot do the proofreading/editing of your book. I wish you good luck."
After some time, a very "brave" lady by the name Julie took the task.
Ali Dahir was born in 1995, in Qansax (these are not the real names.) When war broke out in Somalia, his family moved to the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, where they had ancestral roots; Ali was born there. They sought a better life, but they did not find it for long. One of Dahir’s brothers became the target of the local security forces. He and their other brothers were regularly arrested and beaten, because of suspicions that they belonged to a rebel group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front. After Ali, Dahir’s brother, was killed before his eyes, while his wife and sister-in-law were raped in the next room, they fled the Ogaden.
Dahir graduated from secondary school at age 20 in Dadab, the world’s largest refugee camp, located in Kenya. Dahir went back to Somalia to work as an aid distributor, but was forced to flee again when he was tortured and threatened by the extremist organization, Al-Shabaab.
Eventually, he made the difficult decision to leave his family and apply for refugee status abroad. After a long journey to Europe, and then to America, he applied for asylum as a refugee in the United States.
Dahir’s dream is to attend university and become a journalist, but he cannot afford it yet. He has turned to writing as a form of therapy. He uses storytelling, both to work through the pain he and his family have endured, and to do the only thing in his power to raise awareness of the ongoing tragedies in his homeland.
My name is Ali Dahir. I lived most of my life in a region in Ethiopia inhabited mainly by Somali people from all tribes.
It’s known as the Ogaden. The area has a population of nearly six million. The Somali people living there are mainly pastoralists. They live simple lives, tending to their livestock and moving along ancestral pathways. The locals live a hard and marginalized life.
Most of the people in the Ogaden have never accepted the presence of Ethiopian troops. They are regarded as colonists. There has been a history of rebellion between the Ogaden people and the Ethiopian regime that dates to the partition of Africa by the British. To date, violence in the horn of Africa starts and ends with Ethiopia, the region’s troubleshooter or bully.
The Ethiopians still have the legacy of the Abyssinian expansionist rule in their minds. In 1984, the Ogaden Liberation Front (ONLF) was formed to fight against Ethiopia and the autonomy of the Ogaden region. They normally use guerrilla tactics and do not have official military bases. When they attack Ethiopian personnel, the security apparatus punishes the local communities in retaliation. Innocent people who have no affiliation with the ONLF have been always caught in this crossfire. There is an African proverb that says when two bulls fight, the grass suffers. The Somali people in the Ogaden are that proverbial grass.
Extra-judicial killings, disappearances, rape, daytime curfews, arbitrary arrests, and even the razing of entire villages to the ground are the tools of the state to fight the ONLF, the Ogaden National Liberation Front.
The Ogaden region has no infrastructure. Neither the national, nor the regional government have ever cared to promote the infrastructure of the region. There is a huge presence of military personnel. The whole region looks like a military garrison. Human right groups and international aid groups are personas non grata. Western journalists and aid providers who tried to visit the hinterlands of the Ogaden have faced long-term detention.
The Ogaden region has a basin that is said to have a significant reserve of crude oil and natural gas. That area covers approximately 400,000 square kilometers. Geologists have compared the sedimentary rock in the Ogaden Basin to the hydrocarbon-rich basins in the Middle East. Benito Mussolini discovered the gas in the Ogaden in the 1930s, when the Italians occupied Ethiopia for some years.
The Ethiopian army and the regional police in the Somali region often engage in organized crimes, displacements of innocent people, collective punishment, and there are always incidents of gang rape in different villages of the Ogaden.
Allow me, dear reader, to take you a short journey through my life.
Life in the Ogaden is not easy for growing children and women. Everything is tough, slow, and the people are completely marginalized. There is no infrastructure whatsoever, and there are ugly injustices that take place every day.
As a kid, I could not understand why no one was ever held accountable for the injustices that consumed people’s lives, separated loved ones, and which made me a victim. The wheels of justice were stuck in the mud, frozen, and not spinning the way they should.
When I was a young boy, I had many dreams, like any other kid in the world. I would look up at the sky and see an airplane, and I would point at it and tell the little man growing inside me that one day I would fly inside “that thing.” During those days, I could not even imagine what the inside of a plane looked like. I only knew that the man or the woman who makes that “thing” fly was called a pilot—and I knew that one day I would cross an ocean in one.
I had no idea of the circumstances under which that dream would come true.
My mother never went to school, but she had tried everything in order for me to have a formal education. My father, was also on her side and I got an unconditional support from both of them. I attended primary school and later high school, where I completed my A-levels, earning top grades.
However, it was in high school when I thought I had found my path. I was good at academics and I knew my dreams were valid. Yes, I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to talk about my people, to represent their grievances to people somewhere in the world who understand justice and know the meaning of humanity.
“Humanity” has been misinterpreted in the Ogaden. To have some sense of humanity isn’t just walking or standing on two legs; rather, it means to have some kind of conscience, to know rights from wrongs—that is what the current and the past administrations in Ethiopia have lacked. Humanity there has lost its meaning and came to a screeching halt.
As a kid, I knew our mouths had been sealed and forcibly shut. I knew the people in the Ogaden were yearning for attention, and, I always wanted to be the voice through which their voices could be heard. I had the dream of bringing the atrocities that Ethiopia commits to the awareness of the international community and giving voice to the stories of the perpetrators—who were never tried for the crimes they commit against humanity in the Ogaden.
When I was in high school I was good at academics, and I soon became the darling of my teachers and fellow students. While I was in my first year I was appointed a deputy head boy of the school. That was unusual because of the bullying of first year students, but it was something I achieved through my educational prowess.
I have always believed that the key through which one can achieve success is education. Many times, when I had the opportunity to speak with my fellow students at the school gatherings, I used to tell them “life is how you make it, and it’s in your own hands, you can mold it into the shape that you want.”
I was a great believer in academics and the power of the pen; for the pen, I believed, was the greatest weapon man has ever invented. I used to attend a private school to improve my education. At school I was known as “Pioneer.”
However, my huge dreams, and the ever-dreaming charming boy inside me were killed when I was tortured countless times, and arrested multiple times due to unfounded suspicion and allegations that I was an ONLF fighter.
I was bringing large groups of students to raise our educational standards and empower the community, and the Ethiopian troops, thought I was recruiting members and fighters for the ONLF.
In 2011, I was arrested by the Liyu Police, a notorious police unit that uses repressive methods on the Somali people living in the Ogaden; they are a kind of paramilitary force that operates in the Ogaden.
They have a blanket of impunity from both the regional and federal government of Ethiopia. They are “police” with little or no training on how to handle human beings; “police” who achieve their rank by the number of violent records in their service books.
They are poorly paid, non-educated, rigid, and numb-minded bureaucrats in a poor and marginalized region in a third world country. So, as their commander, how would you motivate them? You simply give them a blanket of impunity and give them the right and freedom to kill and ask for extortion money.
Generally, the Ethiopian government controls and commands the Liyu Police, in theory and in practice. They are Ethiopia’s “instrument of sin” in the Ogaden.
I had some rough encounters with the Liyu police. The first one was around 2010, while I was coming back from a mosque in our neighborhood; I attended an Islamic prayer that is performed in the evening. The streets of Qansax (not its real name) are normally dark, due to the lack of street lamps. The only source of light there is the stars and the moon.
While I was walking back home that evening, a car skidded to a halt next to me. A uniformed man jumped out of it, the car's wheels still screeching on the tarmac. He started shouting at me, while he cocked his gun.
As a serious business, judging by the way I was approached and handled.
“Bloody ONLF!” he shouted at me.
He started speaking rapidly in Amharic (a native language spoken in Ethiopia). I couldn’t understand or imagine any of the words he was uttering. Amharic is a language I hate, and I have hated it all my life. Hearing it shrinks my body, because the soldiers who speak that language have inflicted a lot of pain on us.
Three other armed men got out of the car too.
I could hear them saying “Kill the bastard.”
I would come to know later that the first guy who approached me was a Liyu police corporal.
He grabbed me by the collar almost choking me. I grabbed his arm, trying to stop him. However, he was too strong.
“Please don’t kill me,” I pleaded with him.
He kicked me right below my abdomen and I doubled over in pain. The other officers—or how should I refer to them—came over, and after some time I became like a piece of meat thrown to starving dogs.
They hit me with whatever they had or could get their hands on, from the back of their guns and riot clubs that were hanging from their belts to stepping on me with their gigantic combat boots. All I could do was try to protect my head and face as they struck blow after blow upon me. After a few minutes, I was bleeding profusely.
Later, I found myself in a tiny room that smelled of sweat. I didn’t know where I was, and those “police” didn’t gave me any clues.
I didn’t know if it was by accident that I ended up at the hands of those guys, or by the order of somebody who had obviously made the wrong decision. What was worrying me the most was that I didn’t know what they wanted from me or what their intentions were.
Despite the pain, I had the time and courage to study them closely. I looked at their eyes, their weapons, and the uniform they wore. I couldn’t figure out who they were. My instincts pulled me in different directions at every moment. I tried to think of who they were. Three of them were youngish, may be somewhere between 30 to 35 years old.
They were fit and maybe in some stage in their lives they had undergone vigorous training. A training that maybe taught them how to act together with a degree of efficiency, some kind of drill. They seemed “military” to me. Another part of my mind argued that “they don’t look military.” Yes, they were organized, and I remember them mentioning a chain of command, but something about them didn’t seem official.
They were arguing a lot among themselves. Their appearance also betrayed them—their uniform was the same, but they wore different boots. I had seen military personnel before and they looked neat, organized, and their uniforms were the same from head to toe. Something in me told me these guys were some cheap mercenaries. The way they handled me was too rough. They were rude, tense, and noisy. In short, they were not professionals.
Later, through their interrogations, I came to learn that they were the Liyu police. They are infamous for the heinous crimes they commit against the Ogaden people. They use their authority to abuse and intimidate people to control parts of the Ogaden. I was asked rhetorical questions, teased, mocked, and beaten.
They questioned me about the activities we did at school, and for the record, we never did anything that could raise eyebrows or anything that could undermine security. We were just academic-minded students, with no power to influence anyone. We just wanted to raise our educational standards, nothing more and nothing less.
I paid a price every time I answered their questions in the negative. I spent a couple of days in detention, before my parents paid some extortion money to get me out. I was released on a condition that I would cease the activities I was organizing. There was nothing for me to cease because I was not doing anything fishy.
Finally, I came home bruised, beaten, and bleeding, with scars all over my body that I still bear. It was the joke of our village that I was “run over by a truck.” From that day onwards, the words “Liyu Police” give me heebie-jeebies.
Unfortunately, my ugly encounters with the Liyu Police didn’t end with that incident. In 2012 I was coming back from a private school where I had been studying for an upcoming national examination. I was picked up from the streets of Qansax again, and taken to the outskirts of our village.
Their behaviour was a replica of my previous encounter. Their questions were the same, even though they were different individuals. It was as if they were reading from the same script.
“Who is paying you!” one of the Liyu police guys growled at me, yelling close to my face.
I got his saliva all over me and small particles of phlegm. It was awful. I almost told him that he had bad breath; it was as if he had a dead rat in his mouth. His head was almost bald, and his forehead overhung his eyes in a way that set his features into a constant frown.
I had a cell phone with me. It had an internet service, a memory card and a camera, among other features. They scrolled down my contact list and told me to me to account for every number in my phone. They told me to state the name and relationship I had with each name on my contact list.
I had a rough time trying to convince them that some contacts belonged to people I had met on Facebook. It took me a lot of minutes and kicks to explain to them what “Facebook” was.
Some of those guys had never even had a cell phone in their life, so my Facebook story gave them the benefit of doubt to kick as they wish.
They accused me of trying to “play clever.”
I eavesdropped and heard one of them saying “let’s get rid of this cough before it comes a whooping cough.”
Fortunately, they locked me up instead.
Every morning, I would wake up to the sound of rough footsteps crashing on dead leaves and small rocks outside and to the rattle of the padlock to my cell. And every time the door opened, I could see a bar of bright sunlight for an instant, but it gave me no hope.
Whenever the Ethiopian security kills someone, they normally abandon their victims on the streets to cause fear and to make it a “lesson” to others, which is really state terrorism.
Many times, I have witnessed corpses on the streets of Qansax. Sometimes they tie the dead body to a truck, drive around, and force everyone to watch.
I could see them. They parked their car by the roadside and dropped us near a lamppost. In my entire 6,570 days, I had never seen any light from that lamppost. Maybe it was just for decoration. It had never glowed.
There was a dead silence. No one said anything. Everyone was digesting the “new development.”
I watched as the men faded away to their blazing station, into the thinning darkness, into the cold and the fine rain that fell steadily on the dark streets.
I laid flat on the ground. I don’t know how long we were there. I was cold, and I brought my knees to my chin, trying to get some warmth. I felt a stiff pain on my shoulder.
The rain had stopped, but the ground was wet. I laid on my chest, I couldn’t move much.
My face was blistered. I was bleeding profusely, and so were my friends. I hoped and prayed that we would make it 'til morning.
Hoped that someone, a good Samaritan, would save us. But the dawn seemed slow in coming. I bled a lot. I needed water badly but couldn’t find any.
I could see spots of dirty water, and though I wanted to reach I couldn’t move an inch. I tried to crawl, but it was as if my back was nailed to the ground.
Abdi and Nur still didn’t show any sign of life. I thought they were dead. I prayed for them silently, a two-in-one prayer.
In one phase of that prayer, I asked the Mighty Lord to save them, and in another, I asked the Lord to rest their souls in peace.
It was a confused prayer. I couldn’t stick on one part or the other. I said the first part and left out the latter several times.
I was dizzy, not slightly, but the wobbly kind, the kind that sends trees swooping around you and causes the earth to move in waves under your feet. You think that all things have lost gravity.
I tried to take a few steps and somehow winded up on my hands and knees. I waited a few minutes to let it pass, but it didn’t.
I just laid motionless, awake but with no strength, just waiting for something to happen to me, something bad. Something that no one could prevent from happening to me.
Something that I never wished for before. However, it was something I would like to willingly invite now. It was coming. I was sure of that. I had seen it come to many people and the signs were showing in me.
I just gave in and waited for it.
Minutes ticked by. It was many hours since we had been dropped there, and I gave in to despair and decided to take in that “something.” But it wasn’t coming.
Chances were that it was once speeding towards me; maybe it suddenly made a U-turn. Who knows if or why it went back?
It was dawn, maybe 4:00 or 5:00AM when I heard a faded voice.
“He is dead!”
I could only hear my thumping heart as it beat loudly.
Every now and then a wave of terror rolled through me, mixture of fear and despair that caused me to ask myself several rhetorical questions.
“Am I really dying”?
I was very weak. There was too much pain. And even though I wished for death now, it seemed to be dragging its feet as it came.
I remember saying a prayer. Although I wasn’t holy, I wanted it to be the last good thing on my lips.
I passed out.
To be continued....
by Abdirahman Adam