By Paul Schemm
The Washington Post
ADAMA, Ethiopia — A largely hidden war in remote areas of Ethiopia has killed hundreds of people, displaced more than 100,000 others and raised the specter of ethnic cleansing, potentially destabilizing an important U.S. partner in the fight against terrorism.
With the strongest army in the Horn of Africa and second-largest population on the continent, Ethiopia has been a major ally in battling regional terrorist groups such as al-Shabab and a pillar of stability between two disintegrating states, South Sudan and Somalia.
But that hard-earned reputation has been thrown in doubt by weeks of fighting between rival ethnic groups in Ethiopia’s neighboring Oromia and Somali regions and by accompanying reports of massacres and expulsions.
“They started to burn our houses, the Liyu police,” said Mohammed Nur Jamal of the Oromo ethnic group, referring to a paramilitary force from the neighboring Somali Region. With several dozen others, Jamal, a portly middle-aged man who wears an embroidered Muslim cap, now lives in a makeshift camp near the Oromo city of Adama. The camp is one of dozens that have sprung up to house those who have fled their homes.
“We lived like brothers and sisters for many years,” Jamal said. “We never fought like this. We even married together and owned properties together.”
Local media say at least 150,000 Oromos have been expelled from the Somali Region and are now living in camps. The federal government has declined to give exact figures, pending an investigation, but admitted that “hundreds” have died.
The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa said in a Sept. 19 statement it was “disturbed by the troubling reports of ethnic violence and the large-scale displacement of people living along the border between the Oromia and Somali regions.” It called for an investigation into which groups were behind the violence.
Ethiopia, while long a centralized state, is made up of at least 80 different ethnic groups. Under an emperor and later a communist regime, it presented itself as a unified Amharic-speaking nation, with little attention paid to different ethnic groups with their own languages and histories.
In an attempt to recognize the aspirations of the country’s main ethnic groups, the rebel movement of Tigrayan ethnicity that overthrew the communist regime in 1991 reorganized Ethiopia into a federal state made up of nine ethnically defined regions with a degree of autonomy.
Two of those regions now appear to be at war with each other. The nearly 1,000-mile border between the mainly agricultural Oromia Region and the more arid Somali Region has historically been the scene of minor conflicts over resources. But those tensions have exploded since September with allegations that regional security forces are involved, especially the Somali Region’s paramilitary “Liyu” (special) police.
Jamal, who had lived among the Somalis for 15 years, said the attacks took him by surprise. “There was hate, but it was hidden. They didn’t show it for many years because they were afraid of the federal government,” he said.
“Only Oromos are being targeted,” said Jaafar Mohammed, who spent 20 of his 25 years among the Somalis. “There are many other ethnic groups there — Somalis, Gurages, Amharas and others. But they targeted Oromos. It’s a puzzle for us.”
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