It was dark when I arrived at Wilson Airport, Nairobi for the 7am United Nations charter flight to Dadaab. I was in Kenya to meet refugees from the Ogaden region of Ethiopia and record their stories. Accounts of false imprisonment, murder, rape, torture at the hands of the ERPRDF government: stories, which would prove deeply distressing.
An inhospitable land, the Ogaden region is home to around five million Ethnic-Somalis, and has been the battleground for several armed conflicts between Somalia and Ethiopia since the 19th century. There is natural gas and oil under Ogaden soil: is the Ogaden yet another oil-infused battleground?
A hidden war, the people’s suffering irrelevant in the eyes of Ethiopia’s donor benefactors, who see their ally as stable and ignore wide-ranging human rights abuses.
Mainly pastoralists, the people of the region live simple lives tending their cattle and moving along ancestral pathways. Most have never been to school, cannot read or write and live hard but honest lives in tune with the land. They want simply to be left alone, and allowed to live peaceful dignified lives.
A fleet of white UN 4x4s met the incoming Nairobi flight and drove us along the pitted dusty road through Dadaab town to the main United Nations Humanitarian Committee for Refugees (UNHCR) compound. With a population approaching 500,000 in the five sites Dadaab Refugee Camp collectively forms the largest temporary settlement (22 years temporary) in the world.
A small open room in the middle of one of the courtyards suffices as a workspace. Noor, a tall man in his forties, was eager to talk about his experiences. Strong and proud, he had worked for the local government in Fiiq province, Ogaden. All regional government activities, he said, are supervised by the military, “they control everything.” Arrested without charge in 2010, he had been imprisoned for two years in barracks, where he “was repeatedly beaten. After two years I was released and confined under house arrest, but managed to escape.” Noor had witnessed the killing “of a 14-year-old girl, by the Ethiopian military. She had set up a small business – a kiosk. The military suspected she received financial support from the ONLF [The Ogaden National Liberation Front, which has been fighting for self-determination since 1984].”