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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 August 2007, 23:25 GMT 00:25 UK
In the shadow of Ethiopia's rebels
Jijiga market

By Elizabeth Blunt
BBC News, Jijiga

Once a dusty outpost in eastern Ethiopia, close to the Somali border, Jijiga town is now growing fast.

Since the government started devolving power and money to the component parts of the Ethiopian federation, Jijiga has become the capital of Somali region, and it is now finally acquiring the trappings that go with its status.

It has a new university, which has just admitted its first intake of students and will soon get a proper airport to replace the earth runway and cluster of Portakabins which currently have to serve.

Ethiopian troops in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu
The rebellion has escalated since Ethiopian troops went to Somalia

But Jijiga is also the capital of a region battling a long-running rebellion, which has flared up dramatically in the past few months.

The government blames attacks there on al-Qaeda-backed terrorists, and the opposition accuse the Ethiopian army of atrocities against the local population.

The rebels are part of an organisation known as the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which has existed for many years but seems to have taken on a new lease of life since Ethiopian troops went into Somalia last December to save the transitional government there from being overrun by Islamist militias.


The effect may have been political - anger at seeing their government fighting against fellow Somalis across the border, or practical - the result of an influx of weapons and fighters chased out of Somalia by the Ethiopian advance.

Either way, the insurgency in Ethiopia's Somali region suddenly seemed better organised, better armed, and much more daring.


After two high-profile attacks in April and May - the first on a Chinese-run oil exploration site; the second an attempt to assassinate the regional president at an official event in Jijiga football stadium - the Ethiopian army began a major counter-insurgency operation in the central part of the region, the area known as the Ogaden.

Jijiga itself has been spared the worst of the violence and has remained mostly quiet.

The security presence is not heavy, but it is watchful.

People are searched as they go into public buildings. And attacks still occasionally take place.

One person was killed and several injured in two explosions on 5 August - explosions blamed by the government on the ONLF, although in this case the ONLF denied responsibility.

The Ethiopian army is now claiming significant victories against the rebels, but the process has clearly been hard on the civilian population.

No buses

It is difficult to know from Jijiga what is happening in the worst affected areas round Degeh Bur and Kebri Dehar, Saggag and Fik, but some kind of picture eventually emerges, like a series of snapshots, from conversations and chance encounters.

  • Staff of a local aid agency, returning from an inspection of their projects, blown to smithereens by a landmine planted on a country road.
  • An outlying government office closed, its vehicles burned.
  • Goats in Jijiga
    People are returning to their traditional lifestyle, based on raising animals

  • Regular bus services to certain areas no longer running, because the rebels do not like the bus owner's clan or perhaps his politics.
  • A village away from the main road, where all the shops have closed and cafes and tea shops are no longer operating, because they have nothing left to sell. Normal food deliveries are not getting through.
  • An elderly goat herder, beside himself with indignation, launching a diatribe in front of a senior local official.

    He had lost two sons, he said, fighting for Ethiopia against Eritrea.

    And now the soldiers come to his village, chase everyone out and burn their houses, and then have the effrontery to tell him he is not a true Ethiopian.

Everyone agreed that moving around in that part of the region was now very dangerous.

You risked hitting a landmine, running into a fire-fight, or at the very least meeting a band of rebels who would demand money, or an army patrol who might arrest you as a suspect.

So it was better to stay put.

Many of the people in the area are nomads, living by rearing and trading their animals.

Now they dare not move their flocks to get them to market.

If other supplies are not getting through, those who do have animals can at least survive by going back to the traditional nomadic way of life, living on the meat and milk their herds provide.

As ever, it is the poorest who are suffering most, those who have no animals to support them.

Q&A: Ethiopia's ONLF rebels
25 Apr 07 |  Africa
Ethiopia denies Ogaden blockade
02 Aug 07 |  Africa
Ethiopia deadline for Red Cross
24 Jul 07 |  Africa
Grenade attacks kill Ethiopians
28 May 07 |  Africa
Country profile: Ethiopia
23 Jun 06 |  Country profiles

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