By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
Published: December 15, 2007
NAIROBI, Kenya — The Ethiopian government, one of America's top allies in Africa, is forcing untrained civilians — including doctors, teachers, office clerks and employees of development programs financed by the World Bank and United Nations — to fight rebels in the desolate Ogaden region, according to Western officials, refugees and Ethiopian administrators who recently defected to avoid being conscripted.
Ethiopia has been struggling with the rebels for years. But with tens of thousands of its troops now enmeshed in a bloody insurgency in Somalia and many thousands more massing on the border for a possible war with Eritrea, the government seems to be relying on civilians to do more of its fighting in the Ogaden, a bone-dry chunk of territory where Ethiopian troops have been accused by human rights groups of widespread abuses.
In a recent report, government officials in the region called upon elders, traders, women and civil servants to form local "security committees" and mobilize their clans to destroy the rebels and their bases of support. The government says that the rebels are terrorists who have carried out assassinations and bombings, and that civilians have volunteered to fight them.
But by many accounts, the militias are hardly voluntary. One Western aid official said soldiers had barged into hospitals to draft recruits and threatened to jail health workers if they did not comply. In other cases, lists of names were posted on public bulletin boards, ordering government employees to report for duty, according to a member of the regional Parliament and two Ethiopian administrators who have fled the country. Many of those who refused were fired, jailed and in some cases tortured, the administrators and the Parliament member said.
The civilians are serving as guides, porters, translators and foot soldiers, and they are sent into the bush with little or no training to confront hardened guerrilla fighters. In the ensuing battles, many civil servants have recently been killed, according to accounts corroborated by Western officials and aid workers.