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In Ethiopia, does staying silent save lives?

Government warns aid workers if they talk to press about atrocities in Somali region, they will lose access.

By Nicholas BenequistaContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / February 26, 2008

In the middle: Villagers, like these in Degahabur, are caught between separatist rebels and Ethiopian government forces.

anita powell/ap

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Jijiga, Ethiopia

Spotting a plume of dust from an approaching vehicle, residents of Gudis village ran to tell their neighbors to hide. Then someone saw the flag on the white Land Cruiser; international aid workers were coming. "We thought you were the military," said one man to an aid worker who later recounted the story.

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The residents of Gudis, a village of pastoralists in Ethiopia's Somali region, had not seen an aid worker in the six months since the Ethiopian military sent thousands of troops to the area to put down a renewed surge by a separatist rebel group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). Now the village was eager to share its secrets.

At dusk, accompanied by just one villager, the group drove a few miles beyond the cluster of thatched roofs to four, freshly dug mass graves.

"They begged us to stay," said the aid worker, requesting anonymity.

Indeed, aid workers want to stay, but their presence in places like Gudis comes at a price. As the military campaign winds down in the vast portion of the Somali region known as the Ogaden, international humanitarian groups have been gradually allowed to return, though only in exchange for their silence.

"We have two options: either we come out with a nasty press release tomorrow on protection of human rights, and we will have to leave behind a substantial population still facing atrocities, or we just do our work," the aid worker said.

Those who do talk – and they are few – whisper stories of public executions, arbitrary detentions, rapes, beatings, and torture of civilians by government forces intent on crushing a guerrilla insurgency that draws on sympathetic villagers for support. Others describe equally heinous acts committed by rebel forces against those civilians – often from rival clans – who refuse to help the insurgents, whom the government labels as terrorists.

With journalists prohibited from entering the area under military occupation, most of these allegations are hard to verify, and conflicting versions of the same story are common. For instance, Gudis residents told the aid workers that the 47 young men buried in the mass graves were innocent civilians killed by government forces. An elder from the Abdili subclan that inhabits Gudis said the 47 had been coerced to join a government militia and were slaughtered in a confrontation with the ONLF.

The government denies any wrongdoing by federal troops, including the allegation that soldiers have forced civilians to form militias.

"I can assure you that the government is not in the business of killing people and putting them in mass graves," says government spokesman Bereket Simon. "That is why we fought against the military regime." Mr. Bereket, like Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and many high-ranking members of Ethiopia's government, was himself once an insurgent in the movement that overthrew a socialist military dictatorship in 1991. The former revolutionaries claim to know from experience how brutal military tactics can backfire by galvanizing support for rebels.