A David and Goliath battle between the Soviet-supplied Ethiopian Army and the weapon-short nationalist Ogaden guerrillas is looming here in this desolate semidesert region of southeastern Ethiopia.
Ethiopia's Army is rapidly building here for the long expected counterinsurgency campaign against the guerrillas who operate in small units hidden in the Ogaden bush and strike out regularly at supply convoys and small garrisons. They are fighting for the independence of this Somali-speaking region, which neighboring Somalia also claims.
The Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), which claims to control most of this area, regularly dispatches squads of 10 to 15 men on their guerrilla operations.
The guerrillas, who ranged in age from about 20 down to 10, could be seen entering and leaving the base here at regular intervals. They carried Russian-made AK-47 assault rifles and RPG-7 grenade launchers. WSLF leaders claimed to have carried out a recent surprise dawn raid against the Qulquul base camp close to Daghabur, inflicting "heavy casualties" and taking 20 rifles while suffering two dead and four wounded.
The guerrilla injured lay in a nearby tent as I interviewed their leaders. "We knew that Ethiopia has sophisticated weapons, and when it comes to numbers, they are more than us, but still we think we can defeat them because we are fighting on our soil and we are ready to die for it," said Omar Nur, a 10-year veteran of the war.
This fervent nationalism directed toward seizing the Ogaden from Ethiopia was echoed by many fighters and civilians with whom I spoke, but a singular problem for the guerrillas is the steady depopulation of the area by the raveges of drought, famine, and war.
Somalia estimates that there are 1.5 million Ogaden refugees now in that country. While 20 percent of these refugees are Oromo peoples from the Ethiopian highlands and a portion of destitute Somalis from inside that state, there were few of them visible in the Ogaden itself.
Simultaneously, the Ethiopian government is trying to resettle non-Somalis here in an apparent effort to change the character of the indigenous population. The guerrillas here acknowledge this and liken their situation to that of the Palestinians of the West Bank in Israel. They add that the loss of their land could provoke tactics of terrorism outside the Ogaden in the event of the stymieing of the war here.
Meanwhile, they hotly deny Ethiopian charges that Somali regulars are involved in the current fighting, and I saw no evidence in the central war zone or along the border to contradict this. In addition, there was a clear sentiment here that the guerrillas wish to lessen their dependence on the Somali state. "Somalia is an independent state and Ethiopia is a colonizer," said Omar Nur, a member of the central committee of the WSLF. "When we get our independence, that does not mean we will join the Somali republic. We just want to get our independence ourselves, with no Ethiopia, no Somalia," he said.
Sporadic fighting takes place here almost daily between the presently besieged government forces and the highly mobile guerrillas. The long-term outlook is for more of the same.
"The Ethiopians are building up, especially around Daghabur, Jijiga, and Harar. They are increasing their armed forces, and it seems they are trying to clear up the Ogaden," said Omar Nur. But he added, "We are ready for them."
The coming months are likely to witness a considerable intensification of this little-known conflict, which has gone on intermittently for close to 20 years and whose human and material cost has reached astronomical figures.
The consequences for Somalia -- which fought Ethiopia twice here in full-scale confrontations in 1964 and 1977 -- and for the entire Horn of Africa have been staggering: thousands killed, hundreds of thousands rendered homeless, and the fragile economies of the region strained to the breaking point. In addition, there is the ever-present threat of a wider war that could easily draw in the Soviet Union and the United States.
At the heart of the crisis here are the efforts by Ethiopia's self-described "socialist" military leaders to hold onto their sprawling northeast African empire against the centrifugal force of a host of armed nationalist challenges. These stretch in a broad arc from the former Italian colony of Eritrea in the north through the western and southern provinces to the ethnic Somalis of Ogaden.
Ironically, all but the WSLF are left-wing movements, though even the guerrillas here received arms from the Soviet Union and training from Cuba, North Korea, Iraq, and Syria before the Russians abruptly changed sides in 1977 to back the newly installed Ethiopian junta.
WSLF leaders, who identify themselves now as Islamic nationalists, say they receive a trickle of aid from Iran, Iraq, and Egypt. But like their tacit allies in Eritrea and elsewhere in Ethiopia, they appear generally isolated from the outside world.
The United States, which is presently negotiating for rights to air and naval bases in northern Somalia at the former site of the Russian base in Berbera, has refused to become embroiled in the conflicts apparently in order to keep open the option of returning to favor in Addis Ababa in the event the Russians are displaced.
The extreme poverty and backwardness of this area make the possibility of a separate Ogaden state seem remote. Pressed on this point, some of the guerrillas indicated that a relationship with either Ethiopia or Somalia was possible, but they were insistent that this would have to base upon a high degree of autonomy.
At the same time, there were indications that there is a high level of tension between the guerrillas in the field and the leadership based on Somalia over this question. One consequence has been the growing relationship between the WSLF and the parallel movements in Eritrea and Ethiopia.
The Oromo Liberation Front operating in southern Ethiopia earlier this year opened an office in Mogadishu in Somalia, and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front followed suit in June.
Should these movements develop ongoing military and political coordination, the base of the present Ethiopian government would shrink to an island of the ruling Amhara nationality in the center of Ethiopia.
This would also lessen the influence of the Somali regime in favor of a broad alliance of political forces generally left but staunchly critical of the Soviet Union, whom they consider to have betrayed them, and also China, whom they blame for sitting on the sidelines.