Forced Recruitment of Pro-Government Militias

Anybody who works for the government—teachers, doctors, clerks, administrators—has to join a militia. I left because I didn’t want to die.
— Hassan Abdi Hees, head accountant154

The Ethiopian military maintains a significant presence in the major towns and some strategically important villages. However, the rural areas remain largely out of the military’s control and so it relies heavily on locally recruited informers and militia for military intelligence, supplemental forces, and local knowledge. A former soldier told Human Rights Watch, “There is no military presence in small towns. There is daba-qoodhi [collaborators] which the Ethiopian army calls ‘tadaaqi’. Usually the commander of the brigade will ask the local elders to bring [boys and men] to help their army protect peace, the army provides [them] with weapons and ammunition.”155

Although the use and recruitment of local militia is a longstanding practice, in 2007 the Ethiopian authorities engaged in a systematic campaign of forced recruitment of local civilians into pro-government militias, ordering village elders to recruit specific quotas for the militias, or provide money and weapons instead. In some villages, the authorities have detained or killed elders or seized property to force civilians to comply with orders to join the militia.

Civilians forced to join the militia are often sent into battle without any military training. The forced recruits are generally lightly armed (at times, they are told to find their own weapons) and simply told to go find and fight the ONLF. As a result, the forced recruits suffer disproportionate casualties against the more experienced and better trained ONLF fighters.

Since 2007 even government employees have been ordered to pick up weapons and join pro-government militias, or risk being fined, fired, or detained. According to confidential sources as well as published accounts, Ethiopian officials have forced “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.”156

In addition to this recent surge in forced recruitment of pro-government forces, there are also a number of longer-established pro-government militias which tend to be more voluntarily recruited, most of them composed of the same Ogaadeeni subclans and some from non-Ogaadeeni clans. These militias are known as tadaaqi (literally, riflemen in Amharic).

A former resident of Wardheer told Human Rights Watch of the forced recruitment efforts by the Ethiopian army in Wardheer town in June 2007, which led him to flee to Kenya. In June, a defecting ONLF officer called Adan Taani held a series of rallies in Wardheer together with an Ethiopian commander, ordering members of the Abrahim subclan of the Ogaadeen clan to form militias to fight the ONLF. The elders of the Abrahim subclan initially resisted the demands to form the militia, explaining to the army commander that it was difficult for them to ask their fellow clansmen to join a pro-government militia at the same time as many of their families were being burned out of their rural homes by the army. The military commander rejected their concerns, offering the elders a simple choice: “The commander insisted guns should be taken up [against the ONLF]. He gave the elders two options—[each family should] either bring a gun or a man to confront the ONLF.”157 The witness went on to explain just how dangerous the work of the forced recruits was:

Elders and fathers are forced either to bring their sons or bring a gun as a contribution to the fight. The militias are not trained: They are told to go out, find the ONLF, and fight them. Some of them join the ONLF when they find them in the bush, but most of the men cannot join [the ONLF] because they have families in the towns, and defecting would endanger those lives.

The daba-qoodhi (a derogatory term used to describe government collaborators) are told by Ethiopian commanders to go find the ONLF tracks, follow them and fight them. The tracks can be easily traced: the sand in those areas is soft and it is easily feasible to follow a track from three days ago. The ONLF march in lines, so they are easily traceable. If they don’t follow the tracks and return without a fight with the ONLF, either they are sent back immediately or the team leader is replaced. Usually, the team leaders are detained if they do not achieve gains against the ONLF.158

In late June and early July 2007, several rallies were organized by pro-government militia leaders in Wardheer town, with the aims of collecting money and recruiting militia forces. Militia forces beat young men who refused to attend, and closed the tea shops during the rallies to increase attendance.159

In mid-June 2007, officials in Wardheer ordered government employees to take up weapons and fight together with regular army units against the ONLF. Even former government employees were pressured to join the pro-government militias, and threatened with detention or fines if they refused. Residents told Human Rights Watch that they observed armed civilian officials being moved out of Wardheer later in June 2007, and also recognized civilian officials among the militia forces in some villages outside Wardheer.160

In March 2007 army soldiers came to the village of Qarrijuqood, Duhun wereda, in Fiiq zone, seeking to forcibly recruit civilians to fight against the ONLF. One villager told Human Rights Watch how the soldiers came to his 70-year-old father and told him to “volunteer” two of his five sons for recruitment into the militia:

My father is about 70 years of age. The army accused him of refusing to contribute men to fight alongside the army. The army wanted two of us in particular – myself and the oldest [brother], 32. The reason is because the other three were not suitable for the militia [One was a religious devotee who travels a lot; the other had a large family; while the third brother is only 15 years old].

The army collected large numbers of men for recruitment. After few nights, [my brother] and the other newly recruited were taken on trucks to another location. He was among four of the recruits who tried to escape on the way out of Duhun. They army shot them. My brother and a cousin Mohamoud Abdi Jiiliye died; the other two escaped.

We moved out of Qarrijuqood to Daaco-dhowrta. Days later, an army unit from Gudhis came to the area to collect new recruits. They set up a temporary base nearby Daaco-dhowrta. The family sent my sister to warn me to avoid the area and avoid herding the camels. I ran away into the countryside. But they arrested many people among them my sister who came to the bush to warn me. They kept my sister in Fiiq for more than two months and later released her. She was raped in the prison by soldiers.161

In May 2007 troops arrested Aden Mohammed Anshur, the village leader (ugaas) of Laasoole, in Shilabo wereda, and took him to the Shilabo military base. Aden Mohammed Anshur was a respected Ogaadeeni leader, and had been part of a delegation of Ogaadeeni elders that participated in talks with ONLF leaders in London in 2003. He was released from detention and ordered to raise a pro-government militia, but went back to Laasoole and did not respond to the order. In early June 2007 the ENDF returned to Laasoole and executed him, together with a second elder, Duulane Guuleed Arab, and then burned down the village.162

The army also uses threats and coercion to recruit militia members. Villagers reported during the June 2007 village burnings around Wardheer that the military had demanded weapons and militia volunteers or else threatened to burn down the village.163 In another instance in mid-July, soldiers confiscated a truck loaded with desperately needed food for Wafdugand Yucub in Wardheer wereda, telling the residents that the truck would only be released if they provided 100 militia fighters to the ENDF.164

On August 15, 2007, soldiers came to El-weyne in Danaan wereda (Gode zone) the morning after ONLF forces had been in the village to buy supplies such as sugar, goats, rice, and tea. The soldiers gathered the villagers together and ordered them to take up arms against the ONLF.  Ibrahim Omar Asaade, a trader in his 60s, protested, saying “they [ONLF] will kill us if we do that.”  A soldier then stabbed Ibrahim Omar Asaade to death with his bayonet, according to a relative who was present at the time: “One soldier put a bayonet in [Ibrahim Omar Asaade’s] kidney. He repeatedly stabbed him several times while the bayonet was still in the rifle.”165 Four other villagers were also killed by the soldiers, including Dahabo Ali and her sister Sirad Ali.166

The army base in Danaan itself was attacked by ONLF fighters around April 2007. The morning after the attack, soldiers gathered together young men from the village, and ordered the men to fight the ONLF. According to the sister of one of the young men, a group of about 10 of the men refused to fight and were shot dead by the soldiers.167

Other witnesses told similar stories of how their relatives had been forcibly recruited by the military to fight the ONLF. One woman told Human Rights Watch how in October 2007 the ENDF had forcibly recruited her brother, Farah Nur Ibrahim, a school teacher from Yucub village in Wardheer wereda, and seven other relatives from the village to go fight the ONLF. The army gave them weapons but no military training, and just days afterwards her brother and three others were killed in fighting against the ONLF: “My brother was among eight men from close relatives who were given guns by the army to fight the ONLF. They received the guns just few days before their death. Of the eight, four died while the other four are wounded.”168

154 Jeffrey Gettleman, “Ethiopians Said to Push Civilians Into Rebel War,” New York Times, December 15, 2007.

155 Human Rights Watch interview with former ENDF soldier, (name and location withheld), October 6, 2007.

156 Jeffrey Gettleman, “Ethiopians Said to Push Civilians Into Rebel War,” New York Times, December 15, 2007. Confidential sources confirmed to Human Rights Watch that large numbers of civil servants in Somali Region had been forced to fight against the ONLF and had been deployed to front-line villages. A memo from the regional government obtained by Human Rights Watch lists dozens of individuals, including regional government staff, who were ordered to report to various locations for deployment. On file with Human Rights Watch.

157 Human Rights Watch interview with (name withheld), Dadaab refugee camps (Kenya), October 6, 2007.

158 Human Rights Watch interview with (name withheld), Dadaab refugee camps (Kenya), October 6, 2007.

159 Confidential information on file with Human Rights Watch.

160 Confidential information on file with Human Rights Watch.

161 Human Rights Watch interview with Mohammed, Nairobi, September 22, 2007.

162 Human Rights Watch interview with Yusuf, Nairobi, September 22, 2007.

163 Confidential information on file with Human Rights Watch.

164 Confidential information on file with Human Rights Watch.

165 Human Rights Watch interview with (name withheld), Dadaab (Kenya), October 5, 2007.

166 Human Rights Watch interview with (name withheld), Dadaab (Kenya), October 5, 2007.

167 Human Rights Watch interview with 27-year-old woman from Danaan, Dadaab (Kenya), October 5, 2007.

168 Human Rights Watch interview with 34-year old refugee woman, Nairobi, October 7, 2007.