This report is based largely on interviews with Ethiopian refugees in countries neighboring Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government does not officially bar the media or human rights organizations from Somali Region, and parts of it, including the regional capital, Jijiga, are accessible to visitors. However, the region’s five main conflict-affected zones—Fiiq, Wardheer, Dhagahbur, Gode, and Korahe—are under tight military control. Foreigners traveling into this area generally come under close scrutiny, and international journalists who have attempted to research stories have regularly been arrested. Residents of the region, like many other Ethiopians, fear the pervasive state security apparatus. This oppressive atmosphere makes conducting on-site research into human rights abuses an especially difficult task, not least because of the security risks to victims and witnesses.

Human Rights Watch repeatedly requested by letter that the Ethiopian government permit access to the conflict-affected region, but received no response. Because of the severe restrictions and the dangers that would be faced by Ethiopian staff and individuals we sought to interview, Human Rights Watch decided not to attempt to access conflict-affected zones.

Human Rights Watch researchers instead located and interviewed recent refugees from the conflict in neighboring countries, including Kenya, Somalia, and Djibouti. During September and October 2007, Human Rights Watch researchers conducted a month-long field mission to Kenya (Nairobi, Garissa, and several refugee camps around Dadaab) and Hargeysa, Somaliland, where we interviewed more than 70 victims and eyewitnesses of abuses, as well as traders, business leaders, and officials originating from Somali Region. Human Rights Watch researchers also conducted a short research trip to Addis Ababa to interview individuals from Somali Region.

Finally, telephone and in-person interviews were conducted with dozens of additional victims, eyewitnesses, ONLF representatives, regional government officials, journalists, pro-government militia leaders, and aid officials in a variety of locations, including in Somali Region, Addis Ababa, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, and Europe.

Human Rights Watch also sought out persons with particular profiles, such as traders and livestock herders active on the Ethiopian-Somali trading routes for information on trading restrictions, community leaders and regional officials for information on the political dynamics, and scholars and independent analysts with insights into the region’s complex history. In November 2007 and March 2008 Human Rights Watch wrote to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and other Ethiopian officials, presented preliminary research findings and requested information on the situation in Somali Region and meetings with Ethiopian federal officials. We also sought further details of allegations of ONLF abuses and the opportunity to interview victims of ONLF attacks in Ethiopia, but to date we have not received any response to these requests.

To the extent possible, all interviews were conducted in private, including in the refugee camps, with only the Human Rights Watch researcher, the interviewee, and (when necessary) a trained interpreter present. Interviewees were asked only to relate events that they personally experienced and witnessed. When allegations of abuse were made during interviews, the interviewees were again asked if they personally witnessed or experienced those abuses. Careful notes were taken during all interviews, and are on file with Human Rights Watch.

For the security of witnesses and their relatives who remain in Ethiopia, the names of most witnesses have been withheld, and other details such as the age, gender, and occupation have been changed where necessary to protect their identities. In some interviews the date and location of the interview is omitted if this could present a security risk to the witness. Ethiopian intelligence officials are active in many locations where Ethiopian refugees reside, including Kenya and the semi-autonomous Somaliland region of northern Somalia. In Somaliland in particular, there have been repeated incidents in which local authorities have detained refugees and forcibly returned them (under arrest) to Ethiopia, under pressure from Ethiopian security services.

In order to further corroborate the widespread allegations of extensive village burnings in Somali Region, Human Rights Watch worked with the Science and Human Rights Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to obtain “before” and “after” satellite images of villages that had been reportedly burned. An initial list of 87 villages that had been reported to Human Rights Watch to have been burned was compiled, and from that list, villages whose exact coordinates could be established were selected as candidates for image acquisition. A further selection was made based on the availability of “before” images for each of those locations, as well as the strength of the eyewitness accounts from those villages.

For villages mentioned in this report as burned, a total of 11 sets of “before” and “after” images were selected. These images were reviewed for signs consistent with the reporting provided by Human Rights Watch, and in eight cases the imagery did provide indications of structural removal and, sometimes, burning. Special care was taken to differentiate nomadic settlements from permanent towns, and to identify changes in those towns associated with traditional nomadic migration rather than violent attacks. Ultimately, image analysis focused on the permanent towns only, given the difficulties of assessing nomadic populations from satellite imagery. Resulting images are highlighted in this report, and more details are available in a corresponding report released by AAAS.

The incidents detailed in this report are only a fraction of the information on abuses obtained by Human Rights Watch and largely focus on events in 2007, although there is credible evidence that many of the patterns of abuses are continuing. Human Rights Watch regrets the lack of cooperation from the Ethiopian authorities in our investigation. Despite our lack of access to Somali Region, this report presents unequivocal evidence from victims and eyewitnesses of numerous serious crimes in Somali Region in violation of international law. Further independent field investigations are urgently needed to address the crimes documented in this report and provide comprehensive documentation for future accountability mechanisms.