For the ethnic Somali civilians who remain in the war-affected area, continuing abuses by both rebels and Ethiopian troops pose a direct threat to their survival and create a pervasive culture of fear. The Ethiopian military campaign of forced relocations and destruction of villages reduced in early 2008 compared to its peak in mid-2007, but other abuses—including arbitrary detentions, torture, and mistreatment in detention—are continuing. These are combining with severe restrictions on movement and commercial trade, minimal access to independent relief assistance, a worsening drought, and rising food prices to create a highly vulnerable population at risk of humanitarian disaster.

Although the conflict has been simmering for years with intermittent allegations of abuses, it took on dramatic new momentum after the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) attacked a Chinese-run oil installation in Somali Region in April 2007, killing more than 70 Chinese and Ethiopian civilians. The Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government, led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, responded by launching a brutal counter-insurgency campaign in the five zones of Somali Region primarily affected by the conflict: Fiiq, Korahe, Gode, Wardheer, and Dhagahbur. In these zones the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) have deliberately and repeatedly attacked civilian populations in an effort to root out the insurgency.


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 as burned in the Human Rights Watch report, Collective Punishment: War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity in the Ogaden area of Ethiopia's Somali Regional State, 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 here and in our report, and more details are available in a corresponding report released by AAAS.