Sept. 7, 2009

Ethiopia Shakes Down its Minnesota Refugees

By Douglas McGill
The McGill Report


MINNEAPOLIS, MN – Immigrants to Minnesota from eastern Ethiopia are being forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to support an Ethiopian security force that tortures and kills thousands of innocent Ethiopians.

  

Under an extortion scheme run by the Ethiopian army, soldiers in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia abduct men, women and teenage boys and girls, holding them without charge in one of scores of military jails in the region, which borders Somalia.  

Knowing that many Ogaden families have relatives who live in Minnesota, the Ethiopian army tells the prisoners’ families that their loved ones can be freed upon payment of ransoms ranging from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.  

Hating to pay the money but having no other choice, the Minnesota refugees empty their personal bank accounts and pass the hat to raise ransoms to release their husbands, wives, sons, daughters and friends from overcrowded jails where torture, rape, beatings and killings are common. 

Destruction of Villages

“It is a booming business for the Ethiopian army,” said Mohamed, a Minnesota school teacher who immigrated from the Ogaden in 1993. “It happens every day in the Ogaden, and every day someone in Minnesota is sending money.”  

Mohamed and other Ogaden immigrants quoted in this story declined to give their full names for fear that their family and friends living in the Ogaden would be jailed, tortured or killed in retribution for their openness.

In recent years, one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises has unfolded silently in the Ogaden region, where a vicious counter-insurgency campaign by the Ethiopian government has wiped out scores of villages, killed thousands of civilians, and displaced tens of thousands or more to refugee camps in Ethiopia and northern Kenya. 

About 5,000 Ogaden refugees have found their way to Minnesota, which has one of the largest refugee populations from the Ogaden crisis in the world. The Ogaden refugees in Minnesota are settled mainly in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Willmar, St. Cloud and Faribault. 

Frantic Calls

The ransoming of Ogaden refugees in Minnesota is exacting a disastrous economic, psychological and social toll within the Ogaden community and the broader society, Ogaden immigrants here say. 

“I cry every night, believe me,” said Abdi, an Ogaden refugee who has sent $600 ransoms on two occasions. “You are forced to do what is not right, you are forced to do the wrong thing. It’s horrible. It lives with us, it lives with us everywhere. No matter where I am, in the bedroom, in the bathroom, in the living room, I cannot hold back my tears.”

Being forced to spend thousands of dollars to free their relatives from jail in Ethiopia slows down the Minnesota Ogadeni refugees' attempts to learn English, to get an education and to successfully assimilate into U.S. society, they say. 

“We get frantic phone calls day and night,” says Mustafe, an Ogaden refugee who works at Minneapolis employment agency. “Friends and family need money to be freed from jail. They say ‘Please send us money, please send us money!’ We send it, of course, but as a result we go into debt ourselves. I don’t even dream of going back to school to improve myself until the situation in Ogaden changes and improves.” 

Financial Aid

In 2007, Mustafe sent $1,500 towards a $4,000 ransom collected in Minnesota to release a teenaged cousin who was jailed for three months, and was released after the ransom was paid. As a result of that and other ransoms Mustafe has paid, plus monthly support he sends back home to relatives, he is about $10,000 in debt. 

The ransoming of Ogaden refugees is only one facet of an extreme humanitarian crisis involving countless crimes against humanity bordering on a full-scale genocide, that has been building in the Ogaden for more than a decade, but intensified sharply in 2007. 

The roots of the crisis lie in the fact that eastern Ethiopia is inhabited by ethnic Muslim Somalis at a time when the Ethiopian government has been waging war against Somalia. In December 2006, with financial aid and military training from the U.S., Ethiopia crushed the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist government that controlled Somalia.  

In 2007, the Ethiopia-Somalia war intensified in Ogaden, where the Ethiopian Army launched an all-out counter-insurgency against a separatist militia, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which it calls a terrorist organization. 

Collective Punishment

The ONLF conducts deadly raids against Ethiopian military, such as an April 2007 attack against a Chinese-run oil operation in the Ogaden which killed not only Ethiopian soldiers but several dozen Ethiopian citizens and nine Chinese nationals.

In retaliation for that attack, Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, launched a vicious crackdown on the ONLF, targeting not only ONLF fighters but their families, friends and other supporters throughout the region. In 2008, Human Rights Watch published a report, “Collective Punishment: War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity in the Ogaden area of Ethiopia's Somali Region.”

The report documented hundreds of cases of torture, rape, executions and indeed the destruction of entire Ogaden villages on the mere suspicion that someone in the village was harboring an ONLF fighter. Human Rights Watch said the likely scale of the disaster was far larger than they were able to document in the report.

Since 2007 all foreign journalists and many aid organizations, including the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, have been forced to suspend operations in the Ogaden.  

Virtually all of the ransoms paid by Minnesota Ogadeni refugees to the Ethiopian military are to release friends and relatives who have been jailed on suspicion of knowing, sheltering, or aiding ONLF fighters. 

Clan Elders

But in a region like Ogaden, where almost every village has at least one son or daughter who has joined the ONLF, to declare war on all people with even a slight relationship the ONLF is tantamount to declaring war on the entire Ogadeni people – on their society and culture. From an Ogadeni perspective, that has happened. 

In Minneapolis over the past two weeks, I interviewed 18 Ogaden refugees. Every one confirmed knowledge of the frequent payment of ransoms by Minnesota Ogadenis to free imprisoned relatives held by the Ethiopian army in the Ogaden.

About half of the refugees I interviewed said they had personally paid ransoms to free relatives from jail, and some had done so many times. 

The ransom amounts ranged from $300 to $1,500. In some cases those amounts were contributions to total collected ransoms of more than $10,000, which seems to be a typical amount needed to release Ogadeni clan elders who are held. 

Here are four ransom stories I was told:  

Abdi #1: “In 2002, in the city of Harare, Ethiopian soldiers arrested my brother and beat him badly, tying a rope at the top of his elbows. For five nights they beat him. My Dad had to pay money to get him loose. He came back with marks on his arms above his elbows. Another time, my brother-in-law was arrested. On two occasions, his relatives called me in Minnesota to say he is alive in prison and asked us here to send money. So on two occasions since 2002 we sent $600, but my brother-in-law was never released and we still don’t know if he is alive or dead.”  

Mustafe: “In 2007 my brother, who was in high school, was arrested and put in jail. They accused him of being a collaborator of the ONLF. They said he was buying khat [a chewed leaf that is a legal stimulant in Ethiopia and a major cash crop there] to give to the ONLF. But he was only a student with no money and he never did that. We collected $4,000 here in Minnesota to release him which they finally did after three months.” 

Mohamed: “In 2005 they put my brother in jail. He is a tea shop owner and the Ethiopian army said he sold some food to the ONLF. My brother’s wife and cousins sold their sheep and goats to get the ransom money and he was released, but five months later they put him back in jail. This time, his wife called me and said ‘Mohamed, our sheep and goats are very thin and weak, it’s the dry season, and none of them can be sold. We need money. They will kill your brother if we don’t pay.’ So I sent what I could afford which was $700. Again he was released, but today, only a few hours ago, I got the bad news from my village that my brother and two others were taken by the Ethiopian army and no one knows their fate. So again I don’t know if my brother and the others are okay or if they are killed. If they aren’t killed, I will once again have to pay ransom, for the third time. They said my brother is a sympathizer of the ONLF, but he is only a tea shop owner. How can he discriminate if a customer who comes in who is ONLF? They don’t wear any uniform, how can he tell?”   

Abdi #2: “My friend and cousin is named Hassan Ahmed, from the town of Jijiga. Last year he was jailed and sentenced to death for supposedly helping the ONLF. But he has asthma and was seriously sick and he needed to go to the hospital. So his mother called me here in Minnesota and said, ‘If we pay $500 they say they will take him to the hospital.’ So we managed to raise $500 which we sent to the family, and they gave it to the Ethiopian army. But he was never let out of prison and we don’t think he was taken to the hospital either. Instead, after they got the money they said, ‘This guy is sentenced to death, he will never get out.’”

Cell Phones

Mohamed, the Ogaden school teacher, has collected records of 182 separate instances of extortion and ransoming of Ogadeni civilians by the Ethiopian Army. The total amount paid in these cases was $84,500, which Mohamed estimates is less than 1% of the total amount of money extorted and ransomed by the Ethiopian Army in the past two years.  

“You cannot imagine how widespread this is,” said Mohamed, who collected the data through cell phone calls to contacts in the Ogaden and the global Ogaden diaspora.  

As a result of the humanitarian aid and information blackout imposed by Ethiopia on the Ogaden, accounts given by the Ogaden refugees in Minnesota provide one of the richest sources of information about the crisis there.

Money, Army or Jail

Ogadeni shopkeepers and traders are also frequent targets for Ethiopian army threats and shakedowns, Minnesota’s Ogaden refugees say.  

“In the town of Gode,” said Mohamed, ‘the Army just last week gathered more than 100 business people recently and told them, ‘You have three choices: you can give us money, you can join the army, or you can go to jail.”

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