Cablegate: Usaid Field Assessment in the Ogaden


DE RUEHDS #3334/01 3191415
O 151415Z NOV 07






E.O. 12958: N/A



1. (SBU) SUMMARY: A small USAID team traveled to conflict-affected
areas of the Ogaden November 4-8, 2007 to try to obtain some ground
truth on humanitarian, conflict and commercial trade conditions.
Following the field assessment, USAID confirms the situation to be
very serious and a continued cause for alarm on the humanitarian and
human rights front, despite recent movement on trade and access
following international and media pressure. The USAID team traveled
to Jijiga, Hartesheik, Kebribeyah, and Degehabur, interviewing over
30 people. Although the flow of commercial goods has begun to
trickle back into Degehabur town and other urban areas over the last
week, field investigations uncovered mainly superficial changes as
residents report limited commercial food in rural areas and urban
areas south and east of Degehabur town, ongoing intimidation tactics
by the ENDF, commandeering of commercial goods by the military,
minimal livestock trade, and restricted movement. The UN recently
opened field offices in Degehabur and Kebridehar, but humanitarian
access on the ground remains highly restrictive and limited to urban
areas despite increased negotiation between GoE and UN officials
over operational modalities.

2. (SBU) Major findings from the field include: a) widespread
pervasive fear persists for personal security by the civilian
population including fear of retribution; b) access to commercial
food remains limited either due to minimal availability in rural
areas or increasingly limited economic means to purchase food in
urban areas; c) pockets of famine already exist with deteriorating
health and nutrition conditions with excess mortality a certainty
during the upcoming long dry jilaal season; d) GoE line ministry
civil servants are increasingly being pressed into military service
which will also affect humanitarian services; e) alarming human
rights abuses continue; and f) the nature of the conflict has
shifted recently with increased fighting anticipated in the coming
months. Based on these field observations, the need for intensified
international pressure is essential to minimize the impact of the
crisis on civilians. End summary.

3. (SBU) The two-person assessment team represented the first USAID
road travel within the Ogaden in more than three years due to
ongoing security concerns. The USAID team traveled with an
international partner NGO to Degehabur without military escorts.
Despite the low profile, most people were terrified to talk with any
international organization following threats and promised
retribution by the military. Through discreet individual interviews
with a range of people, the team learned of continued repercussions
stemming from the recent UN assessment. This included the
re-arrests and disappearance of some villagers who had spoken openly
with the UN assessment team.

4. (SBU) In nearly all interviews with civilian populations, the
USAID team encountered a pervasive fear for individual safety and
security. Many expressed a frustration at being caught between the
ENDF and ONLF and increased concerns over the continued presence of
landmines. International agencies underscored the constant
harassment of their local staff by regional government and security
officials about staff, programs, intent and indicated local NGOs are
often more harassed. In meetings in Degehabur and Jijiga, government
officials advised the USAID team that they were not aware of
challenges faced by the NGOs and that there was no problem for
travel and access.

5. (SBU) Note: Despite receiving verbal approval from senior
government and security officials for Ogaden travel, local staff of
the U.S. NGO accompanying the USAID team were told by local
officials that the team was in Degehabur illegally and admonished
the NGO staff to take the foreigners back to Jijiga. Local
officials later harassed and threatened the NGO as to the intent of
the mission. The USAID team met with the Head of the Pastoral
Development Bureau who is also the new humanitarian coordination
focal point and with the Somali Region President to advise them of
the nature of the monitoring and humanitarian assessment trip.
Although the situation seemed to be defused, USAID will closely
monitor the status of the NGO staff to ensure no further fallout
will occur following the visit. End note.

6. (SBU) The food security situation will continue to worsen
progressively if commercial and livestock restrictions are not
immediately improved in the areas of military operations. While
there has been some movement on trade and commercial food to major
urban areas over the last week between Jijiga and Degehabur,
tangible improvements remain elusive for vulnerable households.
Livestock trade remains highly disrupted, commercial food does not
appear to be reaching the large majority outside of urban areas,
commercial food is often commandeered by the ENDF, food aid is
diverted primarily by the ENDF, and the overwhelming climate of fear
prevails. GoE action continues to be construed as a policy of
collective punishment against Ogadeni clans and during interviews
informants indicated to the USAID team that the form of collective
punishment is starving the population. In spite of the risks, some
brave small scale traders or desperate villagers are attempting to
transport food from towns to rural areas via donkey or on human
backs. Locals interviewed by Mission personnel report that if
people are caught by the military or militia transporting food to
rural areas, the food and animal are confiscated, and occasionally
the person shot (ref D).

7. (SBU) Over the last week, commercial goods seem to be moving to
Degehabur town more easily with military escort. Limited commercial
deliveries of food are reportedly coming via Togwachale,
Hartesheikh, and Aware. However, movement of food to the vast
majority of the population off the main road and in remote villages
remains highly restricted. Commercial traders explained that all
trucks must pay for military escort. Initially many trucks were
bottlenecked in Kebribebaya until traders understood that
arrangements had to be made with the military, usually requiring
large cash payments to obtain permits for access between Jijiga and
Kebribebaya, and onwards. [Note: Ref D describes payments up to
1,500 birr/USD 165 needed for military escorts. End note.] Traders
indicated that up to 70 percent of all commercial trucks are being
commandeered by the ENDF for military purposes, and many truck
owners are attempting to hide themselves from the military. Truck
drivers also expressed fear over routes they were being ordered to
take by the ENDF. In two separate examples this year, truck drivers
were ordered to drive on a specific rural road; both incidents
resulted in landmine explosions. Where there are no military
operations, Somaliland traders can reportedly still enter and the

ONLF leaves them alone. Traders also noted that the highland trucks
allowed into the Ogaden in September/October due to special
arrangements were no longer present since people began boycotting
purchase of goods from the Tigrayan traders.

8. (SBU) Commercial access is still fairly restricted south and east
of Degehabur; however, the recent increase in food availability in
urban areas is leading to a decrease in the prices of cereals in
urban locations like Degehabur. The team verified that prices of
sugar, rice, sorghum and oil appear to be stabilizing (In August,
the price of food in local markets doubled compared to pre-conflict
prices; prices are now approximately 20 percent higher than
pre-conflict prices). These reflect market prices only in Degehabur
town, as traders and agencies operating further south in Kebridehar
and indicated prices there are double or even triple the
pre-conflict amounts. In addition, some traders cited specific
examples when the ENDF had taken truckloads of commercial food prior
to Ramadan and warned the traders that they were not to speak of it
to anyone or face serious consequences. In some cases, payment was
promised, however only one businesswoman indicated that the ENDF
returned three bags of rice from her original truckload as payment
for goods taken. Traders also stated that humanitarian food aid is
now referred to as "operational food" by the military.

9. (SBU) During interviews, traders, women, and civil servants
advised the USAID team that the recent food availability and lower
prices in Degehabur town will have minimal impact on poor
populations until households can access cash through livestock
sales. Shop owners complained in town that it does no good to have
foodstuffs since there are so few customers. Pastoralist
livelihoods are completely dependent upon selling livestock to
purchase food grains. Livestock prices remain at half of their
pre-conflict value in Degehabur and likely worse in more remote
areas. This deterioration in the terms of trade has seriously
impacted already-depleted coping mechanisms and livelihoods. In the
absence of trade, food aid alone will not have a significant impact
on the affected population due to diversions.

10. (SBU) The September UN assessment team reported a pervasive lack
of food in the conflict-affected areas. Although availability of
food is improving slightly in urban areas, actual household access
to food remains highly restricted. Food aid deliveries have been
delayed; in mid-October, the DPPA allocated 70,000 MT for 956,000
beneficiaries in Somali Region, including 53,000 MT specifically for
642,000 people in the Ogaden reflecting the first allocations of the
calendar year. As of November 6, WFP and DPPA reported 2,935 MT in
108 trucks had been dispatched from Dire Dawa for Fik and East Imi
(88 trucks) and Kebridehar (20 trucks), reflecting less than 6
percent of the overall allocation to the Ogaden dispatched to date.
Delivery and actual distribution of this dispatch are still pending
confirmation. In an effort to better monitor DPPA's distribution in
the Ogaden, particularly as food aid is being taken by the military
as reported reftels, WFP is deploying international/local teams in
Degehabur and Kebridehar. WFP has recruited 24 new staff, including
12 food aid monitors, who will be located in these areas.

11. (SBU) DPPA's intended reduction in the number of food
distribution points (FDPs) in Somali Region is still a concern.
Prior to the recent crisis, DPPA maintained 500 FDPs in Somali

Region, including approximately 300 within the five conflict
affected zones. The Somali Regional authorities recently proposed a
food distribution plan limited to 74 FDPs, of which only 28 were in
the conflict-affected areas. WFP developed a counter-proposal
advocating for 186 distribution sites in the five conflict- affected
zones which was approved on November 7. [Comment: While the 186
FDPs are significantly better than the 28 proposed by the GoE, the
186 FDPs still reflect a 38 percent reduction in previously utilized
FDPs in the conflict-affected zones. According to WFP field staff,
the 186 FDPs are considered manageable. If security and
humanitarian access improves, additional FDPs should be considered
in the future in other rural areas. End comment.]

12. (SBU) The livestock trade still remains significantly hobbled
due to the commercial restrictions. In Degehabur, livestock prices
are still only fifty percent of pre-restriction levels (roughly
2,500 birr for a male camel now, previous rates were 5,000 birr).
The quantity of animals brought to market is also very low, likely
due in part to restricted movement and pastoralists unwilling to
sell at such low prices. Low livestock prices are also reported in
Fik and Kebridehar, despite historically high livestock prices in
the Ethiopia and Somalia markets. Prior to the conflict, traders
estimated that 10 truck loads of goats and sheep were transported
daily for trade, in addition to the sale of camels. Traders in
Degehabur complained that the trucks which formerly came to the
market to transport livestock to Hargeisa and through the Berbera
port in Somaliland are no longer able to come.

13. (SBU) This localized collapse of livestock trade comes at a time
when animal exports and domestic sales for pastoralists have just
begun improving after a decade of low prices. The restriction of
live animal trade to Saudi Arabia imposed due to Rift Valley Fever
in 1998 was only partially lifted at the end of 2006. After 1998,
the decrease in livestock prices/sales left many pastoralists highly
vulnerable, evidenced by the 1999-2000 famine in Somali Region.
Since 2000, an average of one million Somalis require food
assistance (ref D) each year, having lost their animals and
livelihoods during previous droughts. Restrictions on livestock
trade in the Ogaden have also undermined recent progress of
USAID-funded program supporting pastoralists.

14. (SBU) The convergence of multiple shocks have strained livestock
herds and resulted in increased vulnerability to famine and
destitution through loss of livelihoods. Forced movement of
pastoralists and their herds earlier this year and underlying
pervasive fear has had pastoral populations trapped between military
and insurgent elements and has greatly restricted traditional
pastoral livelihood patterns. Some pastoralists confided to the
USAID team that people were moving deeper into the bush and forced
to move every week to avoid the military sweeps. [Comment: the
Degehabur mayor, who accompanied the USAID team to the livestock
market, was almost physically assaulted by angry traders complaining
about the collapse of the market. Other pastoralists who had been
threatened by security elements not to talk about the situation,
stated scornfully "I am an old man, they can shoot me, I only fear
Allah..." End comment.]

15. (SBU) Despite good rains earlier in the year, the short season
deyr rains have been poor since their onset in mid-October to date.
The very poor distribution and quantity in most areas have raised
early concerns about the prospects of the season and discouraging
crop planting activities in most agro-pastoral areas. The short
season rains end in November and are followed by the "jilaal" or
long dry spell which stretches from the Ogaden into neighboring
Somalia. Within the Somali context, malnutrition rates normally
spike during this period due to the drying up of milk supply and
lack of other food supply. Entering the jilaal season with already
high levels of malnutrition means severe malnutrition and under five
mortality rates will increase significantly. NGOs have expressed
concern that high mortality rates are a future certainty, even if
unfettered humanitarian access were to be granted immediately. Food
security conditions are also complicated by desert locus swarms
which appeared in Somali Region last month, detailed ref D.

16. (SBU) Per reftels, two recent nutrition surveys within and along
the periphery of the Ogaden reflect crisis malnutrition levels, and
in some locations, over twice the normal threshold levels for
emergencies. Malnutrition levels are projected to be much higher in
non-accessible locations and recent anecdotal reporting seems to
confirm this. OCHA reported that villagers who recently walked long
distances to reach Degehabur town for medical treatment indicated up
to 14 children died recently from marasmus and kwashiorkor (severe
malnutrition) in the woreda. The Degehabur Hospital Administrator
and other medical staff confirmed a significant increase in
malnutrition within the area, but stated increased fear and
restricted movement in the countryside was preventing villagers from
coming and/or staying at the hospital for treatment. Amidst fears
of the deteriorating humanitarian crisis, the GoE has dismissed NGO
concerns as political statements and has recently labeled some
nutritional assessments as "fictitious".

17. (SBU) Endemic health problems such as malaria, shigella, and AWD
in the area will aggravate an already fragile situation. UNICEF
reported an increase in documented cases of malnutrition, shigella,
measles and other diseases in the limited areas where information is
available. UNICEF has delivered supplies to nine of the ten
designated health posts in Somali Region, with the exception of
Kebridehar which is still pending GoE approval. USAID confirmed the
recent arrival of medical and water purification supplies in
Degehabur town, but noted bureaucratic delays from the regional
government meant that hospital officials were not yet authorized to
use the medical supplies even though the supplies were physically
stored on the hospital premises. [Note: USAID and UNICEF raised
this issue with the Jijiga regional government officials and
authorization was underway. End note.]

18. (SBU) The USAID team believes health and nutrition conditions
are rapidly deteriorating but serious impediments remain to rapid
response efforts. Full humanitarian access and security for NGOs
and UN agencies to mobilize essential services, provide community
therapeutic feeding, conduct immunization campaigns, and deliver
emergency supplies is critical, particularly as the GoE does not
have the capacity to implement activities, even in normal times.
Without the easing or lifting of restrictions on food availability,
health and nutrition activities will have minimal impact and only
serve as a temporary stopgap measure to the crisis.

19. (SBU) As part of the counter-insurgency efforts during the past
few weeks, the GoE has focused on major recruitment into local
militias or "tadaqis" in an effort to shift the balance of fighting
from the Ethiopian military (ENDF) to local Ogadeni sub clans.
Civil servants and local contractors who receive funding from the
GoE are being mobilized to join the militias and increasingly being
pressured to go to the frontlines. This trend has pitted
inexperienced and poorly equipped local populations against the
relatively better equipped insurgency. In Degehabur, the USAID
visit coincided with a major security meeting with civil servants to
join the militia, organized by the Head of Security for Somali
Region and the Deputy Chair of the Somali wing of the ruling party.

20. (SBU) In private line ministry agriculture and health officials
discussed the details of the process of militia recruitments.
Direct refusal is not an option, otherwise officials are deemed
aligned with the ONLF and "tortured and killed", but some officials
have managed to avoid joining to date by avoiding meetings or going
on trips. Civil servants are terrified of either refusing or
joining the militia, particularly after an incident in Gunu Gedu
(near Degehabur) where 17 civil servant/militias were killed by the
ONLF and local people a few weeks ago.

21. (SBU) The recruitment of health workers and teachers has further
reduced the inadequate basic services even in major towns. USAID
obtained a confidential list of schools and health posts which are
currently closed and occupied by the military as bases. Most
schools seem to be closed with teachers either having fled or joined
the militia. Twenty-one schools are currently closed in seven
woredas (districts) of Degehabur, Fik, Korahe and Warder zones. The
recruitment of health workers into the militia is also a major
concern, compromising the ability of a functional health system in
rural Ogaden and diminishing the small number of available health
workers. UNICEF reports that many regional health bureau workers
slated for joint training of the mobile health and nutrition teams
did not appear as expected, even though the incentive of per diems
was provided. Eight health posts in the four zones are reported as
being occupied by the military. [Note: During discussions with the
Degehabur Hospital Administrator, military officials were banging on
the windows to summon health workers to go to the recruitment. End

22. (SBU) During interviews, local informants expressed concern that
the scale of fighting appeared to be increasing, citing specific
incidents and new trends. A relatively new development is the
pursuit of "blood money" for the Ethiopian soldiers and militia
killed by the ONLF. In Somali tradition when someone is killed, the
responsible sub clan is expected to either pay blood money of 100
camels (roughly 500,000 birr/USD 55,000) or to suffer a retribution
killing. Although not always actively pursued in the past, the
Somali Regional Council declared two months ago that seeking blood
money for any killings by the ONLF was now mandatory. The GoE has
subsequently required the sub clans in Degehabur area to pay for the
74 people killed in Abule, where Ethiopian and Chinese oil workers
and Ethiopian troops were killed in April. Each member of the local
sub clans, determined by family status, has been allocated an amount
to pay, which was 300 birr for the individual who described the
situation. Similar payments are demanded from subclans in any area
where ENDF or militia are killed.

23. (SBU) Villagers also described the early November fighting in
Degehabur and Fik zones, and the atmosphere of fear, focusing on the
recent ENDF visit to Hascoli. The village in Fik was suspected to
be an ONLF supported area and there is an allegation that the ENDF
killed an 11 year-old child, the mother, and another child. The
situation escalated with the local community mobilizing and wounding
three soldiers, with the community now awaiting retribution. The
USAID team also heard first hand accounts of the following
incidents: a) four people garroted three months ago in the military
compound in Degehabur and their bodies displayed in town; b) eleven
elders hung in public in Damot in July, with one woman escaping to
Somaliland; c) pastoralists from Damot town forcibly relocated to
"protected" villages; among other accounts.

24. (SBU) The cumulative affect of the actions around the conflict
seem to be deepening local animosity against the GoE and likely
translating into sympathy/support for the insurgents. Apart from
government sources the team spoke with, the key issue raised against
the ONLF was their unequivocal killing of ENDF or militia, even of
some civil servants forced to join the militia against their will.
NGOs described being stopped by both the ONLF and GoE, with both
sides of the conflict indicating the humanitarian agencies should
not be associated with the other side. The concept of operational
neutrality and humanitarian corridors is not well understood; this
issue will become increasingly critical as aid agencies seek
humanitarian access without enforced military escorts.

25. (U) Humanitarian access remains challenging. Aid agencies
operating on the ground still report a significant disconnect in
directives pertaining to humanitarian access between GoE officials
Addis and Jijiga. In October, the UN provided the GoE a list of 37
NGOs willing to work in the Ogaden. On November 2, DPPA advised UN
agencies only 12 international and local NGOs were "approved" to
operate in the conflict-affected areas of the Ogaden. Approved NGOs
include Save the Children/US, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF)-Greece,
Oxfam GB, Pastoralist Concern Association, OWDA, Save the
Children/UK, Islamic Relief, International Rescue Committee,
Partnership for Pastoralist Development, Save the Rural Society,
Wabi Shebelle Development Association, and Fafan Development
Organization. On November 13, the DPPA approved an additional seven
NGOs: Mercy Corps, MSF-Belgium, MSF-Switzerland, International
Medical Corps, Cooperazione Internationale (COOPI), Mother and Child
Development and German Agro Action.

26. (SBU) The DPPA and Somali Regional officials offer no
explanation for the selection of the approved agencies. Of
particular concern is that several key NGOs currently operational in
Kebridehar did not make the list including Action Contre la Faim
(ACF) and Medecins du Monde (MDM), yet agencies not operational were
approved. In the first humanitarian coordination forum in Jijiga on
November 7, Somali Region officials were at a loss to explain how
agencies were selected, but assured agencies that this only
reflected the first round of approvals. When non-approved
international NGOs asked what this meant, they were advised that
"unless they have specifically been told not to go ahead, NGOs
should feel free to go ahead or continue with activities." However,
when an international NGO subsequently requested permission to
travel to Degehabur, they were advised they could not go. Agencies
in Kebridehar relate similar experiences. Some NGOs have also been
privately advised that agencies will not be permitted any access to
certain areas with ongoing military operations in the foreseeable
future. In discussion with staff of various agencies in the field,
the staff advised the USAID team that they expected harassment to
continue and that free access to rural areas was highly unlikely in
the near future.

27. (SBU) Although the GoE has agreed to the establishment of UN
offices in Kebridehar and Degehabur towns, they also insisted on a
list of names and addresses of staff that will be based in the
sub-offices to determine appropriateness. It remains uncertain if
UN agencies and NGOs will be granted unfettered access to rural
areas for program implementation and monitoring. Nevertheless, NGOs
state that the presence of UN agencies will raise visibility and
could create a more favorable working environment.

28. (SBU) COMMENT: While the GoE is taking important actions to
respond to the humanitarian situation - dispatching food, approving
UN offices and FDPs, allowing access to select NGOs - largely in
response to international pressure, the situation is a "crisis" with
little end in sight. The GoE's political and military
counter-insurgency strategies now include shifting operational
responsibility to local militias which are being manned through
forced conscription of civil servants including in the health,
agriculture and education sectors and taxing blood money payments
for oil workers and ENDF soldiers killed by the ONLF from the local
population. These actions are further fueling popular support for
the rebellion that they are meant to undermine. As such, it is
likely to provoke even harsher measures that will, in the end, be
even more counter-productive and increase levels of conflict,
further exacerbating the humanitarian situation. End comment.


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