ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, Aug. 12, 1988 — More than 300,000 Somali refugees, fleeing civil war, have walked across the Ethiopian border in the last two months, relief officials say. The officials called the outpouring of refugees among the most sudden they have seen.

The exodus, which officials say has left major towns in northern Somalia empty, results from fierce fighting between a northern clan and Government troops of President Mohammed Siyad Barre. The fleeing Somalis have sought sanctuary in the arid and treeless southeastern area of the Ogaden.

They have virtually no shelter from high winds and swirling dust. Water is scarce in a remote area where only nomads with their camels have been able to survive.


A senior State Department official, Kenneth W. Bleakley, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Refugees, who arrived here today to visit the camps and assess the need for aid, will not be given permission to see the refugees, an Ethiopian familiar with the decision said.

Western diplomats here said they believed that the fighting in Somalia, which has gone largely unreported in the West, was continuing unabated. More than 10,000 people were killed in the first month after the conflict began in late May, according to reports reaching diplomats here. The Somali Government has bombed towns and strafed fleeing residents and used artillery indiscriminately, according to the officials.

President Siyad Barre has been backed by United States military and economic aid for the last 11 years and the United States has rights to the use of the port of Berbera on the Red Sea.

In his 80’s and in feeble health, the President is said by American officials to have a weak grasp on power as he struggles to arrange a succession that will insure the perpetuation of his family and clan in power.

”We are talking of months, not years,” said a senior Washington official about the regime’s possible collapse.

Information about who controls specific areas and the strength of each side in the Somali fighting is sketchy. The Siyad Barre Government has denied diplomats and relief officials, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, access to the north of the country. Journalists have been denied visas into Somalia. Somali National Movement

The rebels, known as the Somali National Movement, are members of the northern Isaak clan. They contend they have been discriminated against by the Siyad Barre Government and are fighting for a more democratic government. The President, who seized power in a coup in 1969, and most of his colleagues, are of the Marehan clan.

Amnesty International said in a report two months ago that since 1981 the Government has used torture and ”widespread arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment and summary executions” of civilians suspected of collaborating with the Somali National Movement.

Over 300,000 Somalis, Fleeing Civil War, Cross Into Ethiopia
Food distribution in Ethiopia’s Hartisheik camp, which hosted more than 250,000 Somali refugees in the late 1980s. © UNHCR/B.Press

The unexpected fighting was spurred by an April peace settlement that ended 11 years of hostilities between Ethiopia and Somalia over control of the Ogaden. Under the terms of the agreement, Somali rebels who had been given refuge and arms in Ethiopia were sent back home to Somalia.

They returned stocked with Ethiopian-supplied weapons and quickly ”knocked off” two Government divisions in the north, a Western official said. These raids netted stockpiles of Government weapons, he said.

”Everyone was caught totally unaware,” said Louis Janowski, Charge d’Affaires at the United States Embassy in Addis Ababa. ”Everyone thought that with the agreement there would have been a reduction in S.N.M. hostilities.”

President Siyad Barre was at a meeting of the Organization of African Unity here and his Defense Minister was out of the country when the first attack occurred in May. Turned Into a Ghost Town

Foreign aid workers who fled the fighting around Hargeisa, the capital of northern Somalia, in July, have told of mass executions of Isaak civilians by officers. Hargeisa, a town of about 80,000, is now a ”ghost town,” said a Western diplomat here. To the west, Burao has also emptied out, he said.

A Western aid worker who was in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, two weeks ago, said fighting had reached within half an hour’s drive from the port of Berbera. ”An expatriate doctor who was in Berbera said a Government military convoy left town and returned an hour later badly shot up,” the worker said. ”It means the S.N.M. are expanding their field of influence.”

A Western diplomat here said the fighting is particularly brutal. ”Both sides have committed human rights abuses and serious ones,” he said.

The refugees, some of them professionals still dressed in business suits, started pouring across the border in the last days of June, relief workers said. Since then, the rate has been a steady 4,000 to 5,000 a day.

”I don’t think anyone who has worked in the organization for 30 years has seen anything like it,” Don Fowler, an official of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said of the rapid influx.

More than 200,000 refugees are split between Hartisheik and Harshin, southeast of Jijiga, the main town in the Ogaden. About 75,000 are at a place called Aware.

Another 60,000 who fled Burao, where the fighting began on May 26, are said to be at Misrak Gashamo, a border region accessible only by foot and helicopter. Army Caring for Refugees

United Nations officials said they had been informed by the Ethiopian Government that the refugees at Misrak Gashamo were being taken care of by the Ethiopian Army. But neither United Nations nor other foreign officials have been given access to Misrak Gashamo by the Ethiopian Government. The Government has not allowed journalists to visit any of the four Somali refugee camps.

The arrival of the refugees has further strained the overburdened Ethiopian Government, which must cope with emergency feeding of its own population in the midst of a drought and of 300,000 refugees who have fled the civil war in neighboring Sudan.

Officials in the Ethiopian Government, who say they want to assist the refugees, and diplomats here find themselves caught in a political debate on how best to help.

The Ethiopian Deputy Foreign Minister, Tibabu Bekele, said the Government feared that too much access to the camps by foreign officials and journalists would infuriate President Siad Barre and endanger the new peace treaty.

The Somali leader does not acknowledge the existence of the civil war and denies the existence of the refugees. Mr. Tibabu said the Government was concerned that Ethiopian prisoners of war who had been held in Somalia be returned by the Siad Barre Government as scheduled on Aug. 23.

Only two visits for foreign diplomats to camps other than Misrak Gashamo were authorized by the Ethiopian Government in the last month. Mr. Bleakley’s was to have been the third.

The decision not to give him access to the camps was made at the highest level of the Ethiopian Government and apparently out of pique that the Americans – unlike some other governments – had not yet given assistance to the camps, the Ethiopian familiar with the decision said.

An official of the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission described the response of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees so far as ”very lousy.” An American official said ”a lot more could have been done early on.”

Despite rain in the camps this week, the water shortage was critical, officials who returned from the area Wednesday said.



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