In the shadow of Ethiopia's rebels
Once a dusty outpost in eastern Ethiopia, close to the Somali
border, Jijiga town is now growing fast.
Since the government started devolving power and money to the
component parts of the Ethiopian federation, Jijiga has become the
capital of Somali region, and it is now finally acquiring the trappings
that go with its status.
The rebellion has escalated since Ethiopian troops went to
It has a new university, which has just admitted its first intake of
students and will soon get a proper airport to replace the earth runway
and cluster of Portakabins which currently have to serve.
But Jijiga is also the capital of a region battling a long-running
rebellion, which has flared up dramatically in the past few months.
The government blames attacks there on al-Qaeda-backed terrorists,
and the opposition accuse the Ethiopian army of atrocities against the
The rebels are part of an organisation known as the Ogaden People's
Liberation Front (ONLF), which has existed for many years but seems to
have taken on a new lease of life since Ethiopian troops went into
Somalia last December to save the transitional government there from
being overrun by Islamist militias.
The effect may have been political - anger at seeing their government
fighting against fellow Somalis across the border, or practical - the
result of an influx of weapons and fighters chased out of Somalia by the
Either way, the insurgency in Ethiopia's Somali region suddenly
seemed better organised, better armed, and much more daring.
After two high-profile attacks in April and May - the first on a
Chinese-run oil exploration site; the second an attempt to assassinate
the regional president at an official event in Jijiga football stadium -
the Ethiopian army began a major counter-insurgency operation in the
central part of the region, the area known as the Ogaden.
Jijiga itself has been spared the worst of the violence and has
remained mostly quiet.
The security presence is not heavy, but it is watchful.
People are searched as they go into public buildings. And attacks
still occasionally take place.
One person was killed and several injured in two explosions on 5
August - explosions blamed by the government on the ONLF, although in
this case the ONLF denied responsibility.
The Ethiopian army is now claiming significant victories against the
rebels, but the process has clearly been hard on the civilian
It is difficult to know from Jijiga what is happening in the worst
affected areas round Degeh Bur and Kebri Dehar, Saggag and Fik, but some
kind of picture eventually emerges, like a series of snapshots, from
conversations and chance encounters.
People are returning to their traditional lifestyle, based
on raising animals
o Staff of a local aid agency, returning from an inspection of their
projects, blown to smithereens by a landmine planted on a country road.
o An outlying government office closed, its vehicles burned.
o Regular bus services to certain areas no longer running, because
the rebels do not like the bus owner's clan or perhaps his politics.
o A village away from the main road, where all the shops have closed
and cafes and tea shops are no longer operating, because they have
nothing left to sell. Normal food deliveries are not getting through.
o An elderly goat herder, beside himself with indignation, launching
a diatribe in front of a senior local official.
He had lost two sons, he said, fighting for Ethiopia against Eritrea.
And now the soldiers come to his village, chase everyone out and burn
their houses, and then have the effrontery to tell him he is not a true
Everyone agreed that moving around in that part of the region was now
You risked hitting a landmine, running into a fire-fight, or at the
very least meeting a band of rebels who would demand money, or an army
patrol who might arrest you as a suspect.
So it was better to stay put.
Many of the people in the area are nomads, living by rearing and
trading their animals.
Now they dare not move their flocks to get them to market.
If other supplies are not getting through, those who do have animals
can at least survive by going back to the traditional nomadic way of
life, living on the meat and milk their herds provide.
As ever, it is the poorest who are suffering most, those who have no
animals to support them.