MOYALE, 23 December 2010 (IRIN) – The presence of an Ethiopian rebel group in northern Kenya, coupled with operations by security forces from both countries, has caused numerous casualties and displacement among local residents, who also complain of arbitrary arrests.
“They are a menace,” Moyale District Commissioner David Rotich said of the secessionist Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which first rose up against Ethiopian authorities three decades ago.
“They pose a major threat to security and development and are linked to a group of gun dealers and poachers across the region,” he alleged.
Residents of Moyale, Isiolo and Marsabit districts told IRIN that civilians were often detained by security agents who accused them of belonging to the OLF, or harassed by the rebels on suspicion of collaborating with the authorities.
A trader at Walda centre in Sololo, Moyale district, said several business people had to close their operations because of a wave of terror acts allegedly arising from the OLF presence in the area.
“Walda trading centre is a risky and difficult area to do business because it is considered the main military base for OLF rebels; Ethiopian troops frequently attack us while pursuing the rebel fighters who also attack, abduct, kill and threaten local residents,” the trader said.
Identifying himself only as Wario, a hotelier at Turbi – where at least 80 people were killed four years ago – said the OLF, often comprising Kenyans and Ethiopians, once ordered him close his restaurant business because of his ethnicity.
“Our county council and government issues permits and licences for all traders to conduct business but [I believe] OLF makes the final decision; I was forced to close my restaurant because my crime was simple, I am a Gabra and therefore considered an enemy,” Wario said.
Most of the OLF fighters in northern Kenya are from the Borana community.
A retired chief from Sololo said: “The OLF was at first a pride to the Borana community but it is now a monster; it has killed many of our neighbours.”
On 15 December, 15 people died in Moyale and Marsabit districts after fierce fighting between the OLF and a splinter group in Badarero, Walda and Kate areas.
A Turbi resident, identified only as Ndege, said hundreds of families from his Gabra community remained displaced.
“We have suffered greatly at the hands of OLF; many people have been killed, many families are poor after losing their livestock to OLF, many have moved far away to look for manual work, other are recipients of relief food, beggars in towns and some young orphaned girls have been forced to work as commercial sex workers,” Ndege said.
In November, Kenya police launched an operation to flush out the OLF rebels. However, residents said dozens of innocent youth were netted in the operation.
Moyale police commander Nathaniel Langat, told IRIN: “We have intelligence reports, what we are doing now is very different from the past operations, it has achieved a lot, the rebels have fled, many have crossed to Ethiopia, the government could not just sit and watch its citizens being killed, abducted and threatened by this bandits.”
Wenslas Ong’ayo, the Upper Eastern province regional commissioner, said the operation was being conducted “with a human face” and that no incidents had been reported so far. He added that all those arrested were found with weapons and had no permission to be in the country.
However, Wajir human rights network official Mukhtar Nur said an assessment conducted by the group established that local residents were living in fear of security forces and rebel fighters roaming the area.
“Young herders are no longer going out to look after their animals for fear of arrests,” he said. “Women are also afraid to go out to look for water or firewood because some have been arrested along the way, held the whole day and accused of ferrying supplies to the rebels.”
• Meanwhile, in Nairobi, some 200 ethnic Oromos from Ethiopia complained of police harassment at a protest rally on 23 December.
“The police come to our houses in the middle of the night, abusing women, ripping up our refugee documents,” Tsegaye Gudeta, spokesman for the Oromo Refugee Community Welfare Association, told IRIN.
“Besides detention, some of us are facing daily disappearances and abuse. We were afraid for our lives, have no other place to go and we couldn’t wait any more,” he added.
The protest was held outside the UN Refugee Agency, which Gudeta said should work with Kenyan police to increase awareness of refugees’ rights.