NAIROBI, Kenya The Ethiopian government, one of America's top allies in Africa, is forcing untrained civilians including doctors, teachers, office clerks and employees of development programs financed by the World Bank and United Nations to fight rebels in the desolate Ogaden region, according to Western officials, refugees and Ethiopian administrators who recently defected to avoid being conscripted.
Ethiopia has been struggling with the rebels for years. But with tens of thousands of its troops now enmeshed in a bloody insurgency in Somalia and many thousands more massing on the border for a possible war with Eritrea, the government seems to be relying on civilians to do more of its fighting in the Ogaden, a bone-dry chunk of territory where Ethiopian troops have been accused by human rights groups of widespread abuses.
In a recent report, government officials in the region called upon elders, traders, women and civil servants to form local "security committees" and mobilize their clans to destroy the rebels and their bases of support. The government says that the rebels are terrorists who have carried out assassinations and bombings and that civilians have volunteered to fight them.
But by many accounts, the militias are hardly voluntary. One Western aid official said soldiers had barged into hospitals to draft recruits and threatened to jail health workers if they did not comply. In other cases, lists of names were posted on public bulletin boards, ordering government employees to report for duty, according to a member of the regional Parliament and two Ethiopian administrators who have fled the country. Many of those who refused were fired, jailed and in some cases tortured, the administrators and the parliament member said.
The civilians are serving as guides, porters, translators and foot soldiers, and they are sent into the bush with little or no training to confront hardened guerrilla fighters. In the ensuing battles, many civil servants have recently been killed, according to accounts corroborated by Western officials and aid workers.
"Anybody who works for the government teachers, doctors, clerks, administrators has to join a militia," said Hassan Abdi Hees, who worked as the head accountant in a government office in the Ogaden and is now seeking asylum in Kenya. "I left because I didn't want to die."
Several Western officials say they are alarmed about this new strategy, especially when the first signs may be emerging of a humanitarian crisis that aid officials predicted over the summer.
Earlier this year, the Ethiopian military sealed off large areas of the Ogaden to choke off support for the rebels, preventing much of the commercial traffic and emergency food aid from entering. Western aid officials warned this could cause a famine.
The military has since relaxed some restrictions, but a survey by the aid group Save the Children U.K. found that child malnutrition rates in some areas have soared past emergency thresholds and are now higher than in Darfur or Somalia, widely considered the two most pressing crises in Africa.
In late November John Holmes, the most senior humanitarian official at the United Nations, came to the Ogaden to assess the situation. While there, he said, he heard reports of civilian militias being formed, and observed that it was increasingly difficult to find health workers, livestock workers and trained professionals to distribute much-needed aid in the region, which now faces a drought.
"There is not a catastrophe there, for the moment," he said. "But there is a lot of concern the Ogaden could become a serious humanitarian crisis."
Ethiopian officials deny this.
"Many media and international organizations have been exaggerating the problems," said Nur Abdi Mohammed, a government spokesman. "There is no food aid problem. There is no malnutrition problem."
As for militias, Mohammed said, "What is happening is that the local tribes are forming to fight against the ONLF," the Ogaden National Liberation Front, the main rebel group in the area.
"The people want to protect their livelihood," Mohammed added.
According to the recent government report, which was published by regional authorities, rank-and-file civil servants are not the only ones called upon to fight the rebels. It also lists several employees who work for programs financed by international donors.
They included a pastoral development project that receives millions of dollars from the World Bank and the Ethiopian government's AIDS prevention office, which is supported, in part, by the United Nations and The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. A second government document ordering civil servants to report for duty lists 10 employees from an AIDS office.
One government official said that his entire department, including white-collar professionals, clerks, watchmen and drivers, had been forced to go on reconnaissance patrols to hunt down the rebels. The official, who feared government reprisals if he was identified, said the militia duty interrupted humanitarian programs supported by the United Nations and that several colleagues were killed while on patrol.
"We don't know how to operate guns, but the government sent us to the front lines," the official said.