DADAAB, Kenya (Reuters) - It was after the second beating by Ethiopian soldiers that Abdi Bashi Jama says he decided to head for the border.
But though separated from family, far from his home village in Ethiopia’s eastern Ogaden region, and a refugee rather than a shop-owner now, Jama considers himself lucky.
“The last time they attacked the village, they collected many men and took them away,” he said, pausing in the early afternoon heat of a refugee camp in north-east Kenya.
“Some guys were hung on trees, nooses round their necks until they died ... I saw it.”
Similar harrowing testimony -- dismissed as rebel propaganda by the Ethiopian government -- was repeated by various Ogaden refugees who have trickled recently into different parts of Kenya’s massive Dadaab camps, home to 170,000 refugees.
In separate interviews, the Ogadenis claimed Ethiopian soldiers had been entering villages over-and-over again to kill, rape and burn in a campaign to flush out rebels of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).
Stories of shooting, hanging, beating and rape abound.
“My village was attacked more than 10 times. There is a great genocide going on. Why does the international community not intervene?” added Jama, standing among a crowd of refugees near their threadbare shelters of branches and plastic.
There is, in fact, growing international concern over the Ogaden crisis since the Ethiopian military this year launched an unprecedented offensive against the separatist insurgents.
That followed the separatist rebels’ most dramatic attack to date, on an oil-field in April, that killed 74 people.
Annoyed at the foreign pressure it has been feeling over Ogaden, Ethiopian government officials say tales of massive rights abuses by its soldiers are a smokescreen to hide atrocities by the rebels against the population.
They say the ONLF is a terrorist group backed by Ethiopia’s arch-enemy Eritrea and linked to Muslim extremists in Somalia.
Whatever the truth, the Ogaden crisis has become yet another factor -- adding to the Somalia conflict, and the Ethiopia-Eritrea border dispute -- destabilizing the Horn of Africa, one of the world’s poorest and most war-prone regions.
“WE DREAM OF FREEDOM”
The effect of the Ogaden crisis is being felt in neighboring Kenya, where more Ogadenis than usual have been trickling into the three Dadaab camps, although the vast majority of refugees are still those fleeing the Somalia war.
“We have been noticing more from Ogaden, especially in the past two months,” said Amy Wordley, external relations officer in Dadaab for the world body’s refugee agency UNHCR.
“They just say the fighting has brought them here, and speak of traveling for about three weeks.”
Osman Omar Abdi’s journey from the Ogaden district of Jarar began in May after, he says, his wife was shot dead in front of him, his six children scattered, and his house burned during a chaotic morning raid by foot-soldiers.
“The Ethiopians say that all the Ogaden people are part and parcel of the ONLF, they don’t differentiate, so they kill everyone,” he said, displaying a scar on his hand that he described as a bullet-wound.
“I heard the grandparents got three of my children. I don’t know about the others,” added Abdi, revealing at the end of an interview that he had been a “member of the ONLF resistance.”
Another Ogadeni in Dadaab, Yusuf Hashi Ahmed, said he fled his home village in Bali district during an army attack at the end of 2006, leaving his family behind.
The former pastoralist farmer crossed into Somalia and reached the southern city of Kismayu, only to flee again when Ethiopian troops advanced on Islamist fighters there during the ousting of Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union over the New Year.
“Here, I have peace. But I have lost everything else,” he said, squatting under a thornbush. “The army were given the wrong information, that the ONLF was in my village. Some were killed, others were injured. I had to flee, I was frightened.”
As ethnic Somalis, the Ogadenis blend unobtrusively into Somalia and north Kenya, which is almost entirely populated by Somali people. They also cross porous borders easily, making a mockery of the supposed closure of the Kenya-Somalia border.
“What we dream of is democracy and the freedom of Ogaden,” added Ahmed. “We can survive on our own. We have resources -- our oil. That is why Ethiopia fights us.”
Editing by Stephen Weeks