When displacement, landmines and racism mix: the fate of Eritreans in Libya

A couple of weeks ago, Human Rights Concern  – Eritrea (HRC-E), a UK-based NGO working on behalf of the human rights of Eritreans in Eritrea and the diaspora, issued this report:

76 Eritrean refugees in Libya are being used to clear land mines in Sirte, the home town of the late Gaddafi. The refugees are forced all day to clear land mines. These are not trained professionals. This is not humanitarian de-mining. This is a callous, inhuman treatment of humans as if they were disposable pieces of equipment. It amounts to nothing less than murder.

These refugees are not given access to UNHCR. It is inhuman that these refugees, who fled persecution in Eritrea, should suffer further harassment and risk being blown up while clearing the mines. The Libyans do not want to do it themselves, so they use refugees.  This is barbaric and should be condemned. (Human Rights Concern – Eritrea).

The mine action community mobilized pretty rapidly after the fall of the Gaddhafi regime to provide mine risk education and demining services in Libya.  On the ground are several operators and significant funding was provided at the outset by donor states (although much of that funding was specifically geared towards preventing the proliferation of shoulder-fired surface to air rockets).  As such, this report seemed pretty incredible and I have not yet been able to locate any corroboration.  However, it does – unfortunately – fit into a much broader pattern of behavior in North Africa towards Sub-Saharan Africans.  It is also not the first report of people being forced to clear mines without proper training and support.

Prior to the revolution in Libya, as many as 2 million of Libya’s 7 million residents were foreign-born immigrants, some from Arab states, but many if not most from Sub-Saharan Africa.  Gaddhafi presented himself as leader of the pan-African movement and trained separatists and rebels from many countries including the Toureg who have recently been fighting against the Malian government and the convicted war criminal Charles Taylor and his allies in Liberia.  Gaddhafi also invited many black Africans to work in the Libyan oil fields where lucrative jobs were available and workers were able to earn enough to send remittances home to support families and communities.  In a billboard in Tripoli, “Colonel Qaddafi appears as a savior as sun rays break over his shoulder and a crowd of black men and women reach toward him with outstretched arms.” Native Libyans were angered by these acts and resented the presence of what they believed were “illegal” immigrants in their country.  In 2000 pogroms in Libya led to the deaths of many black Africans at the hands of native Libyans, attacks that were repeated in 2004, 2006 and 2008.  Against that backdrop, Gaddhafi’s use of African mercenaries to try and hold onto power in 2011 was an invitation for abuse.

Reports of Africans being held by Libyan rebels in detention camps abounded.  According to the US State Department African refugees in Libya faced killings, arbitrary detention, attacks on camps, and gender-based violence.  The State Department also reported on the presence of a camp at al-Kufrah where migrants faced physical abuse in addition to needing humanitarian assistance; a camp that Human Rights Concern – Eritrea also mentions as holding 300 Eritrean refugees.  Because Gaddhafi used African mercenaries, mostly from Chad, Niger and Mali, to protect his regime, all Africans in Libya after the 2011 revolution were subject to suspicion, detention and deportation, along with a host of abuses throughout.  Since the revolution, the new government has not taken steps to protect immigrants or refugees and human trafficking routes for forced labor and forced prostitution have returned.

The divide between North Africans and Sub-Saharan Africans and the racism of North Africans towards Sub-Saharan Africans has been well documented (see Think Africa Press’s pieces here and here and UN Watch’s piece here).  In the United States, the dichotomy came to the forefront in discussions about Darfur where the Arabized militias of the janjaweed would attack the black Darfurians as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign.  This simplistic and reductive argument paralleled the narrative about the Sudanese civil war between Sudan and South Sudan where the Arabs of Khartoum fought the Christians and animists of the South to maintain control over the oil reserves.  Again, a too-pat description, but one that was easy for Americans to understand and had a strong basis in the racism of North Africans and Arabs towards Sub-Saharan Africans.

It is very possible that Eritrean refugees are subjected to forced labor in the new Libya.  Many Eritreans have suffered greatly in their attempts to flee their country (in recent months, two Eritrean pilots defected to Saudi Arabia with the Eritrean President’s official plane; a third pilot sent to retrieve the plane from Saudi Arabia defected herself [Think Africa Press]; in 2009, 2011 and 2012 members of the Eritrean national football team sought asylum during regional tournaments [Sudan Tribune]) paying huge ransoms to human smugglers to avoid the country’s mandatory military service.  Traffickers take advantage of those wanting to flee Eritrea and have basically sold them into slavery in places like Libya.

Human Rights Concern – Eritrea’s report would also not be the first report of people being forced to demine fields with little or no protection.  In Burma, the practice of “atrocity demining” has been reported by Human Rights Watch.  Atrocity demining, or “human mine sweeping,” is the “forced passage of civilians over confirmed or suspected mined areas or the forced use of civilians to clear mines without appropriate training or equipment.” It is a war crime and survivors of the practice in Burma were “forced them to dig out landmines, to strike or beat the ground with a pitchfork or pickaxe before [Burmese] soldiers walked on it, or to walk in front of Tatmadaw columns in a mined area or in an area suspected to have been mined.”

At its very root, the HRC-E report shows how marginalized persons suffer greater risks and abuses during and immediately after conflict.  Those risks are magnified when combined with racism and discrimination and can constitute war crimes when in the presence of landmines.

Michael P. Moore

April 10, 2013

Battles over Beledweyne and the Ethiopian Occupation

As the final assault on the Al Shabaab stronghold of Kismayo is underway, I’d like to re-focus the attention further inland, to the town of Beledweyne.  Beledweyne is about 30 kilometers from the border with Ethiopia, is the capitol of the Hiraan district, and has been the base of operations for Ethiopia’s army after it invaded Somalia in November 2011.  Ethiopian troops seized Beledweyne from Al Shabaab on December 31, 2011 and have held it ever since. This week the new President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, visited Beledweyne as fatal floods struck the city.


A few important background items to keep in mind: First, there are at least four separate armies operating in Somalia allied to the internationally recognized government; they are the Somali Army, the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeepers (the backbone of which is formed by Ugandan and Burundian soldiers with some Sierra Leonean and Djiboutian soldiers mixed in), the Kenyan Defence Force (officially part of the AMISOM force, but operating fairly independently it seems) and the Ethiopian army.  There are several clan-based militias that are allied with these forces, but the command and control structures are not very clear.  In theory, the Somali army and two wings of the AMISOM force (one under Ugandan control and focused on security in Mogadishu and central Somalia, the other under Kenyan control and focused on southern Somalia) are allied and operating under United Nations and African Union mandates.  The Ethiopian army has refused to “re-hat” and join the AMISOM command structure.

Second, Ethiopia invaded and occupied large portions of Somalia from 2006 to 2009.  Ethiopia’s goal was to displace the Islamic Courts Union from control in Somalia and return power to the United Nation’s-backed Transitional Federal Government which controlled only small portions of Baidoa at the time of Ethiopia’s invasion.  Ethiopia was very successful in driving out the Islamic Courts Union, but its occupation of Somalia created tremendous ill will within the populace, ill will that gave rise to a guerrilla war against the Ethiopians and led to the rise of the Al Shabaab militia.  Al Shabaab’s opposition to the Ethiopians made it very popular at first and when the Ethiopians withdrew under pressure from the insurgents, Al Shabaab was given a free hand to act in Somalia.  Until Kenya and Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2011, Al Shabaab controlled all of Somalia except for the couple square miles of Mogadishu protected by AMISOM forces. 

Third, Eritrea, Ethiopia’s neighbor and former ally, has been accused of providing logistical, financial and material support to Al Shabaab, and before Al Shabaab to the Islamic Courts Union.  Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a vicious border war in 1998 and have routinely engaged in brinksmanship over a contested piece of blighted and deserted land.  For over a decade, Eritrea has been subject to brutal economic and political sanctions and rather than engage Ethiopia in direct conflict, Eritrea has sought to support various militias that are arrayed against the Ethiopian government, including some active within Ethiopia’s borders.  This support has led to the impression that Ethiopia and Eritrea are fighting a proxy war in Somalia. 

Fourth (and somewhat linked to the third point), southern Ethiopia is primarily made of up of ethnic Somalis.  When the border was drawn, it split the Somali population along both sides of the border and the demarcation of that border led to a war between Somalia and Ethiopia in the 1970s. Ethiopia has been wracked by conflicts organized along ethnic lines and Ethiopia’s desire for political stability in Somalia is tied to its own internal interests. A lawless Somalia allows a safe space for rebels against the Ethiopian government to organize and train; however, it also creates the perception among Ethiopian soldiers (especially those with memories of the last invasion), that all Somalis are enemies or providing comfort and refuge to enemies. 

So, background out of the way…


Since the Ethiopian takeover of Beledweyne, there have been numerous attacks against Ethiopian and civilian targets.  These attacks have primarily used landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and those are what I have been tracking. In press reports, the explosives used have been described as “roadside bombs,” “remote-controlled landmines,” “IEDs” and “landmines.”  I have not bothered to try and distinguish between them, only to compile a list of such events:

Table 1: Insurgent attacks using Explosives against hard and soft targets in Beledweyne

Date of Story Target Type of Attack Casualties Source
Sept 26, 2012 Ethiopian Military Convoy Landmine 1 dead http://allafrica.com/stories/201209261409.html
Sept 8, 2012 Somali troops IEDs Unknown http://allafrica.com/stories/201209080523.html
July 17, 2012 Ethiopian & Somali troops Roadside Bombs Unknown http://allafrica.com/stories/201207180090.html
July 8, 2012 Somali troops Guns, RPGs 3 killed, unknown wounded http://allafrica.com/stories/201207090135.html
June 28, 2012 Ethiopian & Somali troops Roadside Bomb Unknown http://allafrica.com/stories/201206290029.html
June 14, 2012 Ethiopian Military Convoy Roadside Bomb Unknown http://allafrica.com/stories/201206140566.html
May 14, 2012 Ethiopian Military Convoy Landmine Unknown http://allafrica.com/stories/201205141167.html
April 23, 2012 Ethiopian Military Convoy Roadside Bomb 2 Killed http://allafrica.com/stories/201204231397.html
March 8, 2012 Ethiopian Military Convoy Landmines Unknown http://allafrica.com/stories/201203080218.html
Feb 21, 2012 Ethiopian troops Landmine Unknown http://allafrica.com/stories/201202210269.html
Feb 5, 2012 Ethiopian troops Guns and RPGs Unknown http://allafrica.com/stories/201202050021.html
Jan 24, 2012 Gov’t HQ and Ethiopian soldiers Vehicle-borne suicide bomb 33 killed http://allafrica.com/stories/201201250865.html
Jan 19, 2012 Ethiopian troops Landmine Unknown http://allafrica.com/stories/201201191316.html
Jan 17, 2012 Ethiopian tanks Landmines None http://allafrica.com/stories/201201170244.html
Jan 6, 2012 Ethiopian troops Roadside Bomb Unknown http://allafrica.com/stories/201201061131.html
Jan 5, 2012 Military convoy Grenade Unknown http://allafrica.com/stories/201201061055.html


Al Shabaab promised to engage in an insurgency campaign after withdrawing from Beledweyne (All Africa); similar promises were made after Al Shabaab’s withdrawal from Mogadishu and can be expected if Kismayo falls.  In Beledweyne, the insurgency campaign, highlighted by the explosive attacks listed above and several targeted assassinations not listed, has sparked brutal reprisals from the occupying Ethiopian soldiers.

In March, Human Rights Watch reported that Ethiopian troops and their allied militia, the Shabelle Valley State group, committed summary executions in response to insurgent attacks.  Human Rights Watch also accused Ethiopian troops of arbitrary detention and beatings of those detained.  A representative of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the State Minister for Internal Affairs Dr. Ali Hassan, denied the charges saying, “human rights violations involving TFG authorities on the ground in those regions has not occurred” (All Africa).  Of course, since the Ethiopian troops are not part of the TFG and the militias are not under any formal command mechanism, Dr. Hassan was sort of telling the truth, if one parses his statement.  But even beyond the reports compiled by Human Rights Watch, the dispatches compiled above provide a more chilling document.  Human Rights Watch did not accuse the Ethiopian troops of killing civilians, but there is compelling evidence that Ethiopian soldiers in Beledweyne have fired indiscriminately into crowds after explosive attacks:

September 26, 2012: One innocent passerby was killed instantly and one other was also seriously injured in an indiscriminate fire by Ethiopian troops. (All Africa)

July 18, 2012: Witnesses said Ethiopian troops have killed at least 10 innocent civilians, including women and children and wounded 9 others, some of them seriously, after opening fire indiscriminately on crowd near the bomb site at a village in eastern Beledweyne town on Wednesday. (All Africa)

July 17, 2012: [L]ocal sources on the ground in Beledweyne say that the [Ethiopian] troops fired indiscriminately after the attacks and that there is a possibility of civilian casualties. (All Africa)

June 28, 2012: Following the attack which was used a remote-controlled {land] mine, Somali and Ethiopian forces opened fire at nearby civilians, but no deaths reported so far. (All Africa)

May 14, 2012: I don’t know the exact number of casualties, but Ethiopian soldiers shot dead two civilians following the blast. (All Africa)

April 23, 2012: According to local sources in Beledweyne Ethiopian troops killed another 3 civilians who were near the site of the explosion. The three men were gunned down following the blast, one was chased down and killed just as he approached his house.

Two other men living in the neighborhood were also executed. “Two men were gunned down in the neighborhood of Baladul Amin, the two of the men were taken out of their homes and executed.” (All Africa)

January 24, 2012: Ethiopian soldiers have separately killed on Tuesday afternoon three persons, including teenagers and a well-known businessman, whom they blamed to have links with Al-shabab militants. (All Africa)

January 19, 2012: Witnesses indicated that the blast did cause any casualty but fire shots by Ethiopians claimed the death of two nearby civilians and five others who have been rushed to the hospitals in the town of Beldweyn for treatment. (All Africa)

These killings have taken place as the Ethiopian government and AMISOM have made repeated promises to withdraw Ethiopian troops and replace them with peacekeepers.  This promise was first made in January 2012 (All Africa) and reiterated in April (All Africa), but the first peacekeepers did not arrive until June (All Africa).  In recent days, after the death of longtime Ethiopian leader, Meles Zenawi, the new Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, said “Ethiopia would reinforce the support it has been providing to Somalia in its effort to be a peaceful and stable country,” while the Somali prime minister requested “Hailemariam to continue the full support of Ethiopia to Somalia,” suggesting that Ethiopian troops will remain in Somalia for some time to come (ERTA TV). 

As long as Ethiopian troops remain in Somalia, they will be targets for insurgent and explosive attacks and the Ethiopian troops have demonstrated a callous disregard to the Somalis living in areas they have occupied.

Michael P. Moore, October 3, 2012