|Ethiopia has been scarred by fighting between the ONLF, pictured above in Eastern Ogaden in the Somali region, and the military. Photograph: Jonathan Alpeyrie/Getty|
On the newly paved main road that runs through eastern Ethiopia's arid Somali region lie several reminders of the violence the area has endured. Several burnt-out Russian tanks litter the barren terrain, evidence of the 1977-78 Ethiopia-Somalia war.
Further along the highway, a scorched bus symbolises an ongoing conflict destabilising the region. Fighting between the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which wants self-determination for the region, and the Ethiopian military since 1984 has left a deep scar on the civilian population.
But at a tea shop in a village close to where the locals claim the ONLF had one of its first headquarters, Mohammed, 71, a village elder, says the Liyu police, an Ethiopian regional state security force, has increased safety in the area and improved their lives. "Before, the rebels used to terrorise us every day, always accusing us of supporting the government. Since the Liyu has come, the rebels never bother us any more – we can live our lives normally again, without fear."
Abdihadar agrees. When he was 14, he had his ears cut off by the Ogaden rebels, who accused him of spying for the state. "For years, I never went outside the home, I was too scared, I could never look at guns. Then the Liyu police came, and the situation improved," he says.
Many others who live along this main road, which cuts through the cities in the region, feel the same.
But the sentiments are at odds with previous reports on the Liyu, a force created in 2008 to offer a more effective response to the rebels than the Ethiopian military, which had been losing ground and was criticised for what some human rights groups called "genocidal tactics" against the Ogaden people.
Human Rights Watch says the Liyu police force has committed atrocities during their counterinsurgency activities, with reports of rape, torture and executions of civilians and several clashes with different clans on the region's borders.
Controversially, the UK's Department for International Development is considering giving millions of pounds to agencies to conduct human rights training for the Liyu force. According to a DfID official, the training is still in the "pre-design" stage. The department considers the behaviour of the Liyu police to be a precondition for lasting peace in the region, says the official, but funding would not be released until DfID was confident the training would contribute to a broader effort for the Liyu's reform.
"The Liyu is made up of men who have come from their communities, who have witnessed atrocities by the rebels, and want to protect their families," Abdullahi Yusuf Werar, the region's vice-president and head of security told the Guardian. "This was always bound to be more effective".
While the regional government and local NGOs claim the ONLF's military strength has been diminished in recent years by the Liyu force, Ogaden leaders say there are still pockets of rebel support across the region. The Liyu control the main roads and cities, but locals say the ONLF roam much of the region at night.
The Liyu has primarily been a counterinsurgency and security force. Werar says he wants this to change, to use the Liyu to help bring development and investment to the region.
"The Liyu was created to be a combat force, to fight the rebels. Now we have achieved our goal, we want to become a force for development in the region and assist development projects," he says.
Three hours' drive east from the region's capital, Jijiga, is a water supply project. According to the chief engineer, sent from Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, the Liyu helped dig the canal, which will house the water pipe. "Without the Liyu, the project site would not have been secure, and we would not have dug the canal so quickly," he says.
There are also five-star hotels under construction in Jijiga, and many of the returning diaspora say the Liyu has made it possible for them to go home.
According to the country director of an international NGO, which has worked in the Somali region for more than a decade, who declined to be named, Liyu human rights abuses have decreased. "We are not getting as many reports as we used to," he says. "It appears they could be improving."
But not everyone is convinced. On a recent visit to the area, Olad Guled, a former civil servant in the region who has now left the country, says he believes it would be a waste of British taxpayers' money to fund human rights training for the Liyu.
"First we need to address the basic structural issues of the Liyu police," Guled says. "The force needs to be more inclusive of all the clans in the region, needs to stop acting like they're above the law, and needs to be accountable for their actions."