Global Policy Forum

Awful War, Real Peace:


By Ian Fisher

New York Times
April 6, 2001

Peacekeeping in Africa has a justly bad name, from Somalia to Sierra Leone, but things are different here. Abdul Baki, a captain in a gentlemanly company of Bangladeshi mine sweepers, is not worried about kidnappings or ambushes. His big concerns in his post along the border with Ethiopia: the heat, the dust, the ground covered with nettles. "You can't walk with your naked feet," he complained. "If you walk 3 steps, you will find 10 thorns." Two years of fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea were fierce by any measure: perhaps 100,000 soldiers died. But the two nations now seem equally committed to the silence between them. For six months, starting last June, they respected a cease-fire, even without peacekeepers to keep them apart.

That is a welcome relief for the 4,100 peacekeepers who have since arrived, most in December, along a broiling strip of borderland in Eritrea. So much is this considered a model mission that there are more offers for peacekeepers than there is space. This is in stark contrast to the wariness surrounding the United Nations' newest African task, in Congo, which is a muddle of six armies and a dozen rebel groups.

"No one is shooting at you here," said Capt. Kevin Baker, 35, a Canadian military observer here who also served in the Balkans, a region that was not kind to peacekeepers. In a world where conflicts have grown more and more complex — and ethnic hate and shattered states drive war into unparsable layers — the situation here is almost reassuringly direct.

This is an old-fashioned war along a definable front. The more common, newer face of war is a struggle for power and resources within a single country, like Bosnia, East Timor, Congo, Sierra Leone or Angola, where civilians — and at times peacekeepers — become targets of rebels or militias with little accountability. "Here you have two governments with two disciplined armies," said Ian Martin, the deputy director of the United Nations operations here. "They fight when they are told to fight, and stop fighting when they are told to stop fighting."

Soldiers and United Nations officials say they see no immediate lessons for other, more complicated deployments in Africa's internal wars, particularly in Congo, where the first of some 3,000 peacekeepers took up their posts in late March. In some ways, the relative simplicity of this mission has increased the pressure to get it right after problems in Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Angola. Success hinges, as ever, on how long Ethiopia and Eritrea keep their commitment to not fight.

"I can see why people are cynical," said Maj. Gen. Patrick C. Cammaert, the commander of the United Nations forces in Ethiopia and Eritrea. "If you look at the record, it's quite obvious. And therefore it is important that we have a successful outcome." But that does not mean the problems between Ethiopia and Eritrea — brother nations of considerable industriousness and pride on the Horn of Africa — are anywhere near a resolution.

In May 1998, several years of tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea erupted over a relatively unimportant town along their 625-mile border. Formed only in 1993, Eritrea is Africa's newest nation, and because their leaders had been friends and ties were otherwise tight, the border was never formally marked.

Three major waves of war cost the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers and severed the once strong economic and cultural ties between two nations on the road to development. By last June Ethiopia, by far the larger country, had pushed Eritrean soldiers deep into their own territory. A cease-fire took hold, the war was over, and the United Nations then took on the task of deploying peacekeepers and settling the border lines for good. More than 40 nations are represented.

Despite the carnage — there are still hundreds of bodies laying around the fronts — it was clear that this mission was likely to be easier than most. And so outside nations were eager: The Canadians have deployed their first peacekeepers in Africa since 1993 in Somalia. The Dutch have sent one of their first units since they were stationed in Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995. (The United States, stung by the deaths of peacekeepers in Somalia in the mid- 1990's, has a handful of soldiers working with the United Nations but no peacekeeping units here.)

The commander of the Kenyan troops here, Lt. Col. John Nzamba, noted the differences with Sierra Leone, where several Kenyan peacekeepers have been killed and kidnapped over the last two years. "By comparison, this operation is totally different," he said. "Personally I feel very comfortable about what we are doing in this place." In four months, there has not been a single serious incident involving peacekeepers, though two Canadian vehicles hit mines in March, injuring one soldier.

The overall task is still complex: With trust between them destroyed, Eritrea and Ethiopia have wrangled particularly over the establishment of a demilitarized zone, some 15 1/2 miles wide and entirely inside the rugged borderlands of Eritrea. Only in late March did Eritrea, which had complained about what it said was Ethiopian incursions into Eritrean territory, finally agree to complete the withdrawal of its troops. That appears to pave the way for a formal creation of the demilitarized zone. But Ethiopia still has at least three companies of men inside what had earlier been agreed as an troop-free zone.

The delay in demarking the zone has been particularly hard on the 135,000 displaced Eritreans, who have yet to return to their farms and homes near the battlefields. Local administrators have not yet returned, and aid groups and peacekeepers have been unable to make homes and fields livable and free from mines. "Yes, we are really afraid," said Birhane Ghebremichael, 58, a farmer who has lived since May 1998 in a camp of 35,000 people outside Adi Keshi, in the west. "Otherwise, we'd be back."

Eritrea's announcement that it would finish pulling out its troops has renewed hopes that people like Mr. Ghebremichael will be able to return to his farm, where he once grew sorghum, barley and corn, to begin planting before the rains come in the next few weeks. And while there is some skepticism, most Eritreans seem to view the United Nations deployment as a move that may bring a return to normal life. "Both we and the Ethiopians have had enough of war," he said. "It looks like this is finally going to be settled."

Yet the damage has been great, as the peacekeepers have seen. On the barren eastern front, one Italian officer described clearing 250 dead soldiers, stacking bodies that had dried like mummies after six months in the desert.

For a while after the peacekeepers arrived, Ethiopia and Eritrea had been cooperating to remove their war dead, with each side sending observers to watch as the other shoveled bodies into bags donated by the United Nations. Recently that cooperation has broken down, and like so much between these two former friends, the clearing of the dead is, as one United Nations official said, "just stuck."

More Information on Ethiopia and Eritrea
More Information on Peacekeeping


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