Global Policy Forum

UN Peacekeepers Find Solace in Horn of Africa


By Matthew Green

June 11, 2001

A white armoured vehicle emblazoned with UN insignia lumbers into yet another African town broken by war. Only this time, the men in blue berets riding in the gun turret are all smiles.

Six months into their mission, soldiers securing a ceasefire between Ethiopia and Eritrea are confident they have at last scored a success on peacekeeping's nightmare continent. "When we got here the armies were together, and now they're apart," said Canadian Captain Chris French, hopping off the growling, eight-wheel monster. "The honeymoon is not over yet."

Ethiopia and Eritrea have managed to maintain a ceasefire signed last June to end their two-year border war, while villagers who fled the fighting have begun to return home.

But in the months ahead, negotiators must tread a path as treacherous as the hair-raising mountain roads of the border to crown the UN mission with the achievement of a lasting peace. The task for the 4 200 troops of the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea, or UNMEE, has been simplified by the fact that on this operation nobody is trying to kill them.

As the armoured personnel carrier whips up a dust cloud, roaring past the rubble of Senafe town, ragged children wave greetings from the roadside and old men grin from tent doorways. "We've had some incidents with the Ethiopians and Eritreans that were tense," said Sergeant Kelly Hancock, on patrol in the LAV-III vehicle. "I never felt personally anyone was going to pull the trigger."

The clear front line separating well-disciplined armies is far easier to manage than the UN mission in Sierra Leone, where peacekeepers have been kidnapped by rebels emerging from jungle hideouts.

The Ethiopia-Eritrea operation has already soothed some of the humiliation of the United Nations in Rwanda, where "blue helmets" stood and watched as genocide unfolded in 1994, or Somalia, where scores of peacekeepers were killed in the early 1990s. The relative tidiness of this conflict is clear from the empty Ethiopian and Eritrean trenches that form neat scars across the baking, ash-coloured plains around Senafe. There are no snipers, no ambushes, no kidnaps.

But tensions bubbling under the surface suggest the peace process may yet encounter problems. UNMEE says Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have created one of its biggest headaches by constantly blocking its patrols and bickering over the buffer zone's boundaries.

Under the ceasefire, UN troops occupy a 25 km wide area, called the Temporary Security Zone, between the two foes and are guaranteed freedom of movement. But disagreements have flared on the ground with both sides, leaving peacekeepers to negotiate their way through roadblocks with a mixture of bluff and bluster. "This is all part of the political game, but it has a very deadly edge to it," said Captain Brian Brooks, speaking at the Canadians' Camp Dunn, perched on a high plateau in the middle of the buffer zone.

For sun-tanned Canadian troops, relaxing with satellite television beamed to a giant dish in the lunar landscape, the mission is perhaps more fun than for negotiators treading the tortuous path to a permanent peace. A neutral commission faces the challenge of drawing up a border that will be accepted by two sides still haunted by the memories of the World War One-style trench warfare which killed tens of thousands of soldiers. Ethiopia and its much smaller neighbour have continued hostilities through a relentless propaganda war and both neighbours have repeatedly argued with the United Nations. Eritrea accuses the UNMEE of redrawing the buffer zone boundaries because UN troops could not persuade Ethiopian forces to leave, while Ethiopia says Eritrea is sneaking soldiers back into the area.

In UNMEE's offices in the Eritrean capital Asmara, mission head Legwaila Joseph Legwaila said he was optimistic for peace but baffled by the stubbornness shown by both sides. "Without freedom of movement we'll be useless for Eritrea and Ethiopia," he said "I don't think if you want to make peace you should be dragged screaming."

More Information on Ethiopia and Eritrea


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