Global Policy Forum

Brothers Divided by a 'Crazy' War


By Audrey Gillan

Johannesburg Mail&Guardian
July 16, 1999

Johannesburg - Despite OAU efforts to solve the border crisis, there is little hope of an end to the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Audrey Gillan reports from Mekelle.

The Ayder school in Mekelle is little more than a collection of breeze-block huts, but it has become one of the Ethiopian government's most potent propaganda weapons in the 13-month battle with its former ally, Eritrea. Last June the pupils there became Ethiopia's best-known war victims as a dispute over the ill-defined border escalated into full-blown conflict. Although Mekelle, the capital of Tigray province, is 146km from the nearest front, it was close enough to be hit by an Eritrean cluster bomb.

Twelve children died in the first strike and, while people made desperate rescue attempts, the plane came back and killed 41 more. In the playground today there are the beginnings of a monument to the slaughter, but a makeshift museum in one of the huts provides a powerful reminder. Pictures of children like 12-year-old Kindihafti Atsbiha and eight-year-old Eden Aregai, taken as they registered for school, are lined up alongside photographs of the aftermath of the bombing. They show burnt and shredded jotters, a shattered blackboard, a melted plastic schoolbag, piles of children's shoes and pieces of the two cluster bombs which hit the school.

Eight-year-old Ainalem Zenebe was lucky. As she plays near the school, her prosthetic leg is visible under her filthy pink dress. Her other foot bears a large indent, but it was saved. "I don't remember it," she says. "I was walking from the school to my house. I had been learning English."

Speak to the people of Mekelle and they will say that apart from the bombing of the school, they hardly notice the war. Having experienced 30 years of civil war against the Dergue regime, they seem inured to it. "We don't like the war, but it happened and what can you do?" asks one.

On the streets there is little sign that this is a country engaged in one of the world's bloodiest wars. People are simply going about their business. But when you come to land at the airport on the edge of the city, the announcements demand that shutters be closed and remain closed. New arrivals disembark to find two white tents in the middle of a field of rubble instead of an airport building. In the distance, a fighter lands, its parachute brakes flapping behind it.

It is thought that thousands of soldiers have lost their lives in what each country has acknowledged is a "crazy" war over sections of the 990km border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. In the past, the two countries had been allies. Eritreans had helped Ethiopia overthrow Haile Mariam Mengistu's Dergue regime and in turn won their long fight for independence in 1993. The border between the countries had never been properly delineated but that did not seem to matter until last May, when fighting broke out in the Badme area.

Ethiopia, which administered the area, said the Eritreans had invaded and demanded their withdrawal. Eritrea admitted it had entered the area but said it was only claiming back its own territory. This pattern was repeated in several other border areas. Days later, the countries rained bombs on each other. In spite of efforts to make peace, Eritrea and Ethiopia are now using trench warfare tactics, each certain that it has been invaded and its sovereignty has been challenged. Yet many of the soldiers in opposing trenches are related; even the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, and the Eritrean President, Isaias Afewerki, are cousins.

The war between Eritrea and Ethiopia featured high on the agenda at the Organisation for African Unity's (OAU) summit in Algeria this week. But prospects for peace are slender. Libyan leader Moammar Gadaffi failed to bring the two countries together for pre-summit talks last weekend.

Eritrea, which has a population of 3,5-million, has conscripted its force. Ethiopia, with a population of 60-million, has endless volunteers. Ethiopia is one of the poorest states in the world: the promise of a pair of shoes and a military stipend can persuade most men to serve.

Both countries claim to have humiliated the other on the battlefield, but it is hard to assess the extent of the carnage because both refuse to give accurate assessments of their losses.

Netsannet Asfaw is the Ethiopian government's frontline representative. She fought together with the Eritreans in the civil war and advocated their right to secession. Now she spends her time in the trenches, watching the slaughter of the youth of her country and that of her former comrades. "When they invaded us I felt very betrayed because I have always sided with the Eritreans - even during the time of Haile Selassie," she says. "We have never, in our history, been conquered as a nation." She believes the issue can only be resolved if the Eritreans retreat from the places they occupied, but Eritrea has consistently refused to do this. "They have to go back to where they were before they started this mess," she adds. "There is no way Ethiopia will accept them over our borders. If they don't go back we will push them out."

Not far from where Asfat speaks is the Monument to the Martyrs, the memorial to those killed fighting the Dergue dictatorship. At its foot are bronze figures that commemorate the struggle - a woman soldier, a famine-ravaged family, a dead mother holding her child. All of these figures are moving to what is supposed to be a brighter future. In reality, they seem to have ended up with more of the same. And at the bottom of the monument lies a well for an eternal flame. But there is a technical fault and no flame burns there. The dead seem to have been easily forgotten.

More Information on Eritrea and Ethiopia


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.