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United front: Eritrea

In Africa's biggest but least-known war, men and women are fighting, and dying, side by side in the trenches, reports Alex Duval Smith.
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Often described as Africa's biggest war, it is also the continent's forgotten conflict, in which thousands have died in 18 months of trench fighting. Eritrea, a small Horn of Africa nation which only came into being in 1993 after a 30-year independence war, is struggling for its survival. Out of a population of three million, virtually all 18- to 25- year-olds, including many women, are mobilised.

Ethiopia, the country's giant former ruler to the south, has had second thoughts about the independence of Eritrea, particularly in the light of the latter's economic success. Ethiopia has 60 million people but thousands of kilometres of borders to defend. The war started with a border skirmish in May last year, near Badme, a farming area whose status became unclear after independence. Since then, both sides have carried out aerial bombardments - in one case, the Eritreans bombed a school in Ethiopia, allegedly killing 40 people - and have laid thousands of land mines.

In an attempt to grind down the enemy's economy, Ethiopia regularly sends "home'' bus loads of ethnic Eritreans, some of whom have no family ties to pick up on. There are at least one million Eritreans in Ethiopia, many of them successful business people in the capital, Addis Ababa, with no desire to leave.

In the past few weeks, a new terrorist aspect has emerged to this war. Ethiopia, deprived of the port of Assab, which has been Eritrean since independence, has been shipping goods through the neighbouring republic of Djibouti. Since August, Eritrean guerillas have twice bombed the railway line linking Addis Ababa to Djibouti.

The rainy season has now ended which means fighting along the 600-mile front is likely to resume any day. Most frighteningly of all, with some 50,000 people dead already, the war appears to be spreading across the Horn of Africa. There are plenty of groups in Somalia and northern Kenya who will do Eritrea's bidding to destabilise Ethiopia and, maybe, achieve some form of independence themselves.

Peace talks have come to nothing. Last year, mediation efforts by the United States merely brought about a lull in fighting during the rainy season which allowed both sides to go shopping for arms and planes.

Now a plan by the Organisation of African Unity is on the table. Each side says it has accepted the OAU initiative. But neither trusts the other sufficiently to lay down arms and sit down around a map of the disputed border.

The scenes of carnage in this conflict, which combines First World War trench tactics, Korean War weaponry and Napoleonic field hospital care, are comparable to those of the Battle of the Somme. Bodies are left to rot along the front, among burnt-out tanks and souvenirs of lives - photographs of girlfriends and boyfriends, buttons, caps and boots. The stench is permanent.

Eritrea, a former Italian colony, has been an economic success story in its six years of independence. Its war machine is powerful, backed by thousands of ex-pats - there are said to be three Eritreans abroad for every one at home - who send money from all over the world, just as they did during the 30-year independence struggle.

Women at war

Along the front, Eritrean women and men fight side by side, just as they did in the independence war. Of Eritrea's 200,000 conscripted soldiers, at least one fifth are women. Most of them had finished high school and were doing their national service when the war broke out in May 1998. They are said by their superiors to be at least as ruthless as the men. Yordanos Tekeste, 20, a fighter on the 150km Tsorona front, says she has deliberately kept out of touch with her mother and father. "I have been fighting for a whole year and I have never been back to see my family. My mother writes to me but I do not write back. If I do not contact them it is as though I do not exist. If I come back from the war, they will be happy." Out on patrol

Men and women guard the front line bunkers at Tsorona, just 400m from Ethiopian positions. The front here is quiet now but memories are powerful of the battle in March which may have claimed as many as 10,000 Ethiopian lives. Letebrehane Teclezeghi, 19, an Eritrean woman fighter, says: "The fighting did not stop for three days. They attacked first by sending a human wave over the landmines, then came the tanks and vehicles. It was intense. The mines were blowing up, the anti-tank missiles and fighter planes were overhead. We were firing and throwing grenades as fast as we could. We hardly ate or drank for three days. We just fired everything we had. On the third day we launched a counter attack."

In Zalambessa

Helen, 21, (above) has been in the Eritrean army for three years. She was about to complete her national service when the war began. She is stationed at Zalambessa (right) where the Eritreans have made territorial gains in treacherous trench warfare on the plain. The Eritrean flag is one of the newest in the world, with an olive branch running through the laurel wreath to represent the different ethnic groups in this small country. All quiet on the Tsorona front

At Tsorona, in March, the Ethiopians walked into a thick minefield. Eritrea says many of the casualties were civilians, sent in advance of troops as a human wave. Now Tsorona is quiet - the only gunfire heard is from those practising their marksmanship, like this woman (right) with a Kalashnikov. All around are memories of the big battle, though - the Ethiopian corpses still lie in the minefield, rotting. Eritrea says 57 tanks were destroyed in a 60-hour battle and 10,000 Ethiopians killed, wounded or captured. Ethiopia matches the figures and claims the battle as a victory. Tsorona's barren plain is where the Eritreans expect Ethiopia to launch its next offensive.