Desert war of rusty weapons and sophisticated words

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The Independent Online
ONE WAY the Eritreans could draw fire from the Ethiopian army 20 years ago was to use loudspeakers to blast cassettes of Eritrean propaganda, taken from their rebel radio station "Voice of the Broad Masses".

"It was kind of funny," recalled Eritrean radio presenter Abenet Essayas. "The Ethiopians would know how close we were, even which rocks we were behind, and they would shoot at us."

That was back in the 1970s and 1980s, when Eritrea was fighting for its independence against Ethiopia's dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. It seemed an impossible task, pitting them against one of Africa's mightiest armies. But by 1993 the former Ethiopian province was an independent state.

Ethiopia and Eritrea were friends from then until last May, when the two sides went to war over a dusty, largely uninhabited frontier territory, a war which re-ignited on 6 February. And both sides believe propaganda - as well as weapons - are crucial to winning the struggle. The two states are locked in a highly sophisticated battle of words that has confused international reporting and diplomacy.

This week, as heavy shelling and aerial bombardment hit the Eritrean soldiers in their trenches, the Eritreans switched on their propaganda machine in full. Journalists were sent with video cameras to the front line to record it all - the shooting, the suffering, the victories and the glory of nationalism. Eritrean television and radio, which has the Cold War style title of "Voice of the Broad Masses", then put out the material on extended programmes and foreign-language services.

International correspondents find themselves warmly welcomed to the Eritrean capital, Asmara, and are escorted to the front line. Every morning, a government statement is slipped under their hotel door.

"The main element of the propaganda machinery is a continuation of the old liberation struggle," explained Zemeret Yohannes, of the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice, Eritrea's sole political party. "On every battlefront there used to be an information unit. It provided news, national music and interviews with prisoners of war and deserters. It is our heritage."

Eritrea's semi-Communist "heritage" is celebrated in large letters above the entrance to the Eritrean party headquarters. "Victory to the Masses!" it reads. Once a Marxist-Leninist liberation movement, the new government has continued the tradition with North Korean-style parades and epic murals painted on city walls. There are tough restrictions on individual political freedoms, too. After winning independence, Eritrea became Africa's newest state, but it remains a one-party state, led by President Isias Afwerki.

President Afwerki and Ethiopia's president, Meles Zenawi, were once lauded by the West as innovative leaders in a region of strategic importance in the Horn of Africa. They were seen as symbols of what was described as the "New African Leadership", that was supposedly emerging from the shadow of dictator-generals, such as Uganda's Idi Amin.

The US jumped in to secure influence in a region from which the Soviet Union had excluded it for decades. Much was made of the personal friendship between Eritrea's and Ethiopia's two leaders. "The West has a tendency to personalise things," said Mr Zemeret. "But here it's about a relationship of states, and our territory."

The weaponry stockpiled by the two governments - long-range artillery, fighter planes, cluster bombs and the heavy guns - comes mostly from the disbanded armouries of the old Eastern bloc. But if the weapons are a little rusty, the propaganda war has made a technological leap into the age of the internet.

"Ethiopia and Eritrea probably generate more e-mail traffic than any other country on the continent," one computer expert said. Since the fighting started this week, e-mails - and fake-mails have - clogged up Eritrea's fledgling network. "The massive volume of traffic has sent the system berserk," said Meaza Hailemichael, who, with her husband, set up one of the latest e-mail shops in Asmara when they returned from the US to the newly independent country.

As the tension and armed conflict have escalated, the tone of hate mail has become chilling. An Ethiopian subscriber who calls himself "Mighty Agame" wrote this week of the Eritreans: "They could easily be exterminated without any guilt. It would be like killing flies. Just put them in the gas chamber." One Eritrean posted an anonymous message to Salim Salim, head of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), about the highly contentious peace plan between the two countries, which is on the table. "The Ethiopians are the Nazis of Eritrea. They are liars. Come on Mr Salim, resident of Addis Ababa, a famous city for harlotry ... understand it even if your brain goes bananas in Addis."

The diatribes criss-crossing the airwaves and the computer screens comes from the Eritrean and Ethiopian communities in Europe, North America and the Middle East. In Eritrea's case, in particular, the emigres are crucial for paying for the war effort. Their financial contributions are even posted on the internet and read out on Eritrean national radio.

More sophisticated are fake messages. These are the e-mails that appear to be anti-government messages coming from inside the country, but which are, in fact, sent from the other side. At the height of the fighting last week, Ethiopian national radio broadcast a report posted on the internet from "Mercury News Bulletin".

Written by a Peter Robinson in Asmara, Eritrea, it painted a dismal portrait of the Eritrean capital, flooded with disabled troops, "wounded soldiers numbering more than 100,000 are continuously arriving in the city from the war front in military vehicles," it said. Robinson was quoted as saying that the Ethiopian army obviously had the upper hand.

One of the most successful fakes yet, it was broadcast this week on Ethiopian National Radio and then circulated around international news agencies. Only days later it was discovered that there was no "Mercury News Bulletin" and no reporter called Peter Robinson was in Asmara. But by then, it had served its purpose in this ugly propaganda war.