The farce of teenagers plucked from a football pitch and forced into battle

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The Independent Online
SEVENTEEN-YEAR-OLD Dowit Admas says he was playing football in Gondar High School, northern Ethiopia, when three government soldiers rounded up 60 boys and took them to Bershelk Military Training Camp in Gojam. "They told us Eritrea had taken our land, Badme, and we had to take it back."

Dowit - who attracts attention with his inexplicable sense of humour at becoming a prisoner of war - says he was taught how to handle an assault rifle for three months and was then sent to the front line last Friday.

Though he laughs when he recounts how he was "caught asleep" by Eritrea's soldiers in Badme, the facts are tragic. Young, inexperienced and terrified of the heavy shelling, he was sent forward as a foot soldier ahead of Ethiopia's tanks. He carried a Kalashnikov rifle, a few rounds of ammunition, and two hand grenades. Having walked for 14 hours without food or water - and with no shelters to take cover in the exposed valley - he collapsed exhausted, along with other members of the Ethiopian 34 Brigade. Of the first 670 foot soldiers to reach the Eritrean defence trenches that Friday, most were killed or wounded, say the prisoners.

"Most of us were dying, or so tired we were sitting," said fellow prisoner Abebe Yeigelem, 20. "Our leader had disappeared, and we didn't know what to do because we've never fought before." Arriving at night for an assault on Eritrean-held Badme, Abebe vividly describes a massacre of the second section of the brigade: "More than 600 of us were destroyed. I saw dying and wounded and fleeing."

Dowit was "woken up" by Eritrean soldiers who had encircled the decimated brigade and, at the time convinced he would be executed, is now surprised to find himself one of the youngest POWs in a temporary camp just outside Asmara.

Of the 99 POWs held in a large warehouse, 61 prisoners are army rank and file and the others militia and former demobilised soldiers. They are being fed local vegetable and meat dishes provided by a hotel service from the capital, and have blankets donated by the Eritrean government.

All dressed in camouflage, they squat in groups of eight around a communal dish of local food, before filing out for a head count in the courtyard. They come from many parts of Ethiopia, although the majority are from ethnic groups in northern Ethiopia - Amharas and Tigraians.

No access has yet been given to international humanitarian organisations. A source at the International Committee of the Red Cross said the organisation had not been able to get general access to all POWs in Eritrea since last June, but had participated in the release of 70 POWs in September.

Many tell stories of forced recruitment, from homes, schools and farms, over the past three months. Alemayu Shiferu, 17, from Arba Minch, south- western Ethiopia, says he joined voluntarily because all his friends had gone to the military camp. Different ethnic groups are trained in different camps, say the prisoners, under Ethiopia's ethnically based regionalisation.

Tewolde Aklem, 24, is from Tigray, where the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi led the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) to victory - and to the core of the government. Also forcibly recruited from his farm and taken to Kobo training camp in Tigray, Tewolde was told it was his duty to fight for Badme.

According to individual accounts by this group of POWs, Ethiopian soldiers were mobilised for assault on Friday morning, the day Ethiopia claimed Eritrea started the war by carrying out an aerial bombardment of the northern town of Adi Grat.

To date, no independent confirmation has been made of this claim. Through intense radio and television propaganda, both Ethiopia and Eritrea have adamantly denied starting the war, simultaneously blaming each other for breaking the air-strike moratorium at the disputed border and failing to stick by an internationally brokered peace policy.

n Fighting on the Ethiopian-Eritrean border came to an apparent halt yesterday, but Eritrean officials strongly denied there was a "de facto ceasefire" in place. A presidential advisor said Ethiopia had been "battered" over the past few days when it attacked Eritrean positions in Badme, Tsoronna and Zel Ambessa, and the lull was tactical. The official, Yemane Gebre Meskal, welcomed United States and United Nations calls for restraint, saying it was a recognition that Ethiopia was responsible for breaking the air-strike moratorium.

why boys are being press-ganged into war

Who are the combatants ?

Ethiopia and Eritrea are neighbouring countries - in the impoverished Horn of Africa - with long and tangled histories. Both were part of Italian East Africa at the start of the Second World War. In 1952 they were federated, before Eritrea was made a province of Ethiopia in 1962. After a long war, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) won control in 1991, and Eritrea gained formal independence in 1993.

So when did the new war start ?

In May 1998, when Eritrea sent tanks into a disputed slice of territory around the border town of Badme. The fighting fizzled out after six weeks, when both sides accepted a US proposal for a moratorium on air strikes. Hostilities flared up again on 6 February, when Ethiopia launched attacks on three fronts, including Badme. Eritrea claims to be rolling back early enemy gains, but the overall picture is unclear.

What are they fighting over ?

Ostensibly over the "Badme triangle", a barren, strategically worthless area to which both Asmara and Addis Ababa can lay claim under conflicting colonial-era maps. But Ethiopia's true goal, it is widely suspected, is to regain the access to the Red Sea it lost when Eritrea became independent. The southern port of Assab, close to Eritrea's border with Djibouti, is the most likely target. But Ethiopia is not thought to be contemplating the reconquest of Eritrea in its entirety. That would merely guarantee another protracted, unwinnable war.

Where do they get their weapons ?

From the usual suspects (sometimes with British intermediaries) especially the former Eastern bloc countries of Russia, Bulgaria and Romania, all desperate for hard currency. Russia is reported to have supplied both the belligerents with warplanes. Bulgaria is said to to have sold Ethiopia elderly Soviet T-55 tanks. Romania has sold missiles and rockets to Eritrea, China is believed to have done to same for Ethiopia. The two may have spent $400m between them on arms.

What is being done to stop the fighting ?

Both the US (of whom both Ethiopia and Eritrea are allies) and the Organisation for African Unity have put forward peace plans, but in vain. The main stumbling block is Eritrea's reluctance to withdraw from the positions it seized in Badme eight months ago. But intense national pride, and long military traditions on both sides could make this a tricky squabble to solve.