40,000 women fight in bloody war of attrition

FRONTLINE: TSORONA, ERITREA-ETHIOPIA BORDER

SHE HAS a tape of Mariah Carey in her Walkman. She enjoys playing volleyball. She is reading George Orwell's Animal Farm. But very little else distinguishes 20-year-old Yordanos Tekeste, who for a year has lived and fought in trenches, from her estimated 200,000 Eritrean comrades in arms.

For 14 months, the Eritrean army - including 40,000 women - has been at war with Ethiopia. At least 50,000 people have died since a border skirmish in May last year escalated into a full-scale war along the border which separates the two neighbours in the Horn of Africa.

To Tekeste and her fellow fighters from 491 Division, stationed along the 150km Tsorona front, the war is about safeguarding Eritrea's independence - won in 1993 after a 30-year guerrilla war with Ethiopia. Their commitment is unquestioning. They know no other way than nationalism, because every family in this nation of 3.5 million people had a part in the independence war.

"I have been fighting for a year and I have never been back to Asmara [the Eritrean capital] to see my family," says Tekeste, who had finished high school and begun her national service when the war started.

"My mother writes to me but I do not write back. If I tell them I am in Tsorona and they hear of something happening here, they will worry. If I come back from the war, they will be happy. My father fought in the independence war, so I know," she says, to approving nods from her comrades.

We are hunched in a two-metre-square underground dug-out - a kind of siding off the trench - where Tekeste and her mess-mate, Nuguse Hailab, 25, have slept for the past three nights. He is not her boyfriend. "They are all my boyfriends," she jokes.

Overhead, tree trunks have been laid to cover the sleeping area. The Ethiopians are about 400m away but there has not been intense fighting lately. Every day, Tekeste and her team rise at 4am for a two-hour shift on full alert. They keep a similar watch between 6pm and 10pm. The daylight hours are filled with digging new trenches - the rainy season is beginning, so they must prepare for floods.

Tekeste is one of three women in her mess of 13. She claims that all tasks are performed by both sexes. But it is clear that, for commanding officers on the front line, women always light the fires and prepare the tea.

Seasoned male fighters say that the women are the most ruthless. But it is also whispered that, while the powerful moral pressure to join up prevails, women on the front who become pregnant are delighted to have an excuse to leave. Indeed, sex is probably one of the few pleasures available to Tekeste and her comrades.

It is hard to fathom Tekeste, with her girlish face, dainty earrings, soft voice, hair in a bun and big, baggy combat khakis. All around, the scrub landscape is littered with burnt-out vehicles and mementoes of the dead - photographs, boots, buttons and caps.

"We do not feel anything about the bodies," she says.Dozens of corpses are left to decompose between the Eritrean and Ethiopian lines. This landscape of horror is where Tekeste sleeps, eats - and listens to Mariah Carey.

Alex Duval Smith

News
A Brazilian wandering spider
news

World's most lethal spider found under a bunch of bananas

News
people
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in the win over QPR
footballInternet reacts to miss shocker for Liverpool striker
Voices
Sol Campbell near his home in Chelsea
voices
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
News
Kimi the fox cub
newsBurberry under fire from animal rights group - and their star, Kimi
Sport
Fans of Palmeiras looks dejected during the match between Palmeiras and Santos
footballPalmeiras fan killed trying to 'ambush' bus full of opposition supporters
Arts and Entertainment
filmsIt's nearly a wrap on Star Wars: Episode 7, producer reveals
Life and Style
fashion
News
i100
News
<p>Jonathan Ross</p>
<p>Jonathan Ross (or Wossy, as he’s affectionately known) has been on television and radio for an extraordinarily long time, working on a seat in the pantheon of British presenters. Hosting Friday Night with Jonathan Ross for nine years, Ross has been in everything from the video game Fable to Phineas and Ferb. So it’s probably not so surprising that Ross studied at Southampton College of Art (since rebranded Southampton Solent), a university known nowadays for its media production courses.</p>
<p>However, after leaving Solent, Ross studied History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, now part of the UCL, a move that was somewhat out of keeping with the rest of his career. Ross was made a fellow of the school in 2006 in recognition of his services to broadcasting.</p>
TV

Rumours that the star wants to move on to pastures new

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey indulge in some racing at a Point to Point
tvNew pictures promise a day at the races and a loved-up Lady Rose
News
people

Comedian says he 'never laughed as hard as I have writing with Rik'

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Wonnacott dancing the pasadoble
TVStrictly Come Dancing The Result
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Lead Teacher of Thinking School Drive Team and Year 3 Form teacher

Competitive: Notting Hill Prep School: Spring Term 2015 Innovative, ambitious ...

Year 6 Teacher - January start

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are looking fo...

Year 4 Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is urgently re...

Year 3 Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 3 Primary Teacher in HullA f...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past