Fighting entrenched mentality of war

It is the kind of thing you thought just did not happen any more. The young conscripts were told by their superiors that it was time for the big push. They were to go over the top and run upon the enemy trenches. Out they climbed. As instructed, they linked arms and - singing patriotic songs - advanced at a slow running pace upon the bunkers of the foe. The machine-guns spat and swivelled along the approaching string of men. From one end the khaki conscripts began to fall, like a line of dominoes. But behind them came another wave. And another. Tens of thousands died that day to capture a few miles of mud...
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The Independent Online

It ought to be a fading recollection of the pointless horror of the First World War. But it is not. It is an account from survivors of a war which is being fought today. Perhaps the world's silliest war, between two of the poorest nations on earth, Ethiopia and Eritrea - both of which are presently appealing to the international community for aid on a massive scale to avert the prospect of drought turning to famine in the Horn of Africa.

It ought to be a fading recollection of the pointless horror of the First World War. But it is not. It is an account from survivors of a war which is being fought today. Perhaps the world's silliest war, between two of the poorest nations on earth, Ethiopia and Eritrea - both of which are presently appealing to the international community for aid on a massive scale to avert the prospect of drought turning to famine in the Horn of Africa.

News of such fighting rarely comes out. Eritrea often closes itself to international journalists, while Ethiopia refuses to let them anywhere near the war zone along the border with its northerly neighbour. "It's too dangerous," the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, told me last week. Too dangerous for whom, I wondered. Might the truth from the front line make donor nations even more reluctant than they have been to send cereals to the 16 million people at risk in the Greater Horn?

The war between Ethiopia and Eritrea is one of the most perplexing of modern times. "It is like two bald men fighting over a comb," said one Western diplomat dismissively. But what is it actually about? No one seems really to be able to explain, for the nominal issue - a tiny disputed border region of no value - seems too preposterous, especially when measured against the cost in human lives.

"You can ask, but both sides just continuously lie to you," said one veteran of the Nairobi press corps wearily. Indeed, the war of information is the only one both sides are winning, for if you ask on the streets, bars, offices and embassies in both the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and its Eritrean equivalent, Asmara, as I did last week, in each you encounter the conviction that their own side is right - and that applies not just to local people but to the diplomatic and expatriate communities in each place.

So who is right? That depends on your idea of how you start a war. If it's a question of who invaded whom, then Eritrea is to blame. But the truth, of course, is not as simple as that.

The problem began two decades ago when two rebel groups in the northern Ethiopian provinces of Eritrea and Tigray - respectively, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) - were both fighting the Ethiopian military dictator, Colonel Mengistu. They were fellow socialists and comrades-in-arms, but there were tensions between them. The EPLF leaned towards the Soviet Union while the TPLF was - don't laugh - pro-Albanian. At one point when I was behind rebel lines with the TPLF in 1985, the two fell out so badly that the Eritreans even cut the Tigrayans food supply lines to Sudan. For the next three years the two rebel groups sulked with one another. Only when it finally dawned on them that this meant Mengistu was winning the war did they make up with one another after four days of discussions.

That was in Khartoum in 1988, and it was to prove a key moment. For at the talks the Tigrayans suggested that the two movements should demarcate their mutual border. No, no, said the Eritreans, there's a war to fight. We can sort that out later. In retrospect, it was a vital mistake.

In 1991, Mengistu was overthrown in Addis Ababa, and Eritrea, until then a province of Ethiopia, gained its independence. The EPLF took the Eritrean capital Asmara and its leader, Isaais Afeworki, became president. Four days later the TPLF marched into Addis and became the government of Ethiopia. Its leader, Meles Zenawi, now Prime Minister of the whole country, implemented the deal the two men had cooked up in the field for Eritrea to be given independence.

Almost at once it began to go wrong. First Isaais decided that tens of thousands of Ethiopian citizens who had run the province when it was part of Ethiopia would have to go home. In the first two years, 150,000 Ethiopians - including their Eritrean wives and children - were expelled, forced to leave property and belongings behind.

Next, Eritrea decided it wanted its own currency. Partly this was a question of pride - the Eritreans also cut off international phone lines at one point because no one would give them their own international country code, making them share Ethiopia's. Partly it was the recognition that Eritrea could not fully control economic policy if it used someone else's currency. But it wanted things both ways. It demanded that the Eritrean nakfa be allowed to circulate freely with the Ethiopian birr in both countries. Ethiopia refused, insisting that all but small local trading arrangements should be carried out using American dollars. The row disrupted trade and caused considerable hardship in border areas.

The flashpoint for the war was the Plain of Badme, an area between the two countries which, because it has slightly more rain than average, attracted people from the overpopulated highlands on both sides during times of drought. Villages sprang up on the plain, each distinctly Tigrayan or Eritrean in make-up, in the area in which a border had not seemed worth the bother of delineating either in Khartoum in 1988 nor at independence in 1991.

For years this ill-defined border, straddled by farming communities, muddled along with low-level meetings between local officials whenever a dispute arose. But then something happened which convinced the Eritreans that the Ethiopians were up to no good. In 1997, the local administration in the Ethiopian province of Tigray published a new map of its region. It incorporated three areas - around Badme, Tserona and Alitiena - which were disputed. Over the year which followed the Tigrayans began to put up border stones on the Plain of Badme. Next they moved them further into the disputed territory. Months later they started to expel Eritreans from the Tigrayan villages, and to bulldoze the Eritrean villages.

Then, in May 1998, the Eritreans sent in 10 officers to negotiate on the ground. Four were shot dead. Ethiopia tried to make out that a fight had occurred, but when the Eritrean's found that the highest-ranking officer was shot from behind they launched an all-out attack. Eritrean tanks rolled in, taking all the contested areas and pushing into Ethiopia to take up strategically important positions. They dug themselves in before calling for negotiations.

It was then that Ethiopia began the series of assaults on the Eritrean trenches which have accounted for between 70,000 and 100,000 deaths to date. Neither side will give figures. After a huge arial and artillery bombardment in one spot at Badme, a massive infantry push succeeded in breaking the Eritrean line. The Ethiopian military "expected and accepted huge losses", as one military analyst coldly put it. But attempts to try the same thing again resulted in massive losses with no furthur success. At one time both sides ran out of ammunition and the troops were ordered out of the trenches to fight with bayonets or their bare hands.

All this went down very badly with the United States, which had tried to stay friends with both sides. The prime US concern in the region is the maintenance of safe oil supplies from the neighbouring Arab states. And the big threat to that is Muslim fundamentalism, of which Sudan is a prime source. The US, therefore, wants Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda to form a common front to contain Sudan.

Which was why the US swiftly cranked up a peace process, jointly with the Organisation of African Unity, that has been rumbling on ever since.

One thing has become clear from the lengthy negotiations: the border dispute, however complex, is entirely soluble. "If this were just a border dispute it could be decided by the International Court of Justice," as Yemane Ghebreab, political adviser to the Eritrean president, put it. But this war is, in the words of one Western diplomat, "like an onion - there's always another layer". One of these layers is what we might call Eritrea's belligerence; of its five neighbours it has managed to fall out with Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti and Yemen in the nine years since independence. "It's as if it can't grow out of its 'popular front' mentality and mature into government," said another diplomat.

On the other side, the Eritreans feel that the row over the currency shows that Ethiopia has never really accepted the existence of the state of Eritrea. "Two years after independence, Ethiopian Airlines flights from Addis to Asmara were still classified as 'domestic'," complained one Eritrean resident. The deep suspicion in Asmara is that Ethiopia wants to "get Eritrea back into the fold".

"They talk about 'breaking Eritrea's back', about bringing our government down," said a civil servant in Asmara. "That's why we see it as a conflict for sovereignty." The fear is that Addis wants to subjugate its former province to the status of a client state, so that, as with Lebanon and Syria, the small country can do nothing without the consent of the larger

There are internal dynamics, too. Elections are due next month in Addis. The government there, which is overwhelmingly made up of former TPLF members, is anxious to show the other Ethiopian ethnic groups that they are not in the pocket of their old mentors in the EPLF. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi feels vulnerable to accusations that he is insufficiently nationalist in his policies - though he also knows all too well that both the Emperor Haile Selassie and the Marxist Mengistu lost their jobs because of mishandled famines and wasteful wars. Likewise in Asmara there have been rumblings of discontent against President Isaais. "It's only war [that] holds the place together," said one observer. Rumours sped round Asmara when I was there of a general having been sacked for suggesting that the time had come for peace.

All this had taken its toll on the two economies, particularly that of the smaller country - even before the drought set in. There is no agriculture in the war zones and some 500,000 people are internally displaced and unable to farm.

In Eritrea the towns and villages are empty of men. The only ones exempt from front-line duties are high-school and university students and a few indispensable occupations (oddly, including footballers - each team in the Eritrean First Division is allowed exemptions for 15 players). But businesses are suffering and economic growth has taken a dive. Revenue from the ports which served Ethiopia has dried up. The oil refinery in Assab is shut. The tourist hotels are empty.

In Ethiopia, Western donors are giving food aid but have closed down their development aid budgets because of the war. And the relief commissioner in Addis, Simon Mechale, is finding it hard to be asking for aid at a time when Ethiopia is said by the US to be spending $1m (£600,000) a day on the war.

Over the past 18 months, both sides have spent large sums on arms and ammunition. Eritrea has bought MiG 29s and Ethiopia has bought Sukhoi 27s, Mi 24 helicopter gunships, and Mi 8 cargo helicopters, all from Russia. Ethiopia also bought arms and ammunition from China, and tanks from Bulgaria. Eritrea obtained weapons and ammunition from various east European countries. Each side has spent several hundred million dollars on arms. The Eritreans claim the Ethiopians have spent as much as $1bn.

And, of course, the money for all this could have been used elsewhere. In at least one Ethiopian federal region all budgets have been sliced by 10 per cent to pay for the war. "Everybody contributes money [to the war effort] and truck-owners contribute truck days," the relief commissioner said. Small wonder that the Western donors, who are providing 400 extra trucks, are asking questions. Unicef is even cutting its donated blankets in half, in the hope that they won't be filched by the military.

For all that, this is a very popular war, on both sides. Ask ordinary people about the other side and their replies are vituperative. For the moment things will probably stay quiet. Ethiopia can't launch another offensive in the next few months with famine looming; the cost would be too great in terms of international public opinion. And neither side wants to fight in the rainy season, from July onwards. But come the autumn the world's most senseless war could all too easily recommence.