The war on the dark side of the moon

Little has changed since <b>Thomas Keneally</b>, author of <i>Schindler's Ark</i>, first visited Eritrea in 1987. Its people are still dying from hunger, disease and the on-off war with Ethiopia. And the West still behaves as if it is happening on another planet. Here the celebrated novelist reports from the frontline of what may go down in history as 'a gross episode of human dishonour'
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A tentative traveller, I first came to Eritrea in 1987. It had been for a long period an Italian colony, and for a short time a British one, and was now a tormented province of Ethiopia. In fact the cities of the south and centre of the country were held by the army of the Soviet-fostered and West-indulged Haile Mariam Menghistu and his regime, the Dergue.

A tentative traveller, I first came to Eritrea in 1987. It had been for a long period an Italian colony, and for a short time a British one, and was now a tormented province of Ethiopia. In fact the cities of the south and centre of the country were held by the army of the Soviet-fostered and West-indulged Haile Mariam Menghistu and his regime, the Dergue.

I had, on the advice of a number of aid organisations, chosen to find a way into the Eritrean-held areas of the north where the relief arm of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front were said to run things so well. They had a transport depot at Port Sudan, the Sudanese port from which they collected emergency food shipments for delivery into their part of Eritrea. The normal journey from Port Sudan to the huge Eritrean base at Orotta lay through a near-empty quarter of the Sudan and into the mountains of Eritrea. The departure was always scheduled to ensure that we entered Eritrea by night, when vehicles were safe from the attention of the Ethiopian air force.

I had wanted to write a novel, but large, abstract concepts often resist being enlisted for fiction, and the axis of my book swung from the hunger question to the character of the Eritreans, and to the massive war they and the Dergue were fighting. For all the attention the world gave it, it might as well have been progressing on the dark side of the moon. Apart from that, in the presence of the Eritreans I became fascinated by the air of humane possibility, the creative adaptability of the people I met on my night journeys and my daytime closetings with rebel Eritreans.

This mere rebel front could do what sovereign African nations had not done: it provided pervasive health services in clinics dug into hillsides. In holes in the mountains, it was able to manufacture antibiotics, anti-malarials, paracetamol, and a cargo-crate laminar flow sterilisation plant was improbably booming in the mountainsides, turning out sterile solutions. Sophisticated surgical procedures were undertaken in Orotta every evening when the generators came on. And all this happened under the nose-cones of Ethiopian MiGs.

It was hard to see, though, how the Eritreans, singing songs that invoked their lost capital, Asmara, could win this war the West made no effort to settle. Menghistu had the hearty support of the Soviets, and Eritrea lacked the sort of resources that make small nations attractive for interventions. Could this gallantry, cleverness and defiance of the odds last much longer?

I wrote the book. The Eritreans themselves were not interested in Towards Asmara as a novel, however, but saw it as a Western-style document that they could show to politicians, diplomats and non-government organisations.

I returned to Eritrea in 1989 by the same route. I found the Eritreans had not merely survived but were winning. The front line was not at the sacrificial town of Nakfa, which would later give its name to the Eritrean currency. The Eritreans had swept Ethiopians and Russians out of Afabet in a massive and largely unreported battle and stood ready to take the sweet mountain town of Keren and the port of Massawa, on the Red Sea. A comfort on many a bunkered evening, there were quantities of Asmara gin available.

By now a friend of mine, a muscular, visionary Australian eye-doctor named Fred Hollows, had become convinced that if the Eritreans could manufacture sterile pharmaceuticals in Orotta, they could address East Africa's high level of cataract blindness by manufacturing the intra-ocular lenses that needed to be implanted to cure the disease. "I'm going to back these buggers," said Fred. "They're not rip-off merchants."

By 1991, the urbane men and women who ran the rebel front were credibly preparing to enter the cities and occupy, instead of bunkers, conventional offices. Massawa fell to them, and Asmara, the holy Eritrean capital, was entered. Eritrea was in effect self-governing. Fred Hollows, dying of cancer and in recent years a regular visitor to Eritrea by the harsh back door through Sudan, began fund-raising for his intra-ocular lens factory to be built in the capital and run by Eritreans.

The Eritreans' allies in the struggle now ending had been a northern Ethiopian ethnic group named the Tigreans, and in 1991, the Tigreans entered the Ethiopian capital and drove the tyrant Menghistu into exile in Zimbabwe. Even friends of Eritrea wondered whether this revolution, like so many others, might now devour its children. But despite the perceived flaw that Eritrea still has a one-party system, it has honoured the rhetoric of its rebel existence. Eritrea is a community with extraordinary social cohesion and a sophisticated degree of justice. Its economy has grown at 6 to 7 per cent every year until now. Isaias Afwerki, the President, as tall, earnest and intellectually diligent as when I first met him in a cave in the highlands in 1987, is not so much pervasively respected as venerated. He lives in a plain house in a plain suburb and can be approached without recourse to the normal flatulences of state protocol.

Former school friends, Melles Zenawi and Isaias collaborated so closely at first that Isaias delayed the Eritrean referendum on separation for two years after liberation. Melles himself was there for the referendum, in Italianate, palm-lined Asmara, and I remember stumbling into the Red Sea Saloon at the Hotel Ambasoira and seeing him and five of his cabinet members having an informal conference. It was credible to believe, as many a woman at the polling-booths in the countryside believed, that, given the histories of Tigrean Melles and Eritrean Isaias, no more young need ever die before their time.

Isaias offered Eritrean citizenship to Fred Hollows, now on his deathbed, and to me, so that we could vote in the referendum. A technicality of Australian naturalisation law prevented us from accepting. Fred swore about all this on his deathbed. But my wife, Judy, and I were able to visit polling-booths in Serai province, a fertile southern region near the Ethiopian border.

Nearly three years ago, Ethiopian militias invaded areas of Eritrea just over the border that had been acknowledged since 1908. They were helped in this by the fact that there are two towns named Badme - a more notable one in Ethiopian Tigre, and a less populous one in Eritrea. Confusion over the two Badmes wrongly helped to convince the State Department and many allies of America that Eritrea itself had been guilty of a deep incursion. The opposite was the case.

Now that the border war of the past two years or more has turned into a savage Ethiopian invasion, supporters of Eritrea and Ethiopia (the latter being more numerous in the West) tend to line up like two sets of football supporters and play a silly and profoundly racist game of your-Africans-are-worse-than-my Africans, so-your-Africans-deserve-what-they-get. It is as if Ethiopia and Eritrea were Arsenal and Man United. In the your-Africans scenario, the Eritreans apparently deserve that parts of Serai and Gash-Barka, where women sang and men played pipes and beat ecstatic drums outside polling-booths in 1993, are in Ethiopian hands again. The Eritreans also apparently deserve that the West is supine. After all, say the sages, this is a case of two bad-boy African nations knocking each other about.

And so the Ethiopia fan club does its team the gross disservice of accepting that, of course, it is entitled to violate international law, because the Eritreans deserve obliteration. Three-and-a-half-million-strong Eritrea has been guilty of border violations against 70-million-strong Ethiopia! Go for them!

In reality there is no difference in international law between the invasion of Eritrea and the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam. But Ethiopia does not seem to need to worry. It has already been permitted to deport 77,000 ethnic Eritreans from Ethiopia over the past years. There are still as many as 300,000 ethnic Eritreans in Ethiopia who are under the blade of an ethnic hatred campaign by Melles' regime. Eritreans are officially described as the "black Jews of the Horn".

Emboldened by the silent permissiveness of the West, in May this year the security police invaded and seized the Eritrean embassy in Addis and arrested and deported the staff. Nothing was said.

Finally, the Ethiopian army crossed into Eritrea in late May. The Eritreans had to abandon the town of Barentu, and the worldly wise said they could not hold. Eritrean villagers and townspeople who fled the army said that this was different from last time. It was a war directed at civilians. Stories of multiple rape panicked Eritrean women whose menfolk were at the front. On a south-north road toward Asmara, women and children tumbled out of the shattered town of Senafe and told the citizens of the Adi Kieh what was on its way. The dispossessed of both cities pooled in two camps containing more than 100,000 people around Debarwa, a normally pleasant highland town only 40 kilometres from Asmara.

Last week there were less than 5,000 tents for them; many lived under trees, and there were not yet latrines. The rains of last week turned the spaces between the tents into a mélange of excrement and mud. Such scenes are replicated all along the line of Ethiopian advance, and, as I write, nearly half of Eritrea's population lives in camps, or in clumps of trees and caves in the west. Fifteen occupy a tent, where there are tents, and there is one blanket per nine people. The peace treaty signed in Algeria on 22 June did not signify a return home for these people, since Ethiopia remains on the ground it has occupied, and Eritreans believe the war might start again before the UN and OAU peacekeepers are in place.

An aspect of cultural war has entered the scene. For example, walking among the burnt and looted houses and public buildings of Tessenai, I noticed that audio tape was mysteriously spread everywhere on the earth, even in the grounds of the shot-up mosque. It appeared that the Ethiopian troops had gone to the trouble of cracking open every cassette of Eritrean music they could find and festooning the town with its contents. In the hospital, Eritrean anti-TB posters were gouged by bayonets in the eyes, lower face and genitals.

At the wrecked cotton-processing plant north of Tessenai, Ethiopian troops had taken the trouble to write in large Tigrean script on a wall: "Comrade Afwerki, we know that this plant was a big investment for you, and that's why we were so pleased to destroy it." This caused me to feel a chill for the temporarily averted threat to Asmara, and its sophisticated intra-ocular lens factory in Fred Hollows Street, which exports all over Africa and bears on its office walls certification for export to Europe.

Ethiopian atrocities created a respondent anti-Tigrean fury in young Eritreans. Isaias Afwerki has not legitimised it, but the Eritreans also began deporting Tigreans after the invasion of late May 2000. The International Committee of the Red Cross says that Eritrea has observed all international humanitarian laws in their deportations. Yet the ethnic Tigrean camp I visited at Shiketi in Eritrea was as appalling, if not worse, than the conditions in which many displaced Eritreans are living.

There is a disparity: Ethiopia has been at the practice of illegal deportation for two years, Eritrea at the practice of legal deportation for a few weeks. The International Committee of the Red Cross, when we approached them concerned about the gravel slopes of Shiketi, also told us that all the people we had seen would be safely bussed to Tigre by the time this article was written. But I remember a little boy in his mother's arms, under a tree and a narrow sheet of blue plastic, vomiting uncontrollably.

Similarly, I think of an 18-year-old Eritrean girl, Milite Lem Lem, who last weekend was living beneath a tree in Afabet with her mother and two sisters and whose husband is at the front. About the time this article appears she will give birth. Her son, too, like the Tigrean child under the tree, has been innocent of policy-making, but will inherit the enhanced bitterness of this conflict.

At best now, governments are pledging money to be divided more or less per capita between Ethiopia and Eritrea, as if the two problems are the same. In fact, they are absurdly different. In Ethiopia there are eight million hungry, which makes it all the more obscene that Melles Zenawi should be engaging in a military adventure in Eritrea. Eritrea itself had achieved food self-sufficiency in the past year, and its emergency is due almost entirely to an illegal invasion.

The problem is that the Eritreans told aid organisations that they did not need their help, a message they may not have conveyed too diplomatically. There are indications it was resented. The Eritreans might be being punished for the spirit of independence the West admires in people of Caucasian descent, but apparently not in Africans. Unless the world community seizes the difference between the two emergencies and gets over its huff, Eritreans may suffer two catastrophes - some Rwanda-style barbarity against the ethnic Eritreans remaining in Ethiopia, and massive death from disease and hunger in the camps.

Although I have compiled this piece with the advice of many resident journalists and aid officials, one does not have to be an aid expert to smell the coming calamity. I confess that I write at the end of a plane journey stretched over two days, instead of taking the normal leisurely week to try to polish this piece. But if I exaggerate, or am gauche or too fevered, then I will be more delighted than any reader. For that means my friends and I have over-estimated the peril, and thus that more Eritreans will survive. As it is, I have no inhibitions about warning whoever might listen that an imminent disaster hangs over Eritrea.

Without direct intervention, and pressure on Ethiopia to avoid further aggression, the world will soon be shaking its head about another gross episode of human dishonour, and wondering how we let such large issues slip by unnoticed.