Women take up arms in Eritrea's war

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The Independent Online
LEANING ON her AK47, Letebehane laughed mockingly at the question: As a trench war fighter, and as a woman, what did she feel when she shot at the advancing Ethiopians, so close that she could look into their eyes?

"At another time, we might feel something for those ignorant people who are sent on to our landmines by their own commanders. But we must kill them for the sake of Eritrea," said the 19-year-old private. Letebehane Teclezeghi is one of about 40,000 women fighting for her country's survival. She has fought in this war, which is now the world's biggest, since it started in May last year. At least 50,000 soldiers have died in the conflict, more than all the Americans lost in Vietnam.

Combining First World War tactics with Korean War weaponry, the conflict started with a small skirmish over a disputed border. By this week it was linked to fighting in other parts of the Horn of Africa, including Somalia and northern Kenya.

At Tsorona, 120 kilometres (75 miles) south of the Eritrean capital, Asmara, the view over the ridge of the Eritrean trench recalled a still from some gory war film. Using a bulldozer, the Eritreans created a bank of earth and bodies running all along their trench. There was a constant stench from hundreds of decomposing Ethiopian bodies who had lain in the minefield since March.

At heart, this war is about Ethiopia's ambitions to expand towards the sea but it has rekindled a 30-year liberation struggle Eritrea thought had been settled when it won independence from Ethiopia and became Africa's newest nation in 1993. The Eritreans did not need to do much to revive popular hatred for their neighbour and its three million people are now imbued with unquestioning fighter discipline.

At 24, Azieb Gebrehiwet, another woman on the 150km Tsorona front, is fighting her second war. In the past 14 months, most of the country's 50,000 veterans have joined up.

"I was 15 when I went into the independence forces," she said. "I ran a shop after 1993 but when this war started there was no question for me: without a nation you have no identity.

"This war is easier because we are a recognised state. During our fight for independence, when the Soviet Union supported Ethiopia, the rest of the world saw us as bandits," said Azieb whose 26-year-old brother Solomon, is also a veteran. He is fighting on the Badme front, south- west of here.

Reports this week from Badme - the disputed village where the border skirmish triggered the war last year - suggest intense fighting has been going on for at least four days. In 48 hours of battle, Asmara claimed it had killed 500 Ethiopians and wounded 1,800.

But the war is as much a battle of propaganda as it is one of MiGs, Sukhoi bombers, T55 tanks and other East European army surplus bought by both sides in a spending spree last year. Eritreans, militarily ingenious and supported by a wealthy diaspora, are fighting their independence war all over again. After Italian and British colonial rule and more than 30 years under the Ethiopian yoke,they trust nobody. "This war must be fought to the end, even if every Eritrean dies," was the view of Habtom Gede, a male lieutenant at Tsorona.

In the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, the government, which once allied with the Eritreans against the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, has different motives.

In its short period of independence, Eritrea has become increasingly irritating to Ethiopia. The southern giant of 60 million people has watched the little nation, endowed with two ports, Massawa and Assab, build up a manufacturing industry and infrastructure of European standards.

In November 1997, Eritrea launched its own currency, dropping the Ethiopian Birr for the Nakfa - named after the first city liberated by Eritrean fighters in 1977. The Nakfa was perhaps the final indignity that soured an amicable divorce. A trade war followed and Eritrea paid the price for not having properly demarcated its border. At Badme, the frontier followed no river or mountain range, merely the straight line of an Italian colonial pen drawn on a map in 1902.

The Tigrayan minority that runs the multi-ethnic Ethiopian state feels it must assert itself in the face of internal tensions. Eritrea denies claims that, as part of a tactic to stretch Ethiopia's military resources, it has rekindled connections with the Oromo Liberation Front and the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which are based in northern Kenya and western Somalia. Clashes with Ethiopian troops have been reported this week on its borders with both countries.

Yermane Gebremeskel, spokesman for the Eritrean presidency, said yesterday: "Why should we stretch our resources to supporting the OLF? That would be to encourage a far bigger war."

No international mediation effort has come close to settling this continually spreading war, despite last year's shuttle diplomacy by the United States and the efforts of the Organisation of African Unity and a UN envoy, Mohamed Sahnoun.

Instead, the hatred grows. At Tsorona, the hyenas coming to feed on the rotting corpses are blown up by landmines. Surprisingly, no vultures fly overhead. "Ethiopian meat is not sweet enough for them," one Eritrean fighter said.