Why Ethiopia and Eritrea Battle Over a Dry Crust

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The arid, sparsely populated plain around the village of Badme may not be much of a prize, but that hasn't stopped Ethiopia and Eritrea from sacrificing more men in battles for its control than the U.S. lost during the Vietnam War. (And, of course, the U.S. wasn't facing the prospect of hundreds of thousands of its citizens' dying of starvation back home.) The two countries exchanged heavy fire Tuesday as Ethiopia pressed its advance into territory seized by Eritrea in 1998, and the U.S. moved to win support for a U.N. Security Council arms embargo — having failed last week despite the direct intervention of a U.N. delegation led by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to forestall the new outbreak. "Both countries face a famine and seemed to realize that they can't afford to divert resources into fighting a war," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell. "And their negotiating positions were so close to resolution that there was no reason to go to war, but they're still fighting."

Holbrooke over the weekend described the conflict as "an old-fashioned border dispute," but this one has a flavor particular to a continent whose political map is riddled with straight lines depicting borders established with pencil and ruler in distant capitals during the colonial era. The Ethiopia-Eritrea border dates back to a 1902 treaty between Italy, which had colonized Eritrea, and Ethiopia's King Menelik II, which for the most part used rivers to separate their respective territories, but drew a straight line in the vicinity of Badme to connect two rivers. That straight line disappeared from many maps after 1962 when Eritrea was incorporated into Ethiopia, but reemerged with the amicable secession of Eritrea in 1993, following the overthrow of Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Both countries insist Badme falls on their side of the geographically invisible line, and they appear willing to commit tens of thousands of lives to win the argument. "Everyone knows an arms embargo won't do anything to end the fighting because there are so many weapons stockpiled in both countries," says Dowell. "But an embargo will certainly impede both countries' ability to wage war a few years from now." And present experience suggests that may be a rather sound investment.