Showdown to Savagery

  • Share
  • Read Later
There is not much left of Zalambessa, a border town some 600 km north of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Shops have been flattened and the roofs and walls of houses ripped down, revealing brightly colored interiors. Ethiopia says the town was destroyed two years ago when Eritreans invaded, stripping the buildings of roofing tin and wooden doors to use in their trenches. Ethiopia finally recaptured the town last week, its army using a pincer movement to attack Eritrean positions. Ethiopian military leaders say fierce battles raged before the town was taken, but there is little evidence of fresh destruction in Zalambessa. The Eritreans, it seems, simply withdrew.

The capture of Zalambessa raised hopes of a quick end to the two-year conflict between the Horn of Africa neighbors. Fighting continued to the north of the town late last week, but Eritrea had announced it would withdraw before what the Ethiopians described as a "blitzkrieg." Ethiopia seems likely to push on with its offensive, however, until it has crushed the immediate fighting capacity of its northern neighbor and Eritrea has withdrawn from all Ethiopian territory. Peace talks between the two sides are now expected to start this week, mediated by the Organization of African Unity, in Algiers.

News of Ethiopia's victory was received with jubilation in Addis Ababa. Thousands of people gathered in the city's main square to cheer truckloads of Ethiopian soldiers. In a government office, a computer screen saver read "Zalambessa liberated!" Chief spokesperson Selome Taddesse popped open a bottle of Ethiopian champagne as staff danced to a popular song celebrating past Ethiopian victories. "I've been waiting for this day for two years," said Taddesse.

In the Eritrean capital Asmara, the mood was more somber. Colored lights and strings of flags hung in the streets, but these were leftovers from last Wednesday's celebrations of the anniversary of independence, just seven years ago. Eritrea has had a tumultuous history since being detached from Ethiopia and colonized in 1890 by the Italians, who used it as a base to launch their invasion of Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) in 1935. When Italy lost the war in East Africa in 1941, Eritrea became a British protectorate, until it was federated with Ethiopia as an autonomous unit in 1952. In 1962, Emperor Haile Selassie made Eritrea a province of Ethiopia, which triggered an armed campaign by secessionist groups, first against Haile Selassie, then together with an Ethiopian liberation front against the regime of Marxist dictator Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. Once Mengistu was overthrown, Eritrea was given independence by the new Addis government in 1993.

At first the two countries got on well, but tensions grew over landlocked Ethiopia's rights to use the Eritrean port of Assab. Fighting broke out in May 1998 after a dispute over a chunk of land near the border town of Badme. Since then, a stalemate has been punctuated by set-piece battles that have left tens of thousands of people dead and displaced hundreds of thousands more. Both sides have used aircraft, including Sukhoi 27 fighters, MiG-29 interceptors and helicopter gunships. They have also employed rocket launchers and tanks. Military analysts in the region estimate that each country both among the poorest in the world spends about $1 million a day on the war.

Any future peace is likely to be strained. The exact position of the border is still in dispute; both countries expelled the other's nationals during the war; and there will be calls for reparations. At some point, they are likely to reopen discussions about Ethiopia's access to the sea. The old deal was worked out largely thanks to the friendship between Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, but goodwill between the two leaders disappeared long ago.

In a stage-managed media event in Zalambessa last Friday, Ethiopian soldiers hoisted their flag and sang their national anthem. As the men celebrated, 11-year-old Gebre Tsadkar, who lives in the nearby Ethiopian town of Fatsi, was preoccupied by the fate of his father, whom he hasn't seen in months. "I worry about him," said Tsadkar, "I just want peace because I want to go to school and learn."

Early last week, Ethiopia's Zenawi told a group of African diplomats in Addis, "We shall negotiate while we fight, and we shall fight while we negotiate." The bad blood between the two countries that comment reflects does not bode well for the peace young Gebre Tsadkar longs for, or for the chances of recovery of two poverty-stricken, famine-ravaged neighbors.