Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
September 5, 1999
Brutal conflicts, from Africa to beyond
The Forgotten Wars: A survey of long-running battles.
Armed struggles, widely ignored by the West, are being fought worldwide. 
First of a three-part series.
maykuth photo
The partly buried body of an Ethiopian soldier along the Tserona Front. 

ALONG THE TSERONA FRONT, Eritrea - The battle lasted for three days, with waves of troops pouring out of trenches, backed by tanks and artillery, dying by the thousands in a no-man's-land of sand and scrub brush.

In the age of smart bombs, this was World War I-style mayhem. Soldiers threw themselves against the enemy trenches, leaving piles of dead and wounded, only to be replaced by the next wave.

As many as 15,000 men and women may have died in the fighting earlier this year, and thousands more were wounded. But in the age of televised warfare, this was a virtually invisible battle.

TV viewers around the world could watch NATO bombs fall on Belgrade last March, but not the carnage happening at almost the same time in this corner of Africa.

Yugoslavia was live and in color. The fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea was just another forgotten war.

This border war is similar to dozens of other conflicts that are being waged, largely unnoticed, around the world. The end of the Cold War has removed the specter of global war, but it has not brought peace.

There are 27 "major armed conflicts" worldwide, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which uses that definition for wars that have killed at least 1,000 people since they began. A Canadian group, Project Ploughshares, cites 36 armed conflicts in 31 countries.

The forgotten wars are producing hundreds of thousands of casualties, mostly among civilians, and millions of people have been driven from their homes by the fighting. Economies in already impoverished countries are being bled dry, and generations are growing up knowing nothing but war.

More of these forgotten wars are in Africa than on any other continent.

Weak governments, rampant corruption, competition for resources, and long-standing ethnic rivalries have all contributed to the fighting on the continent.

"The combination of weak states and rich natural resources in Africa has resulted in a dangerous structural environment fueling conflicts," researchers for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute wrote in a study this year. "Natural resources have become a cause for war as well as a necessary source of wealth for keeping the conficts going."

Lt. Col. Paulos Hentsa squatted in the cramped, dank bunker overlooking the Ethiopian enemy lines near Badme, the village where war first broke out 16 months ago. He seemed unconcerned about the crackle of Kalashnikov rifles a few hundred yards away.

"That's the enemy," he said as gunfire rang out.

It was followed by a few muffled pops.

"Those are our guns," Paulos, 39, said.

This is how thousands of troops pass most days along the disputed border between Eritrea and Ethiopia, two Horn of Africa nations whose conflict is like a family feud that defies mediation.

Sometimes, as they did in February and March, the combatants launch infantry assaults, causing tens of thousands of deaths. On some battlefields, hundreds of corpses and dozens of rusting tanks lie in the hot summer sun months after they fell in battle.

Most days are spent waiting and hiding. Last month, Eritrean soldiers hidden behind intricate earthworks of stone and timber conducted target practice on anything that moved in the Ethiopian trenches. The Ethiopians, hunkered down about 200 yards away over a glen of rocky hills, had their snipers shooting at the Eritreans.

Some have called the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict Africa's first high-tech war because the two nations have employed jet aircraft, artillery and armor. But it is more like World War I, where waves of foot soldiers periodically attempt to dislodge entrenched foes to win a few miles of land of questionable value.

"They're employing First World War tactics and 19th-century medical care, so there are lots of casualties," one Western diplomat said.

Although the battles on the Badme border have been raging for 16 months, the underlying conflict has dragged on for generations.

Both sides have held back from launching a serious attack in the last month, partly because the rainy season has turned the trenches and supply roads into glutinous mud. The combatants have also been asked to show restraint while American, African and United Nations diplomats attempt to negotiate a truce.

"We are ready for peace," said Paulos, who has a deep scar under his left eye from a bullet wound suffered nine years ago during Eritrea's long war of liberation from Ethiopia. "We have had enough of this war. But the Ethiopians are mobilizing."

Eritrean trenches are patrolled by troops wearing camouflage uniforms, armed with grenades and their Russian-designed Kalashnikovs. The snipers have Chinese rifles with scopes. They know when to expect the big Ethiopian assaults, because they are preceded by artillery barrages and large movements of soldiers and equipment behind the Ethiopian lines.

Behind the front trenches, the lightly forested knolls are like anthills of entrenched soldiers who are waiting their turn to patrol the front line.

The troops are in bunkers dug into the rocky hillsides, fortified with carefully stacked rock walls and log roofs to protect against mortar fire. Farther behind the lines, artillery and old Soviet-era tanks captured from the previous Ethiopian regime are burrowed into hillsides and covered with camouflage blankets, waiting for action.

This is a critical interlude in a war that has derailed the redevelopment of two impoverished countries. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been forced to flee the border areas, and Ethiopia has summarily deported more than 60,000 people of Eritrean origin.

Eritrea, which lost control of the disputed border region in the massive Ethiopian advance in February, accepted terms of a peace plan put forth by the Organization of African Unity two weeks ago. Ethiopia has not accepted the plan, saying it seeks clarification of some issues.

The mutual distrust is great. So far there have been no face-to-face talks between two presidents who once handled relations with friendly telephone calls. Now the telephone lines between the two countries have been cut. Both sides continue to reinforce their armies, and claim the enemy is girding for war, not peace.

"The most dangerous moments are these when we are so close to an agreement," a European diplomat said. "Any small incident might cause it to collapse. Either peace comes now or the war goes on for years."

At least 13 of the world's continuing conflicts killed more than 1,000 people last year, international monitors say, and, in at least six of the conflicts, the intensity of the fighting increased. But most of the wars have not attracted attention in the West because they seem intractable, and do not threaten "strategic interests" or imperil Western soldiers.

"Even when the world is not preoccupied with events like Kosovo, these conflicts still aren't getting much attention," said Ernie Regehr, executive director of Project Ploughshares, a Canadian research group sponsored by church and civic groups to monitor conflicts and advocate for peace. "For the local people, these are daily crises, but in international terms, they don't represent an international crisis.

"The tragedies of these wars are very real and searing to the people there, but to the rest of the world they are wars being fought by marginalized people in marginalized places. They're remote people in whom we have no interest."

Most of the conflicts are civil wars, fought between factions within a country. Sometimes the internal wars spill over into neighboring countries. Nowhere has the killing been more intense - or more invisible - than along the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Just last year, President Clinton held up Ethiopia and Eritrea as examples of African nations with young leaders committed to redevelopment, nations that inspired hopeful talk about an African renaissance.

Now the war could further disrupt the Horn of Africa, a region already destabilized by intractable civil wars in Sudan and in Somalia.

The war ostensibly is a dispute over who controls land along a border drawn when Eritrea was an Italian colony, a frontier that was not clearly defined after Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

But there is more to this war than a disagreement over a few square miles of unimpressive grazing land. "As far as we're concerned, those differences shouldn't lead to war," Yemane Ghebremeskel, the chief of staff for Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, said.

There are grudges and ill will between the two countries dating back decades. The leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea were once comrades in arms who helped oust Ethiopia's Marxist regime in 1991, but the friendship has turned ugly.

Although Ethiopia is far larger and economically more potent than its former province - it has 60 million people compared with about 3.5 million people in Eritrea - both sides have portrayed the other as invaders who betrayed their mutual trust.

Some say the animosity dates back to the time when Eritrea was an Italian colony and was used as a base for Mussolini to invade Ethiopia in 1935.

After World War II, the Italians were expelled, and the United Nations decreed that Eritrea should be federated with Ethiopia. Eritrea had a separate government, police force and tax system. Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie incorporated Eritrea as a province in 1962, giving rise to an Eritrean liberation movement that fought for independence for three decades.

During the 1980s, the Eritrean rebels led by Isaias formed an alliance with Ethiopian rebels against their mutual enemy: Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Together the two groups toppled the Ethiopian government in 1991.

Meles Zenawi, the leader of the Ethiopian rebels, became Ethiopia's prime minister. Isaias, Meles' ally, became president of Eritrea. At first, the relationships were cordial. The two countries had an open border, and landlocked Ethiopia was allowed access to Eritrea's two Red Sea ports.

But it did not take long for old animosities to surface.

Two years ago, Ethiopia began to assert itself along the border that was established in the 1890s but never precisely delineated.

In May 1998, an Ethiopian patrol clashed with Eritrean troops near Badme, a village that Eritrea claims is in its territory but is administered by Ethiopia. Eritrea responded to the attack by sending in an armored column to reclaim land it said Ethiopia illegally occupied.

Events rapidly escalated. Both armies spent much of last year acquiring new military stockpiles, including state-of-the-art fighter aircraft and artillery. They also recruited tens of thousands of soldiers, and deployed them to the front.

In February, a massive Ethiopian assault pushed the Eritreans out of the area they had seized the previous May. Eritrea lost two of the six MiG-29 aircraft it had acquired, along with two of its best pilots. The defeat came as a huge blow to Eritrea.

The humbled Eritreans then said they would accept the terms of the cease-fire. This time, the Ethiopians rejected a truce.

In March, Ethiopia attempted to punch through another front, sending wave upon wave of soldiers to storm Eritrean entrenchments at Tserona, about 60 miles from the capital, Asmara. The three-day attack failed at an enormous cost of human life. Eritrea claims to have captured or destroyed more than 50 tanks, dozens of which still litter the battlefield, along with hundreds of bodies of fallen Ethiopians.

The stalemated trench warfare has prompted the Organization of African Unity to relaunch peace efforts. The current peace plan calls for a cease-fire followed by the deployment of about 300 African peacekeepers.

After peacekeepers are sent out, U.N. cartographers would then survey lines on the ground based upon colonial maps. Diplomats hope that settles the issue of where the border actually lies.

At the Tserona front, where soldiers lounge on earthworks that barely cover the remains of dead Ethiopians, and the winds carry the stench of the dead from the mined battlefield, there is little faith that the war will end.

"I'm not optimistic the peace will prevail," said Mohammed Ahmed Affa, 31, a soldier from Keren who was leaning against the wrecked shell of an Ethiopian T-55 tank. He pointed to Ethiopian machinery working on new trenches a mile away across the border, and said: "The Ethiopians are still recruiting people for a new offensive."

Even if some sort of peace agreement is reached, relations between the adversaries are irrevocably altered.

"It's going to be a long, long time before there's any reconciliation between the two," a Western diplomat said.

On to Part Two home page   
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