Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
September 6, 1999
Women take to the front lines in Eritrea
Soldiers of both genders put their country first
The Forgotten Wars
Second a three-part series

TSERONA, Eritrea - Semeret Andeberhan's camouflage uniform is way too large for her petite frame, so she rolled up her sleeves and cuffs. She has the baggy look of a hip-hop soldier. There are still traces of civilian nail polish on her fingers. Her ears are pierced, but she left her earrings at home.

Semeret, 19, did not expect to be spending her days under a makeshift shelter of sticks and plastic sheeting, surrounded by the graves of comrades who fell guarding Eritrea's border with Ethiopia.

But there was no question that she would go into the trenches when she was called up for military service last year during the first months of Eritrea's border war with Ethiopia. She joined at least 100,000 other Eritreans from a population of 3.5 million who were sent to the front.

"I don't like to be a soldier," she said. "But the country comes first."

In Eritrea, a small nation on the Red Sea that won its independence from Ethiopia eight years ago after a three-decade struggle, just about everybody expresses willingness to die to defend the nation's borders. And it is said with conviction.

There is no dissent in this nationalistic, one-party state where memories of the liberation struggle are still fresh. Nobody questions the need to defend the country, especially against Ethiopia, a nation with nearly 20 times Eritrea's population that has historically regarded Eritrea as a province rather than a sovereign state.

Nor is it strange to see women such as Semeret in Eritrea's armed forces. Women fought alongside men during Eritrea's long war with Ethiopia that ended in 1991, so it was only natural that women would be called up for military service for this nasty border conflict, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

"In 30 years of struggle, women were there," Semeret said, speaking softly as she brushed flies from her braided hair. "So many women died for the liberation. We inherited the past from the dead ones."

Female soldiers say they are treated equally in the trenches, although they were frequently observed taking on traditional women's jobs, such as cooking or serving food. Semeret, who is the only woman in a platoon of 10 soldiers, said it just happened to be her turn to serve tea when several visitors stopped by her encampment the other day.

"The other soldiers treat us with respect," she said. But she insisted that she was no less of a warrior than the men, saying: "I was in the trenches, right there."

In March, the Ethiopian battalions now camped about a mile across the border from Semeret's position mounted perhaps the largest assault of the 15-month war. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians poured across the border, and headed straight to the trenches where Semeret and her platoon were stationed.

"When the battle first started, I saw all the tanks coming, and I thought of the Eritrean people behind us," Semeret said. She said she thought that they would continue to Asmara, the capital, 60 miles away. "I thought if we didn't stop them, they would go through our lines and massacre our people," she said.

The battle at Tserona lasted three days before the Ethiopians were repulsed. Eritrea claimed that Ethiopia sent something like 50,000 conscripts and civilian porters into battle, in four separate waves, and only half of them survived.

Eritrean soldiers said they fired their Kalashnikov rifles as quickly as they could empty a 30-bullet magazine, while others fired rocket-propelled grenades at the incoming armor. Some soldiers said they fought for 36 hours straight.

Only as the battle waned and the Ethiopian troops retreated did Semeret have a chance to reflect on her experience. She could hear wounded Ethiopian soldiers crying on the plain leading up to the Eritrean trenches.

"We heard them screaming," she said. "It was only then (that) I realized they were human beings like us."

The Eritreans left the wounded Ethiopians on the battlefield rather than venture into the no-man's land between the two sides. The moaning went on for days. "It took some of them three days to die," she said, shaking her head.

The reminders of the battle are still around Semeret. Hundreds of Ethiopian corpses and dozens of ruined Ethiopian tanks and armor still lay on the battlefield, surrounded by new grass from the rainy season and freshly planted land mines to repel the next attack. The Eritreans only buried dead Ethiopians who fell along the edge of the Eritrean trenches, but the rains have washed away some of the shallow covering, exposing reeking bones and boots.

The Eritreans say their losses were far less, and their dead are buried safely behind the Eritrean lines on an eerie plain of grass and thorn bushes, where young boys herd goats, cattle and camels among the unexploded bombs dropped by Ethiopian planes.

The Eritrean graves are marked by headstones of spent artillery cartridges or other military debris. There are more than a dozen graves surrounding Semeret's camp alone. The Eritreans do not publicly acknowledge their casualties because they believe the information only strengthens the enemy. The government says it will inform families that their sons and daughters became martyrs for Eritrea only when the war is over.

This does not bother Semeret, who vowed to stand guard until the Ethiopians were driven from Eritrean soil. "I will be here until peace is declared," she said, speaking more firmly than before. "We don't want any conclusion until we have secured a free, independent Eritrea."

Since she joined the army a year ago, Semeret has seen her parents only one time, when they visited her battalion in April as it was being transferred to another front.

When Semeret's mother, Almaz Tseggai, 32, was contacted at the family's two-room apartment in a modest Asmara neighborhood, she was eager for news about her eldest daughter.

"How did she look?" she asked.

But Almaz seemed puzzled when asked how she felt about her daughter and the risks she faced. Eritreans are indoctrinated to put the national interest above their personal feelings.

"Even though she is my daughter, she is like all other Eritreans," Almaz said softly as she roasted coffee and popcorn over a small charcoal brazier for her visitors. "We cannot sit here and let the Ethiopians enter our country."

Almaz was 13 when she gave birth to Semeret. She has two other children.

She had hoped for a better life for her children, rather than the war she experienced. "We had just tasted peace when this thing happened," she said.

Her daughter had planned to take a job as a housekeeper across the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia, and her family was looking forward to the income she would send back. They had hoped to use the money to buy their own home, and move out of their rented apartment. They also hoped to save enough so Semeret's father could buy his own television repair business.

Semeret was preparing to leave for Saudi Arabia when the war broke out and she was called up for national service. And the dream of a new house will have to be put on hold.

"We will miss this income," Almaz said. "But we are as we were before."

Tomorrow: The war is absorbing much of the money that would otherwise go for basic commodities such as food and shelter.

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