Despite Historic Ties, Ethiopia and Eritrea Gird for War
By Karl Vick
"There will have to be a few more battles, I'm afraid," a senior adviser to Eritrean President Issaias Afewerki said with a sigh earlier this month. And in the following days, while diplomats from a half-dozen countries fanned fading hopes of peace, both sides continued moving troops to the front.
There were other movements as well. More than 700 Eritreans who had been living in Ethiopia were loaded onto trucks and driven hundreds of miles to the border. As many as 5,000 more await a similar fate after having been rounded up by Ethiopian authorities and detained in a pair of open camps near Addis Ababa, the capital, according to Human Rights Watch/Africa. The New York-based advocacy group condemns the expulsions as harassment of civilians.
"Only men," said Human Rights Watch's Suliman Baldo of those expelled. "They've left families alone."
The Ethiopian government calls the forced expulsions militarily necessary. Selome Taddesse, the government's spokeswoman, said Ethiopia has targeted local officials of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, the party that rules Eritrea -- and has an office in Addis Ababa -- as well as an Eritrean community organization and business people suspected of supporting the enemy effort.
In addition, Eritreans in "security-sensitive posts," such as telecommunications and the electric company, were obliged to take one month's "leave" but were not forced out of the country, Selome maintained. More than a half-million Eritreans live in Ethiopia, by the government's count.
The Eritrean government admits to no similar policy toward the estimated 100,000 Ethiopians who reside within its borders. But many of them have been lining up outside the Ethiopian Embassy in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, in search of the documentation that would assure them reentry into their home country if they are forced out of Eritrea.
In their way, the expulsions represent the most confounding fracture yet in relations between the two countries, erstwhile allies whose populations, militaries and fates appeared bound tightly together as recently as a few weeks ago.
"We didn't think a thing like this could happen," said Solomon Abraha, a travel agent in Asmara. "I'm still not out of the surprise of it."
The complications only begin with the fact that the governments of both Ethiopia and Eritrea grew out of rebel movements that in 1991 together defeated a repressive Marxist regime ruling Ethiopia. Eritrea, which had been an Ethiopian province, voted to become independent and became a nation in 1993. The neighbors maintained an open border, and the level of official trust was such that the authors of one military reference book cautioned readers that the arsenal of one might be shared with that of the other.
What makes the specter of mass expulsions so confusing is the extent to which heritage is shared as well. Even Eritreans and Ethiopians sometimes have trouble telling one another apart. As Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin declared in defending the "very few" expulsions, the countries are linked by "blood, culture, history, economy, trade and all other sectors."
Intermarriage has been commonplace for generations, especially between Eritreans and natives of Tigray, the northwestern Ethiopian region that gave birth to the Ethiopian rebel movement and borders Eritrea. In fact, the mother of Eritrea's Issaias is from Tigray, and an Eritrean gave birth to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The two men, who for years led their rebel forces in concert with one another, have had a falling out. Today, Meles threatened to teach his former ally "a lesson."
The years of shared struggle are remembered in the trenches. "The fact that the people of Tigray are our friends is always in the grapevine," said Negusse Beya, an Eritrean prisoner of war made available to reporters by Ethiopian officials. "In fact, some say our brotherhood, our friendship was sealed by the blood of two peoples. But they also say that the real problem is Badame."
Badame is the heart of a 160-square-mile section of land that each country claims the other is trying to steal. It is remote and semi-arid, but the struggle for it summons twin rallying cries of national sovereignty.
"I'm very glad and very happy that I was on the side of the Eritrean struggle for independence," said Kiros Fetiwi, a colonel in the Ethiopian army, after a day spent directing attacks on Eritrean forces arrayed in the border town of Zalembessa. "But now they have invaded our sovereignty, and I will struggle against them at the level I struggled before."
Not every Ethiopian expresses such happiness about an independent Eritrea, the creation of which left Ethiopia without access to the Red Sea. And as Ethiopians rally to the flag, Eritreans worry aloud that the border dispute may become an excuse to try to reverse history.
They were disquieted by heavy fighting on the road to Assab, an Eritrean port hundreds of miles from the disputed area around Badame, and took no comfort from a recent rapprochement between Meles's government and an expatriate group called One Ethiopia. The group is composed largely of members of Ethiopia's historically elite Amharic ethnic group, which has been harshly critical of the current government. But at a Washington meeting June 14 the group welcomed Ethiopia's U.S. ambassador and vice minister of foreign affairs.
A former high-ranking Pentagon official said the reconciliation "could be real dangerous." James L. Woods, a former deputy assistant secretary for African affairs at the Pentagon, said: "The Amharic is saying this is a chance to get the sea coast back. They're trying to goad Meles into all-out war."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company