School Attack by Eritrea Shocks Ethiopians
By Karl Vick
"Like 'Garbage,' " said Netsannet Asfaw, as local boys gathered around her in the street nodded in agreement, as if they all knew someone with such a name. "They give their kids horrible names so God will not want them and take them away."
"You might not expect it because many people are peasants, and life is hard," Netsannet said. "But children are even more precious here."
But on Friday, there was nothing to protect the children when a small warplane from neighboring Eritrea appeared over the eucalyptus trees near the elementary school and dropped a cluster bomb, only to return from the opposite direction and drop another one.
It was the deadliest incident since the crisis began in May over a disputed 160-square-mile territory that both of these countries in the Horn of Africa have claimed since 1993.
The second bomb cut down the fathers, mothers and neighbors who had rushed to the playground upon hearing the children's screams. All told, 48 people were killed, including 10 children under 15.
Mekele was quiet today, but skirmishes were reported along the countries' disputed border. Ethiopia said it had reoccupied its border town of Zala Anbessa, 65 miles southwest of Asmara, after a daylong battle with Eritrean forces who captured the town last week.
U.S., Italian, German and British planes evacuated more than 1,000 foreigners late Saturday and early today after Ethiopia agreed to stop bombing a military-civilian airport outside Asmara.
Eritrean President Issaias Afwerki said he hopes the Organization of African Unity will produce new ideas for a settlement on Monday. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said over the weekend that "all-out war" could be averted if Eritrea agrees to a U.S.-Rwanda brokered peace plan that would allow a third party to rule on the land dispute.
But in the incipient border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the much smaller country whose border lies not two hours' drive north of Mekele, most of the violence has been directed at military targets.
Scores of soldiers have died in skirmishes in and around the disputed land. Ethiopian air raids at the airport outside the Eritrean capital of Asmara on Friday and Saturday may have shaken civilians in the nearby passenger terminal, but what the planes hit was an Eritrean air base.
"Very clearly the Ethiopians were trying to hit a military target," a Western diplomat said.
What happened at the Ayder Higher Complete Primary School was different. And that has overwhelmed Mekele, a dusty, orderly community where almost any of the 130,000 residents is as likely to have ties to one side as to the other.
The shock of a civilian bombing -- there appears to be no military target within miles of the school -- has been compounded by the apparent fact that it was delivered by an "enemy" whom many still regard as countrymen.
Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia five years ago after helping the current Ethiopian government come to power by fighting beside a rebel movement that grew out of Tigray province. Mekele is its capital.
"It's very bitter. I've always supported the Eritrean struggle," said Netsannet, who represents a district near Mekele in the Ethiopian parliament. "I'm still trying to come to terms with it."
"Everyone is in a dilemma," said Taklehaimanot Asefaw, director of the hospital, which treated more than 100 people wounded in the raids. "No one expected such a thing from a neighboring country, a sister country. We are brothers and sisters, this is our feeling."
The Eritrean government has denied bombing the school. But the school obviously has been bombed. The playground is riddled with holes, each a few inches across and a foot deep. They are sprinkled around the bank of spigots where children line up for a drink. Classroom walls bear irregular punctures. The metal roofs are in shreds. Every classroom window is shattered.
"It was very big," said Buzuayhlelhu Nega, who said he saw the bomb explode in midair. "It was about 250 kilograms" (113 pounds).
A local man recovered an unexploded element of the cluster. It looks like a little bronze rocket, perhaps eight inches long, with clear plastic tail fins like one still lying a between the desks in one of the classrooms. He unscrews the base to reveal its chemical filling, a dull dense orange.
"I don't remember how it came, but it felt like fire was raining from the sky," said Tewhaba Berhe, who was inside her nearby house when she heard the first explosion. "My baby was outside playing when she got hit. She was playing with other children."
Helen, 4, was the second-youngest victim. Tonight she lay in critical condition in the local hospital, a bandage the size of an adult's hand taped over the shrapnel wound in her abdomen.
"I do not dislike the Eritrean people," Tewhaba said over her only child's labored breathing. "I dislike very much the people who planned to bomb us. "I dislike war."
The distinction is still made here. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the stone house her husband bolted out of when he heard the bomb explode, Birchika Mohammed Tum said she is not interested in politics and knows nothing of relations between her region and Eritrea.
But she is puzzled by the weapon that ripped open her husband's stomach as he scrambled to their children shortly after 2 p.m. Friday. (All four who were at school that day turned out to be safe.) Birchika said the bombs she saw during the rebellion that brought the current government to power "went in one place. Whoever was there was hurt. This type of bomb splinters."
Her children are staying with her grandmother. Outside her doorway, the men who have come to chant prayers of mourning are careful to keep their circle beneath the cover of a leafy trellis. Local authorities spent the weekend going from house to house, warning people not to gather in groups visible from overhead.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company