My journey in Eritrea at war
May 28, 2000, 10:00 A.M., Massawa, a port and seaside resort on the Red Sea, Eritrea, East Africa. A tremendous blast woke me up with a start. I sprang out of bed. I opened the curtain of the hotel window. A sudden burst of gunfire. Located it. From the dock across the bridge, heavy machine-guns were in action, firing at an Ethiopian jet. This plane had just released several bombs on the new (but not yet functional) national electrical power plant, but had missed the target.
Since May 12, Ethiopia had declared war on Eritrea by invading Barentu (NE of Sitona on the map), an isolated town having neither military nor economy assets. (Eritrea had been federated with Ethiopia in 1952 by a UN resolution at the end of the British occupation. It gained its independence in 1993, after a United Nations-sponsored referendum. Independence followed 31 years of bitter conflict.) The invasion came a couple of days prior to the presidential election in Ethiopia. The current president Meles Zanawi(an old friend of the Eritrean president Issias Afewerke) was facing a possible electoral defeat. His popularity was slipping and internal tribal problems were threatening to break up the country (I suppose, in the president's mind, waging war against Eritrea might change the mood of the electorate. The election later proved him right: they reelected him). The invasion took the Eritreans completely by surprise, especially since the rainy season was approaching (it rains so much during that period that travel off of paved roads is impossible).
The easy invasion in Barentu lifted the enemy's spirit (the contentious Ethiopia hadn't won a single campaign against Eritrea since 1962), and it was rumoured that the Ethiopian army was now marching on the town of Agordat (haftway between Keren and Teseney on the map), on the only road connecting Asmara (the capital of Eritrea) to the west part of the country. If Agordat were going to fall into the hands of the enemy, there would be no exit for us.
On our HF radio on the morning of May 19, my boss ordered me to evacuate the camp (near Saata on the map) and come back to Asmara. Overcome with panic, we hurried to pack the two company trucks. I said good bye to my 42 bodyguard-soldiers, aged between 18 and 25 (on February 18, the government allocated 10 soldiers to the project. A month and half later, this number increased, after a site visit from the Director of Mines).
We drove south through the hot (47° C) savanna that runs along the foothills of the treeless mountains. (The savanna is a sandy flat plain, peppered with a few scattered trees and covered in abundant cracks split by mini erosional canyons caused by rain. In the rainy season, it becomes green with tall grass. Surprisingly, wild game abounds in the area. You can spot gazelles, kudu, warthogs, baboons, fox, rabbits, ostriches, hyenas and all kind of birds. They drink water from wells that humans use to water their cattle.) The trucks joggled along the rough track. If the tracks aren't used on a regular basis, strong winds fill them in and they eventually disappear.
After an exhausting two-hour drive (about 80 km), we arrived at a wide dry Barka river just before Ahimbol (NE of Bisha on the map), a military run vegetable farm. The Barka has always been a real nightmare for me with its soft sandy dunes. The last time I crossed it on April 29, I had got stuck in the sand and almost died of thirst. It was only after two hours of labourious effort, that I was able to get free. This day, the river was totally obscured by clouds of dust kicked up by the passage of trucks and bulldozers. I waited until the dust settled before I pulled out into the river. In front of me, three trucks were stuck in the sand. I jockeyed my 4X4 around them. When I finally succeeded in crossing the river, I passed several stacks of AK-47 sub-machine guns just lying on the ground. Also, I noted heavy machine-gun emplacements that have not been there on my previous trips. They were fanned out in the savanna near a tree, ready to fire any enemy planes that dared to venture too close. Soldiers were everywhere. At this very moment, I realized that Eritrea was really at war. I watched our people in the truck through the rear view mirror, their faces were registering deep anxiety. I guessed that they too realized this war was no longer a far away echo.
Leaving the foothills behind, we began to penetrate the savanna. We continued driving south, until we reached the main gravel road (Asmara-Agordat-Sawa). We turned east onto the deserted road, now heavy with foreboding. When I first arrived in this country (February 18), this road was under construction and was extremely busy with trucks hauling food, building materials and military assets from Asmara to Sawa (just east of Teseney on the map), the main military training base in Eritrea. But today, the road was totally deserted: not a human being in sight. Even the many military checkpoints on this road were now abandoned. After less than an hour's drive, the mountains rematerialised; we were getting close to Agordat.
The town was empty. The 60,000 people had fled, following the government's order to evacuate. Only a few Eritrean soldiers were walking in the street. Some were taking a bucket bath in front of a school! We let out a sigh of relief: the Ethiopian's army wasn't here yet.
We began driving on the road to the mountain stronghold of Keren. The paved road littered with metalwork of exploded tanks (antiquated Soviet T-55)and army trucks from previous wars, ran into a wide valley surrounded by isolated treeless mountains, bearing a strong resemblance to Utah in the United States. Traffic on this road became heavier and heavier: buses and trucks conveying soldiers, tank transporters and Toyota pickups. They were all totally covered with mud to provide camouflage, even the windows. A thousand soldiers on foot walked along the side of the road, some seeking shelter from the sun under trees. I saw heavy machine-guns, tank trucks and pickups hidden under trees. Incongruously, I noticed a huge pile of cases of Coca Cola under a tree! I also saw several huge battle tanks. Abandoned civilian cars were left where they happened to veer off into the ditch! I guessed that the drivers had probably panicked during the evacuation of the town.
The valley became narrower, turning into a canyon. Then, we climbed the first16-km-long hill switch-backing up the escarpment to Asmara. The Eritrean capital sits perched in the highlands at 2,500 metres above sea level (interesting enough, the longest hill is about 50 km!) In the past, this natural barrier - an enormous obstacle - protected Eritreans against Ethiopian invasions. Now the roads spiralled up canyons cut into the escarpment offering a splendid view of the mountains and the canyon below. Temperature was dropping as we climbed the mountains, to nearly 25 C°. Finally, the top of the canyon debouched into Keren where two tanks stood guard at the town's entrance. The town was active, carrying on with its business as usual. That night, however, CNN would report that the town was evacuating! I guessed that the reporter was hard pressed to come up with a story! We continued on to Asmara without any problem. It took us 8 hours to drive the total distance of approximately 400 km.
In Asmara, people were in a state of confusion about the war, thanks in part to the inaccurate and conflicting news reports from the BBC, CNN and the local Eri-TV. This state of confusion would reign until the end of the war as none of the civilians in the country knew exactly what was going on. American, British and other foreigners were beginning to leave the country. The next day, it was rumoured in town that the two combatants would soon ratify a peace treaty. I decided to stay and see and wait it out. News of the peace treaty failed to materialize and we waited, day after day.
There was an eery calm in the city for several days after the invasion of Barentu. The Ethiopians never did march on Agordat (possibly a military strategy to divert the Eritrean army's attention) Instead, they launched a heavy military offensive south of the capital in the Senafe area (Mendefera on the map). The region of Senafe is known as the granary of Eritrea: 70% of the country food comes from the region. Here many bloody fights took place that killed thousands of soldiers. The daily news reported that the Eritreans were losing ground, and as a consequence civilian spirits began to droop. In fact, the army was withdrawing - an old successful tactic developed over 30 years of battling a superior adversary. It was imperative to save the army and live to fight another day. The Eritreans numbered only 3.5 million inhabitants against 60 million Ethiopians.
At one point, I saw on Eri-TV frightful pictures of Ethiopians dying of starvation. In the same news, the reporter spoke of the Ethiopian purchase of military planes for billions of dollars. This tells you a thing or two about the current Ethiopia government and their priorities. In response, the Eritreans were shocked by what the Ethiopians do compared to what the Ethiopians say.
With heavy fighting still going on in the Senafe area, a new offensive began to break out in several places further east, along the border. The Ethiopian actions puzzled the Eritreans. They couldn't understand why a small border dispute had turned into a major war with their neighbour or in fact what their neighbour hoped to gain by invading the country.
Foreign news media characterized the Eritreans as the bad guys even if the Ethiopians were the aggressors in this conflict and even if Eritrea was the first party to sign a peace treaty! Being sympathetic to starving Ethiopia, many western reporters were fooled by Ethiopia government's propaganda. When Ethiopia in June pulled out of Barentu, the Ethiopian army pursued a scorched earth policy and blasted bridges, water wells, hotels and land mined the area. As you read this article, these land mines (now forbidden by international community agreements) have already torn arms and legs off of innocent Eritrean civilians.
On May 27, I invited Mike, my camp manager, and his family to go to Massawa for the week-end (Massawa is about 100 km east of Asmara) at the sea shore. His wife declined the invitation because of her fears over the war. Once we arrived at the coast, the beach was almost deserted. We were pretty much the only people crazy enough to go touristing during the war! The nightlife in town, however, was hot and the clubs were swarming with local people. We danced at the open-air nightclub on the roof of the Torrino Hotel, until 5:30 A.M. The morning after the bombing, Mike was in a flap. He wanted to go home now, but I convinced him to spend the afternoon at the beach and then to go home. I asked my friend that I met last night if she wanted to come with us. She said no. She was feeling more secure in Massawa, due to the presence of the protective Eritrean heavy machine-guns. To encourage her to accompany us, I assured her that no plane would bomb a deserted beach, but she still refused to go. Her argument wasn't very logical! In any case, I spent the afternoon at the beach with Mike.
Late in this afternoon, on the road returning to Asmara, we overtook thirty commercial trucks full of young soldiers. They were heading to the deadly battlefield of Senafe. It occurred to me that this trip would surely be their last. In each village, villagers were lined up along the road. When the trucks went past, they were cheering, clapping and throwing food and cigarettes to the soldiers. Civilian cars on the road were honking their encouragement at the trucks. All these expressions of support touched me deeply, and I subsequently began honking at every truck I saw as well.
The next day, May 30, at 11:10 A.M. in Asmara, a tremendous blast shook me out of the office. Four low-flying Ethiopian jets were making a bombing raid on the international airport. In an instant, Eritrean planes chased them away. From that day on, Eritrean planes would patrol Asmara's sky on a daily basis. Fortunately, the damage was limited: one bomb had hit a military aircraft workshop and started a large grass fire (at CNN's noon newscast). Two civilians were killed. Mysteriously, few of the bombs that were dropped never exploded when they touched ground! One of them ended up in a gas pipeline. Imagine if it had exploded! I think this attack was the turning point of the war. Ethiopia had lost face with a surprise attack that had clearly failed, using modern equipment with which they were supposed to have the advantage.
After the bombing raid, all commercial flights into Asmara immediately ceased (flights would only resume on June 13). I found myself trapped in the country. The war was getting too serious for my liking, having witnessed two bombings in 25 hours. Nervous, I went to the Canadian embassy to seek assistance. I got no help from there (no surprise: the same thing had happened to me in Mali, 1995). I tried to calm down by evaluating ways to escape the country if things were getting worse. From Massawa, I could charter a fishing boat to Yemen, across the Red Sea, similar to what some Chinese engineers had done in 1998 during the war or alternately I could drive north to Sudan. I laughed as I pictured myself on a camel heading to Sudan!
Having nothing to do in Asmara, I decided, the next day, that I should go back to the field site and finish up my work. In any case, if the situation turned bad, I could always flee to Sudan, located only 30 km west of the camp. To get there, I could drive the ATV through the Barka river which is dry at this time of the year. I asked my crew if they wanted to go back and they all approved the idea. We obtained permission from the Director of Mines to return, but with one condition: we had to go under military escort.
It took time before they put everything into action. Finally, early morning on June 2, we left Asmara with three loaded trucks. At Keren, we stopped at the local governor's office. Soldiers with AK-47 at the ready jumped in the back of our pickups. One army vehicle in the front of the convoy was leading the way. I said to myself this escort was making no sense: if any Ethiopian plane was to fly over us, they would naturally assume that we were an army convoy! I felt my life was more at risk in the presence of my army guards than without them.
An unbearable heat seized us as we went down the mountain to the lowlands. We stopped at Agordat. Some of the local people had returned to town and a few restaurants were now open. We drank a couple of beers and left. It was nightfall when we arrived at our camp. My 42 bodyguards were still there, much to my surprise. As a result we relinquished our convoy troop and they returned to Keren. During our absence, some of my bodyguards bought goats (Like any African, Eritreans own chickens, goats and sheep. These animals are part of their everyday live and they are everywhere: in the house, in the car trunk, on the rack of a bus roof and even in the battlefield!)
Days were getting hotter, as we seriously overstayed the normal work season. At one point, the temperature peaked at 54° C. Nights weren't much better, with perhaps temperature of 40° C or more. (I was drinking at that time 10 litres of water per day.) Meanwhile, a new battle front was breaking out in the Assab area in the far southeast panhandle of Eritrea (Assab is one of the two Eritrean ports; the other being Massawa). It was so hot in that sector that the Ethiopians ran up a white flag to call a three-hour afternoon truce! We hurried to finish our dammed job. On June 14, we finally broke camp and returned on the long journey to Asmara. I left the country on June 15, at the stroke of midnight.
The peace accord was signed two days later, on June 17. This bloody war had killed more than 60,000 people from both sides. It had displaced large numbers of Eritreans living near the border. Some took shelter in refugee camps set up in Eritrea and more than 70,000 fled to Sudan. This unnecessary war cost Eritrea many millions of scarce dollars in hard currency. Already in a state of relative poverty, Eritrea couldn't afford this war. Instead, they needed their money to build their country not yet recovered from the effects of the liberation war finished in 1991. According to several Eritreans, their economy has been set back at least seven years. Eritreans are now facing starvation next year. They needed to plant their crops before the rainy season (which should start anytime from now) and time is working against them.
This war was about more than redrawing the border (of course, Ethiopia who doesn't have access to the Red Sea, also claims Assab, the main port). It was a result of complex social and political issues and I don't pretend I understand them all. First, the Ethiopian objectives were to weaken the government in power and destroy the Eritrean army. Second, there is historical tension between the two countries as Ethiopians have felt that they are socially inferior to Eritreans. Being colonized early by Italians (1880-1941), the Eritreans were exposed to the industrial revolution and many of them became academics while Ethiopians working in Eritrea worked as labourers and domestic servants.
In this conflict, western countries have been accomplices in the war, letting the situation worsen before stepping in. Why? For one thing, they had never accepted the independence of Eritrea as a neutral country (how long would they stay neutral?). They would prefer to see Eritrea as part of a pro-American Ethiopia, helping America closely watch access routes to the oil-producing Arabic countries. (That is nothing new: in 1962-1974, USA backed Imperial Ethiopia during the war against Eritrea.) In addition, democratic elections have not taken place in Eritrea yet (but then, who cares? Most Eritreans are strongly supportive of their government). The long silence of western countries not condemning Ethiopia during this war served to weaken Eritrea. Until now, this plucky little country had told off the international aid agencies and other NGO's. Today, the country will be forced to turn to these professional meddlers, as they are now overwhelmed by a humanitarian disaster. The western silence also helped Ethiopia to stay together (for a certain time) as it was at risk of falling apart due to tribal problems that threatened the unity of the country. Western countries don't want to see this happen of course. The new countries resulting from such a break up might become inconveniently neutral like Eritrea or, even worse, pro-Arabic.
The peace accord may be signed, but the war isn't over. It's just too bad. Eritrea deserves much better. If we can leave them in peace, the results, I think, could be astonishing and very positive. They have a clear vision on how to develop their country and a history of good governance (a rare thing in Africa). They can go very far, further than most people can imagine.
Military service is obligatory in Eritrea. It affects all able bodied men and women under the age of 40. National service is supposed to last one year and a half, but many are still in uniform after 6 years of service due to the recent wars. To catch draft dodgers, military police patrol the streets of Asmara day and night, checking the ID of all young people. They also perform these checks at checkstops on the roads. People exempt from military service have a special card, valid for 6 months. It can be renewable, repeatedly with the appropriate reason and ministerial approval. The recent wars have decimated the age bracket 25 - 35 in the male population (thus, there are plenty of single young women if anyone's interested! By the way, Eritrean women are some of the most beautiful women that I have ever seen in my life).