A weird little war between friends Disbelief: Ethiopia and Eritrea fought together for freedom, but now both seem helpless to prevent a war between them that no one can understand.

Sun Journal

July 09, 1998|By Andrea Useem | Andrea Useem,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MEZABERT, Ethiopia -- Tsege Wolde Gebrial was 14 years old when she first crossed the border, a newlywed riding a mule beside her husband.

Born Eritrean, Gebrial left her tiny hometown of Kinen to live with her husband in his hometown of Mezabert across the border in Ethiopia. At that time, Eritrea was still a region of Ethiopia.

Thirty-three years later, Gebrial is separated from her hometown by more than five miles of rocky path. The two towns, Kinen and Mezabert, are preparing to attack one another in a conflict that threatens to tear apart two closely interwoven societies.

The border dispute broke out May 6, when Eritrea entered Ethiopian territory it claims as its own. During peace negotiations sponsored by the Organization of African Unity, Eritrea refused to withdraw, and Ethiopia has more or less committed itself to forcefully removing the Eritreans.

The conflict seems pointless and bewildering to many, given the close friendship between the two countries. But more inexplicable may be the disconcerting zeal with which the bonds of friendship and family dissolve in Ethiopian war preparations.

Gebrial takes turns with other village women in preparing injera, Ethiopia's traditional pancake-like bread, for Ethiopian soldiers stationed in Mezabert. She knows these soldiers may soon attack Kinen, where her two brothers and their families live.

"It's very sad. I cry all the time," she says, as the distant sound of shelling booms through the village. "But I think the Ethiopian government has no choice. It must defend its territory."

But defend it from Eritrea?

Only seven years ago, guerrilla groups from the two nations collaborated to overthrow Ethiopia's Marxist military regime. Eritrea's reward was its independence from Ethiopia, which had dominated it for generations. Barely enough time has passed for the abandoned tanks on the Addis Ababa-Mek'ele road to start rusting.

Today new tanks rumble past on the journey north. In Mezabert, former fighters for the Tigre People's Liberation Front, which overthrew Ethiopia's Marxist regime in 1991, dust off their guns -- and point them against their former comrades of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, who now lead the government in Asmara.

"Yes, we fought together," says Berhane GebreMehdin, 45, surrounded by other gray-haired militia men cradling AK-47s in their arms. "But even your friends turn into enemies when they invade you."

For the people of Ethiopia, this conflict is not about ethnic fear and domination, as in Rwanda and Burundi, or the collapse of a state system, as in Somalia. It is primarily about national pride -- a commodity the two countries possess in rich excess, though both are desperately poor in material terms.

Ethiopia's identity is built on its 4,000 years of history, its religion, art and culture, and its celebrated defeat of Italian colonial forces in 1896 (although Mussolini's Italy briefly occupied the country between 1936 and 1941). Eritrea's central mythology revolves around its 30 years of armed struggle against Ethiopia, which had made it a province.

On a continent of arbitrary colonial boundaries, these strong senses of national identity often seemed a rare advantage. But today its darker, malignant side is visible.

The disputed territory is a few hundred miles along the border. The two countries organized a joint committee to fix an exact border demarcation. But then Eritrea moved into Ethiopian territory in early May.

Ethiopians across the country said this "invasion" was a drastic overreaction to an easily resolved dispute -- and a deep betrayal of friendship.

One Ethiopian member of the joint committee remembers how delegates from the two sides stayed out late drinking and talking after their meetings in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

"That morning when I heard the news," he says, "I felt stabbed in the back. In my mind I saw pictures of their smiling faces, and asked myself, 'How could they do this?' "

The shock reverberated around the country. During the first days after the invasion, Ethiopians were baffled about why the two nations seemed to be at war.

But when Eritrea bombed civilian targets -- unintentionally, it claims -- in the northern towns of Mek'ele and Adrigat, shock turned to outrage, galvanizing public opinion in Ethiopia much as Pearl Harbor did for the American public in 1941.

And as American outrage generated "total war" against Japan, so Ethiopian leaders began to talk about "teaching the Eritreans a lesson they will never forget."

"In defending your country and your sovereignty," says the Ethiopian commander in the contested border town of Zalambessa, "you fight to protect yourself. And you are only safe when the aggressor can no longer be aggressive."

Dismantling Eritrean aggression, other officials have said, may mean dismantling the Eritrean government -- and perhaps Eritrean independence with it.

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