Ethiopia must aim attacks at famine

April 27, 2000|By Semere Russom

IT HAS NOW been almost two years since Ethiopia's declaration of all-out war on Eritrea. Since then, Ethiopia has repeatedly attacked Eritrea all along the two states' common border, sending massive human waves of young Ethiopians to certain death.

Now Ethiopia is faced with famine. For the past few years, the Ethiopian government bragged about "record harvests" to cover up the fact that the rains, and crops, had failed over large areas of the country. Ethiopia finally admitted this month that close to 10 million of its people are facing starvation.

But it refuses to stop its war and end its military spending of $1 million a day.

The United States needs to tell Ethiopia to stop its war on Eritrea.

Eritrea has offered to help send shipments of grain to drought-affected areas of Ethiopia through Eritrea's ports, in cooperation with the U.S. Agency for International Development. Ethiopia, astonishingly, refuses this humanitarian offer. It prefers to watch 10 million of its own people starve rather than take food aid delivered through the ports of the country that it is attacking.

The war actually started one year before Ethiopia's official declaration when, in July 1997, Ethiopian troops occupied an area in eastern Eritrea. Ethiopia failed to remove its military despite the Eritrean president's diplomatic protests. When Ethiopia attacked again in May 1998, in another area on the common border, Eritrea resisted.

Ethiopia took this resistance as a pretext for declaration of all-out war, and for immediate attacks on still other border areas.

Ethiopia has targeted civilian areas deep inside Eritrea in air attacks, using cluster bombs and napalm. It has bombed or blockaded every major port and airport in the country. It ransacked and still militarily occupies Eritrean embassy premises in Addis Ababa -- ignoring Eritrea's petitions to the International Court of Justice about this undeniable violation of international diplomatic law. It threw Eritrea's ambassador to the Organization of African Unity out of Addis Ababa in violation of the OAU headquarters agreement.

For the past few months, Ethiopia has not mounted any major new attacks. But it is now threatening to resume the insanity, which has cost the two countries more than 70,000 lives, by some estimates. Ethiopia claims that it accepts two OAU/U.S. negotiated proposals to end the war, which Eritrea and the world community have endorsed, but it adamantly refuses to sign them. And it has now outrightly rejected a third OAU/U.S. proposal, which Eritrea has also endorsed, after seven months of stalling.

Ethiopia claims, vaguely, that its war is justified by a need to recover territory that it says Eritrea is occupying. But it refuses to answer when asked what territory that might be. The truth is that Eritrea occupies -- and claims -- only land to the north of the colonial treaty boundary negotiated by Italy and Ethiopia a century ago. These boundaries are universally recognized on U.S., U.N. and other maps and, for that matter, Ethiopia's own official maps until the year of Ethiopia's first attack.

It is not surprising that Ethiopia adamantly refuses to state its territorial claims publicly. If Ethiopia makes clear that its territorial ambitions extend to areas north of the colonial treaty border, the Ethiopian public will know that young Ethiopians are dying in an absurd attempt to conquer lands that all of Ethiopia knows to be Eritrean. But once it publicly recognizes the colonial treaty border that has been in place for 100 years, then its rationale for continuing the war evaporates. Ethiopia refuses to sign the peace plan because it knows that a neutral demarcation will debunk its expansionist claims once and for all.

This senseless war has imposed enormous hardship on civilians. In the past two years, Ethiopia has expelled almost 70,000 people of Eritrean national origin, confiscating their homes and farms and deliberately tearing families apart in the process.

At first, Ethiopia tried to characterize these people as "spies," and then later it tried to claim that they were actually not legally Ethiopian citizens. But most are people who could not possibly be spies: pregnant women, children just 6 months old, elderly pensioners and the blind. The vast majority carry such Ethiopian identity documents as passports. They voted in Ethiopian elections or even, until their expulsion, held elected office. Now they are thrown into prison without food or blankets, forced onto buses at gunpoint, driven to active military lines, dumped in the middle of the night and ordered to walk.

Ethiopia's prime minister says it has the right to expel ethnic Eritreans whenever it wants to, "if only because we do not like the color of their eyes." Western human rights groups all condemn Ethiopia's ethnic cleansing. Ethiopia criticizes the West for not doing enough to stop its famine. Ethiopia does this despite the fact that the response from Western countries is already clogging the few ports and roads that remain open through the war.

There is only one more thing that the West can do to stop the growing famine in Ethiopia. Western countries, especially the United States, have to tell Ethiopia to agree to an immediate cease-fire and stop the war.

Semere Russom is the Eritrean ambassador to the United States.

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