ZALAMBESSA, Ethiopia - The bodies of dead soldiers still litter the sun-baked battlefields. Land mines claim the lives of children and farmers. And Ethiopians and Eritreans remain divided over everything from land to cows to their choice of soft drink.
But for all the healing yet to be done along the Ethiopian-Eritrean border - a disputed 650-mile line that sparked a bitter two-year war - United Nations forces are optimistic that they can do something that has eluded them on the African continent: make peace and keep it.
Seven months ago, 4,200 U.N. peacekeepers fanned out along the border to enforce the cease-fire that ended the war, which killed as many as 100,000 people. In the months since, the peacekeepers have pushed back Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, which were practically within spitting distance of one another, and separated them with a 15-mile-wide buffer zone (out of range of each army's best artillery). In recent weeks, they have supervised the return of thousands of civilians forced to flee their homes during the fighting.
"We like to think we made some progress," Maj. Jarst de Jong, a 36-year-old company commander in the Netherlands Marines peacekeeping forces, said cautiously after his forces packed up to go home last month after being replaced by Indian peacekeepers. But, he added, "It wouldn't work unless Ethiopia and Eritrea were really wanting this peace."
Such confidence is rare in Africa, where recent peacekeeping missions have been ineffective or disastrous. Efforts to broker peace in Sierra Leone last year led to the humiliating capture of 500 U.N. peacekeepers by rebels. The civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo presents a nearly impossible task of trying to stop hostilities in a conflict involving more than a half-dozen African nations. And to many Western nations, peacekeeping in Africa is haunted by the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers in Somalia in 1993.
A traditional conflict
By comparison, the Ethiopian-Eritrean mission is simple and straightforward. Unlike the many internal conflicts on the continent involving rebels, warlords and multiple factions, this war was a classic battle between two nations, making the job of peacekeeping more manageable. Many Western nations, including Canada, the Netherlands, France and Italy, were eager to be one of the more than 40 nations participating in the mission.
And although there are no U.S. peacekeepers, the United States did commit military observers to the effort.
But it probably doesn't signal a change for peacekeeping in Africa.
The Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict "is not at all typical," says Paul H. Gantz, coordinator for the Partnership for Effective Peacekeeping based at the World Federalist Association in Washington. "It doesn't really hold any lesson on how to make peacekeeping work in other parts [of] Africa."
The old-style nature of this conflict also made it one of the most destructive. Fighting in trenches on a scale not seen since World War I, the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies sacrificed thousands of lives over narrow strips of lands. And they left little standing in their paths.
Once a busy border village claimed by Ethiopia, Zalambessa became one of the most hotly disputed regions during the war. Early in the fighting, Eritrea declared the village its own and fired artillery on the stone homes and businesses before moving in with tanks and bulldozers to level the rest. Only the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was left standing.
Later, when Ethiopian troops repelled the Eritrean army, the Ethiopians didn't forget about what happened in Zalambessa. They knocked down every government building in the Eritrean village of Senafe, from the telephone company to the town hall. In a final act of retribution, they blew up the hospital and then buried land mines in the ruins.
Barren disputed land
It is hard to imagine how two countries could sacrifice so much to squabble over borderland that is by and large inhospitable and contains no known mineral resources. To the east of Zalambessa is the Danakil Depression, one of the lowest and hottest points on earth, which is inhabited by nomadic salt gatherers. To the west are rough mountains and valleys.
Fighting erupted after several years of rising tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea over trade issues and minor border disputes. When Eritrea moved into Ethiopian territory in May 1998, it ignited a full-scale war.
The fighting surprised everyone because the two nations had so many cultural and historical ties. Eritrean rebels helped the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front overthrow Ethiopia's Marxist military regime in 1991, and Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993.
Partly because of the close relationship between the two nations, no one bothered to clarify the border after Eritrea's independence. Now, after two years of war, the thorny issue of where the border should be is unresolved.