December 27, 1998

Needless war engulfs a unique African oasis

... but hope for democracy, stability and security still alive


In Africa, a continent racked with wars, revolutions and repression and increasingly regarded as an economic and social basket case, there is one country that is reversing the trend and today is the democratic hope of the continent.

It is Eritrea, the newest African state and UN member, about the size of England (or Florida) with a population roughly that of Toronto (3.5 million), situated on the Red Sea, above the Horn of Africa, bordered by Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti.

Not many know much about Eritrea; even fewer care.

It's too bad, because Eritrea is unique in Africa, if not the developing world. It got full independence in 1993 after winning a 30-year struggle against Ethiopian dominance that turned into a full-scale war when emperor Haile Selassie was assassinated in 1974 after a military coup led by a homicidal Marxist, Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Prior to World War II, Eritrea had been an Italian colony since the 1880s, then under British control when the Brits clobbered the Italians in 1941. The UN ruled in 1952 that Ethiopia should have "trusteeship" over an autonomous Eritrea. Ten years later Ethiopia forcibly annexed Eritrea -- igniting the struggle for independence.

That's a capsulized history of events.
Deja vu ... Memories of a decade ago, our man Worthington revisits Eritrea, Africa's newest state and UN member. Below, Peter strikes a pose for democracy on his last visit.

But not the real story.

Independent since 1993, Eritrea is once again at war with Ethiopia, which claims ownership of some of Eritrea's border.

It seems nutty to outsiders -- and to Eritreans -- but wars often start for goofy reasons -- witness a murder in Sarajevo in 1914.

The present war aside, Eritrea is so unusual that experienced observers -- diplomats, aid workers, journalists -- have difficulty accepting that what they see is real and can last.

Since it won independence at a cost of some 250,000 lives, Eritrea has confounded experts and reversed a trend in Africa that has been depressingly and persistently gloomy since the first country (Ghana) achieved independence from British colonial rule in 1956.

I've just returned from Eritrea, seeing the war zones, consulting diplomats, aid workers, Ethiopians, President Isaias Afewerki, and ordinary people. As one who has reported from a score of African countries over the past 40 years, I've no hesitation saying that Eritrea is unlike anything I've encountered in Africa.

After his first visit to the capital of Asmara, journalist Frans van der Houdt, with 14 years of covering Africa for a Dutch news agency, remarked: "I'd just about given up on Africa as hopeless, until seeing this country. Now I have renewed hope."

Aside from the trauma and potential harm of another war (which Eritrea would surely win if it became serious) what makes Eritrea so special is how it is adjusting to peace and taking a moral lead in Africa. Consider:

Asmara is the most civilized city in Africa, despite Eritrea being one of the poorest countries. In 1993 the World Bank figured the average annual income was $75-$150, and life expectancy was age 50. There is no begging, little crime, streets are clean and safe.

Asmara is a pretty Italian-style city of 400,000 with a palm-lined main street, sidewalk cafes, espresso machines and no building higher than seven storeys.

Eritrea has no political prisoners (itself an oddity), there is no corruption in high places, no government limousines, bribery is unknown, all the "leaders" live modestly -- some without pay.

Eritrea refuses to accept unlimited foreign aid, which it feels is corrupting; it won't accept big loans (which have to be repaid with interest), thus refusing to mortgage itself to international banks. Religious aid is accepted only if it's secular.

It is the most "multicultural" and ethnically diverse country in Africa, with eight distinct and esoteric language groups (Nara, Tigrinya, Bilien, Kunama, Afar, Saho and others you also never heard of). It's equally divided between Christian and Muslim with some Animism, yet is a secular state where all passionately, selflessly, proudly, confidently endorse their "Eritrean" identity.

An internal revolution has been won for women, who have mostly achieved equality from traditional feudalism where culturally they were regarded as "chattel." The law now gives women full equality with rights of land ownership, choosing mates and making their own decisions on divorce. Arranged child marriages (age nine or 10) are forbidden, and husbands must share property with wives and kids. The horror of genital mutilation (euphemistically called female circumcision and infibulation) is ending for women.

There is national service for everyone between 18 and 45, men and women. On the frontlines today in the disputed border areas where an estimated 200,000 Ethiopian soldiers are poised, women and their AK-47s are with men in the trenches -- only this time without the Afro hairdos and shorts that distinguished them in the liberation war.

Today hairstyles vary and all wear camouflage uniforms.

How women have blended into the army, where they're all still proudly called "fighters" rather than soldiers, is unprecedented (and something the damn fools who run the Canadian army might study and learn from).

The last thing Africa -- and Ethiopia and Eritrea -- needs is another war. Yet that's what has happened -- another unknown war, like its 30-year struggle, during which Canada supported the dreadful Mengistu regime with aid and branded Eritreans fighting for independence as "rebels" (as the CBC liked to call them).

If it weren't so unpleasant, the present "war" over apparently barren and empty land would have overtones of the great novel Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, which was inspired by Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. However it's become sinister, what with Ethiopia "ethnically cleansing" itself of some 40,000 Eritreans who lived and worked in Ethiopia, some of them for all their lives.

Last spring Ethiopia's parliament in essence declared war and bombed Asmara, while Eritrea retaliated without formally declaring war. Through it all, Eritrea has so far remained something of a paragon of patience, resolve and even democracy, while bloodying Ethiopia's nose.

Unlike other African countries, Eritrea spends little on the trappings of power. President Isaias is informal, preferring open-neck shirts and occasionally having a drink in a local bar across the street from his modest presidential offices. (People recall that when the Congo's controversial and brutal President Laurent Kabila visited Eritrea, Isaias suggested a drink and much to the horror of Kabila's bodyguards and perhaps Kabila himself, Isaias took him across the street to a bar)
HEROES ... The guerrillas of the past leave a lasting impression to this day in this so-called war.

All over Eritrea roads are being repaired, new roads and houses built. Education is a priority, with English mandatory ("knowing English is a passport to the world," a teacher told me in 1988). Asmara's main street, Independence Avenue (renamed from Haile Selassie Avenue), has been turned into a mall with only taxis and buses allowed. Curiously, it must have more photo shops, bars and public pay phones than any other African city.

Starvation has been replaced with flourishing markets. To a Westerner, the country is astonishingly inexpensive. Credit cards are not used, except in one hotel, which is a problem if the tourist trade expands as Eritreans hope. In short Eritrea is an oasis of hope for democracy, stability, security.

My interest in Eritrea dates back to 1988 when I was with the barefoot guerrilla army of the EPLF (Eritrean People's Liberation Front) along with Toronto's Rob Roy, doing a TV documentary on that war and the Ethiopian famine.

We had the privilege -- luck -- of being the only Western journalists who witnessed the EPLF rout of an Ethiopian corps in the war's most decisive battle, now immortalized in Eritrean folklore as the Battle of Afabet. Some 20,000 Ethiopian soldiers were killed -- one third of the total Ethiopian army in Eritrea.

Afabet rates as one of history's decisive battles; the biggest battle in Africa since the British 8th Army routed Field Marshal Rommel's Afrika Corps at el Alamein in World War II. To Eritreans today, Afabet rates as the Battle of Kursk does to Russians, when Hitler's tank army was destroyed and the tide of war changed.

Roy and I saw and photographed 10,000 bedraggled Ethiopian prisoners. We also found stacks of bags of Canadian flour, a "gift of the Canadian people" to the starving of Ethiopians, in the kitchens of the Ethiopian army. Gallon cans of cooking oil from the U.S. and Europe supposedly for starving refugees, were also in army kitchens and village stores.

Afabet was the pivotal battle of the war. For miles, the mountain road and desert plains were littered with the charred remains of Soviet armour, trucks, guns. Ethiopian dead littered the scenery, desiccating in the dry heat.
A "gift of the Canadian people" supposedly donated to starving refugees.

Being with these guerrillas left a lasting impression.

Movement was mostly at night, sleeping in caves and hollowed mountains to avoid Ethiopian airstrikes. The EPLF had constructed a 1,000-bed hospital inside a mountain, complete with dental and plastic surgery, operating theatres (every type of operation except heart surgery) and labs that produced penicillin and medical drugs according to world standards.

The Eritreans established a hidden factory that churned out plastic sandals for the "fighters," 30% of whom were women. (The EPLF refused to call themselves "soldiers" because that implied a permanent occupation.) Women went into battle with men, some as platoon leaders and both killed and were killed alongside men.

The "liberation war" was fought without military aid from the U.S. or Soviet Union, or any country. Eritrean weapons all were captured from the Soviet/Cuban/East German-supplied Ethiopians. At Afabet, as at other battles, captured Soviet tanks and artillery were turned around and used immediately against the Ethiopians which boasted the largest, best-equipped modern army in Africa. Three Soviet military advisers were captured at Afabet.

The Ethiopians were driven from Eritrea in 1991 and Mengistu sought asylum in Zimbabwe, courtesy of his ideological soulmate, Robert Mugabe, who is in the process of screwing up Zimbabwe. Mengistu resides in that country today.

The feat of 3.5 million Eritreans thrashing a country of 58 million, using the enemy's own weapons, remains remarkable and unprecedented -- the first successful "war of liberation" in Africa against an African oppressor rather than a colonial power.

Ethiopia has always been revered as the only country in Africa that escaped European colonization. Until he was murdered, Haile Selassie was regarded (wrongly) by Westerners (as well as by Jamaican Rastafarians) as something of a deity when, in fact, he was a feudal imperialist.

That was then, this is now.

Eritrea deserves better than another war, and deserves support and encouragement -- which it is not getting, and has never received from Canada or the U.S. which have always opted to back Ethiopia. Maybe this will change.