Flashback: The Loneliest War

Just south of where Sudan’s border with Ethiopia meets the Red Sea, the ocher hills erupt into a chain of sandstone and granite peaks, whose eroded, sun-blistered faces suggest the forbidding surface of a distant planet. It is an environment of near total hostility. Plagues of locusts and army worms have followed the drought that has devastated Ethiopia since the early 1970s. The soil here has no absorptive capacity, and within minutes of any rainfall, bucketfuls of water streak in dendritic patterns down the canyon walls and flood the valleys. Later the mud at the bottom dries and cracks, and is diffused back into the air as dust. Anything that might pass for a road is blocked by boulders torn away from the scarps by the deluge. Mostly acacias grow here, and their scrawny roots and branches do little to anchor the soil or provide shelter against the sun’s glare. The acacias are of value chiefly to the yellow weaverbirds that nest in them, and to the camels that munch on their inch-long thorns. An aerial reconnaissance of this region would reveal few signs of human habitation. It is only as dusk approaches, when the sky becomes too dark for Ethiopian pilots to maneuver their Russian-made MiG-23 fighter jets, that these seemingly inhospitable fastnesses come to life.

In the enveloping darkness the defiles become crowded with people scurrying forth from daytime hiding places. Captured East German water tankers trundle out of their redoubts, and bulldozers begin clearing rocks from the roads. The light of the rising moon is answered by the glint of dozens of metal rods, for many of the inhabitants here are amputees equipped with crutches and artificial limbs. Fluorescent lights and gas lamps flick on in bunkers dug into the slate rock of the cliffsides, and workshops begin to operate. Tables, chairs, and other bits of furniture are being forged from ammunition boxes. Lumps of black plastic are washed by machines and afterward molded into sandals.

In one bunker, whose roof is camouflaged by dark blankets and acacia branches, people don white lab coats and turn on imported British, Belgian, and West German machines trucked in piece by piece from Sudan and then reassembled. This is a tablet factory. In 1986, according to the factory’s pharmacist, Sennay Kifleyesus, 40 million pills were manufactured here, including three million aspirin tablets and five million doses of chloroquine, to treat malaria. Kifleyesus hopes soon to start production of some of the basic ingredients�talc, starch, and magnesium separate. We have to be more self-sufficient; we can’t depend on anyone, he says. The tablet factory is part of a large hidden medical complex, which includes a thousand-bed hospital, where men and women trained in Ethiopia, Italy, Greece, Israel, the Soviet Union, the United States, and elsewhere are at work. In another bunker four kinds of intravenous solutions are produced and packaged, their plastic containers affixed with locally printed labels in the squiggly script of the Tigrinya and Tigre languages. Blood is stored in refrigerators powered by wind and solar energy. Skin grafting is done in an operating room with boarded-up windows and a rough cement floor. Flies buzz around a dirty overhead light. A few miles from the medical complex, in a mountainside hut, amputees operate an Italian-made machine that produces 10,000 sanitary napkins an hour for the many women soldiers at the front. In other workshops, radios and VHS video units are repaired. Engineers plan roads and design irrigation systems to be fed by the flood runoff.

It is fully dark now, and here, 5,000 feet above sea level, the close starscape seems to breathe. In a place where the daily routine is determined by the flight patterns of MiG jets and the lack of an effective anti-aircraft cover�where even reservoirs must be concealed beneath camouflage nets�the workday has just begun.

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Welcome to Orotta, the base camp of what American intelligence experts consider to be the world’s most sophisticated guerrilla fighting force, the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front, or EPLF. The people of Eritrea have been fighting for independence from Ethiopia since 1961, when the government in Addis Ababa abrogated a United Nations-sponsored autonomy plan for the region. If one thinks of Orotta as the capital of a sovereign polity, which for most practical purposes it is, then by Western standards Orotta is one of the few black African capitals that actually work. It is also the only one not recognized by any Western power.

Orotta appears on few international maps. Eritrea itself appears only as the triangular northernmost province of Ethiopia. The province is dominated by a range of mountains that flattens out to form the Barka plains in the west, with the arm of the Danakill depression�one of the hottest regions on earth�jutting in a southeasterly direction, along the Red Sea. It is from the Greek name for the Red Sea, Erythra Thalassa, that Eritrea derives its name.

The 46,000 square miles of Eritrea (an area about the size of Pennsylvania or Mississippi) hold the key to Ethiopia’s political stability and territorial integrity. Without Eritrea, Ethiopia would be landlocked. The late Emperor Haile Selassie, who prosecuted a war against the Eritreans for the last decade and a half of his reign, was keenly aware of this. So, too, is the current, Communist ruler, Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. Behind all the mass executions, Cabinet-level shootouts, and opaque conspoiracies that helped Mengistu consolidate his power in the late 1970s lay disagreements over the conduct of the war in Eritrea. To this day the fortunes of the Marxist regime and the nature of its relationship with the Soviet Union are determined b the progress of the war. The war has been responsible for most of the logistical nightmares that hamper famine-relief efforts throughout Ethiopia. Weapons consignments, not consignments of food, receive priority at the Ethiopian port of Assab, and half of Ethiopia’s trucking fleet has been commandeered by the military. C-130 cargo planes transporting grain are often delayed at local airports so that fuel can be siphoned off to Ethiopian MiGs and Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships for patrols over Eritrea and its neighbor to the south, Tigre province.

The civil war in Ethiopia is the longest-running war in Africa and also the most competently fought (at least by one side). Facing off against 35,000 of the world’s best guerrilla fighters is black Africa’s largest (350,000 strong) and best-trained standing army. During the past quarter century more than 250,000 people have died on the battlefield in Ethiopia, and about 750,000 Eritreans have been exiled or intentionally displaced. In recent months this war, now about to enter its twenty-eighth year, has taken on a new intensity. The EPLF has newly captured certain significant pieces of territory, forcing the Ethiopian regime to acknowledge publicly for the first time that the guerrillas are threatening the very foundations of the Ethiopian state. The EPLF has also made recent attacks on food convoys in southern Eritrea; these have undermined its reputation and have perhaps made its goal of diplomatic recognition more elusive. The long-term trend of the fighting, however, seems unmistakably in favor of the guerrillas. It would seem that if the Marxist rulers in Addis Ababa are ever to be toppled, it will be not because of the pressures wrought by Ethiopia’s decade-long famine but because of the military pressure applied by the EPLF.

Eritrea’s four million people have built a society almost totally around war. Kidane Ghebermedhin, thirty-five, had already been at the front for nine years when I spoke with him not long ago. He is not unusual. There is no fixed period of service, and many Eritrean guerrillas have fought for a decade or more. Their khaki shirts and shorts, canvas anklets, black plastic sandals, and Kalshnikov assault rifles are often all they own. Many have gray hair by their early thirties. Never have I seen people who age as quickly as these Eritreans. When I asked Ghebermedhin if he was discouraged at having been a soldier for so long, he closed his eyes and shook his head. He didn’t seem to understand the question. I’m happy just being a fighter. I never think anymore about town life. A quarter century of conflict has engendered a monastic approach to existence. Absolute self-reliance, coupled with deprivation, has become a form of worship. And in place of formal religion, which has been de-emphasized in recent years, there has developed an intense national and social cohesiveness, born of isolation and historical entrapment.

A People Apart

Since 3000 B.C., when, according to Egyptian hieroglyphs, pharaonic galleys journeyed to the farthest reaches of the Red Sea coast in search of myrrh, the destinies of Eritrea and Ethiopia have been bound up with each other, even as Eritrea and Ethiopia have evolved along different lines. The complexity of this relationship has kept Eritrea from achieving a distinct identity in the minds of foreigners, and this lack in turn has contributed to the almost palpable sense of aloneness that permeates the Eritrean psyche.

The first great Ethiopian empire�the Roman-era kingdom of Axum�was centered in Tigre, and Axum’s maritime trade was conducted through the ancient Eritrean port of Adulis, near modern-day Massawa. Internal dissension, the migration of Beja nomads from Sudan, and the rise of Islam eventually led to Axum’s demise, in the ninth century A.D. After the tenth century the center of power steadily moved south, causing Eritrea to drift apart from the rest of the region, though it retained its importance as an outlet to the sea. In the fifteenth century the ruling Amhara people finally were able to re-establish a tenuous hold over Eritrea. Over the years, however, the Eritrean coastline was frequented by Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Arabs, and, finally, Ottoman Turks. Thanks in part to these outside influences, the Eritreans came to be more sophisticated and less xenophobic than the Amharas of the interior.

The Turks held sway over the coast for three centuries until they were displaced by the Egyptians�with the help of the British�in 1875. The Suez Canal had opened six years earlier, increasing the strategic importance of the Red Sea and causing the British to seek the assistance of a proxy to contain the French (already established in nearby Djibouti). The Egyptians, like the Turks before them, were unsuccessful in penetrating the Eritrean interior. This failure, among other factors, prompted the British to turn to Italy for help. With British assistance the Italians occupied Massawa in 1885 and began an invasion of the highlands. The trail was coated with the blood of thousands of Italian soldiers, the Eritrean scholar Bereket Habte Selassie has written. Nevertheless, by 1889 all of Eritrea had been occupied, and Menelik [the Amhara Emperor] had signed the Treaty of Ucciali, under which he recognized Italian rule over Eritrea. Two different imperial territories now existed side by side. One, Eritrea, was ruled by a white European colonial power. The other, Ethiopia, was ruled by a black African colonial power�the Amharas under Menelik, whose subjugation of the Tigreans to the north and of the Oromo to the south was viewed by the conquered peoples as no more desirable than European rule.

The perception of the Amharas as a colonial power is crucial to a proper understanding of the present conflict. When the Eritreans say they are fighting Amhara (Ethiopian) colonialism, they mean it in the same way that other Africans do when they are recalling their struggles against the French or the British. The Eritreans see as alien the generally darker-skinned Amaras of the central highlands, who speak a different Semitic tongue and have been perpetually insulated from the cosmopolitan influences of foreign cultures. Although the Italian occupation of Eritrea was characterized by all the evils inherent in colonialism, in Eritrean eyes Amhara domination would have been�and today is�no less intolerable. Eritreans fought in large numbers for Mussolini against the Amhara Emperor, Haile Selassie, during the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

From the very beginning the Italians had seen Eritrea as a staging point for a further invasion. With this in mind, a road-and-railway network was built and a settler population installed, bringing new technological skills along with it. Thousands of Eritreans left their ancestral villages to work on the Italians’ huge projects. A modern capital rose up in Asmara, which, with its yellow stone houses and adorned with bougainvillea, is still one of the loveliest cities in Africa. The coming of fascism in Italy led to further investment in Eritrea. In order to convey military and other supplies from the port of Massawa up to Asmara, 7,000 feet above sea level, the world’s longest aerial ropeway was built. The new transport system allowed Eritreans to visit parts of their country they had never seen before, facilitating the growth of a modern national consciousness. Trade unions were established, and political culture came to be more advanced in Eritrea than anywhere else on the continent outside Egypt and South Africa. Whatever its sins, Italian capitalism proved to be a liberating social experience for the Eritreans.

By the time the Italians met defeat at British hands at Keren, northwest of Asmara, in 1941, Eritrea was vastly different from the rest of Ethiopia, where the Italian presence had been pretty much restricted to the brief but brutal military occupation of Addis Adaba and other garrison towns. In the aftermath of the war, however, the outside world failed to recognize that difference. The British occupied Eritrea until September of 1952. By the time they left, the Western powers had imposed a United Nations mandate on the region and made Eritrea a semi-autonomous territory under the sovereignty of Ethiopia. The U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, explained: From the point of view of justice, the opinions of the Eritrean people must receive consideration. Nevertheless, the strategic interest of the United States [makes] it necessary that the country has to be linked with our ally, Ethiopia. In Eritrean eyes this was a gross betrayal of outside powers; that it has never been forgotten is apparent in the EPLF’s obsession today with self-reliance.

Selassie never respected the autonomy agreement Eritrea’s independent institutions were gradually subverted, political parties were banned, and Tigrinya, Tigre, and Arabic were suppressed as the languages of Eritrea and replaced by Amharic. In 1961 an organization called the Eritrean Liberation Front, or ELF, was formed. Civil war broke out in September, when the guerrillas began mounting hit-and-run attacks with antiquated Italian weapons. The following year Eritrea was formally annexed by Ethiopia and became just another of its many provinces.

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The Eritrean guerrilla struggle began as very much a Moslem0oriented movement. Tom J. Farer, in War Clouds on the Horn of Africa, writes:

Its launching was facilitated by the 1950s recession-bred migration from Asmara and the port cities to Saudi Arabia and the Sudan. The workers, plus young [Eritrean] Muslims who went to Cairo for a university education, formed a pool of latent militants who could be organized beyond the Emperor’s reach. A second early asset was the 1962 eruption of civil war in the Yemen. Weapons from patrons poured into and overflowed the arsenals of the Yemeni belligerents. Some of these weapons filtered into the hands of the ELF.

But Eritrea is not Arab and is only part Islamic. The population is equally split between the Tigrinya-speaking Ethiopian Orthodox Christians of the highlands and the Tigre- and Arabic-speaking Moslems of the coast and western plains. The EPLF was formed in 1970. It had a strong Christian element and, as its name implies, a distinctly Marxist tinge at the beginning. Initially Isaias Aferworki, a Christian, commanded its field forces, and foreign relations were in the hands of Osman Salih Sabbe, a Moslem renegade from the ELF. Perhaps inevitably, even as they waged war on Ethiopia the ELF and the EPLF themselves came to blows, and as many as 3,000 Eritrean guerrillas lost their lives in a struggle that ended with no clear-cut victor By then�1975�the American-backed government of Emperor Haile Selassie had, amid worsening famine, been overthrown in a coup and a new government, headed by a committee of junior officers known as the Dergue (Amharic for committee), had come to power. The Dergue’s initial egalitarian posture and talk of reform raised hopes that it would seek a compromise with the Eritrean resistance, which was being heavily supported with money and arms not only by Arabs but also by the Russians. These expectations were dashed in November, when the figurehead chief of state, General Aman Michael Andom, a man of Eritrean heritage who had been negotiating with the Eritrean guerrillas, supposedly on the Dergue’s behalf, was killed in his Addis Ababa villa by Dergue troops precisely, it is said, because he was believed to be close to achieving a settlement.

In the aftermath of Andom’s death whole units of locally recruited government police in Eritrea deserted to the guerrillas. Students returned to their villages to join the ELF and the EPLF. Farer writes, Having at last converted the great mass of Eritreans into the enemy, the masters of Addis could now pursue the logic of counterinsurgency to its murderous end. The same famine that in the mid-1970s had ravaged the provinces of Wollo and Tigre and precipitated the overthrow of the Emperor now oppressed Eritrea. The Dergue not only forbade its newly created relief agency to distribute food in Eritrea; it also forbade foreign donor organizations to work there. From the very beginning starvation was one of the Dergue’s main weapons against a recalcitrant people.

Drought and internal divisions notwithstanding, the Eritrean guerrilla movement grew dramatically following Andom’s death, and its troops quickly encircled the Dergue’s in the main towns of Eritrea. Arab and Eastern-bloc aid (and Cuban advisers) poured in. Then came one of those sudden historic turnarounds that have dashed the hopes of so many fledgling independence movements.

In the midst of the guerrilla offensive the Carter Administration suspended all military aid to Ethiopia, citing its poor human-rights record. Mengistu had by now become the Dergue’s dominant member and the country’s leaders had already begun to drift toward Moscow. Faced with rebellion in the northern provinces and threatened with invasion from Somalia in the east, Mengistu decided to seek help from the Kremlin. The Soviets, eager to make a Russian client of a long-standing American ally, promptly switched sides. Mengistu arrived in Moscow in May of 1977 for a week-long state visit; Soviet arms began arriving in large quantities in Ethiopia later in the year, along with some of the same Cuban advisers who had been assisting some of the same Cuban advisers who had been assisting the Eritreans. The guerrilla offensive ground to a halt. Soviet Navy shelling from offshore battleships prevented the Eritreans from taking Massawa. By May of 1978 the Dergue had accumulated enough new weaponry to launch an offensive of its own. Soviet-bloc advisers ran the logistical backup. Through late 1978 and into 1979 war swept across the Eritrean landscape. Thousands of civilians were the Eritrean landscape. Thousands of civilians were killed, and many more were forced across the Sudanese border into refugee camps, which exist to the present day. Crops were burned. Reportedly, nerve gas and anti-personnel bombs disguised as children’s toys were used. The Ethiopians waged a form of war that the world would come to know better when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Eritrean guerrillas were in full retreat.

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In 1979 the EPLF decided on a strategic withdrawal, deliberately giving up territory in southern Eritrea in order to consolidate a base area in the northern Sahel district, around Nakfa. In the meantime troops were rapidly deserting the ELF, which by mid-1980 had only 6,500 men, and joining the EPLF, whose ranks swelled to almost 30,000. Fighting again broke out between the two organizations in 1981; the ELF, though it still has a small following among Eritrean refugees in Sudan, has been militarily irrelevant ever since.

With a secure base area and no enemy except the Dergue to worry about, the EPLF set about strengthening itself in every way. A network of trenches and underground corridors, several hundred miles long, was constructed. Thousands of educated Eritreans who had been in exile returned to work with the EPLF. These new recruits, brought in by way of Sudan, staffed the hospital and ran the workshops that were being set up in the Orotta area. Many of the recruits were from middle-class Christian families that lived around Asmara, and their presence encouraged a drift in EPLF ideology away from its initial Marxist bearings.

While the EPLF dug in, the Soviets helped build up the Ethiopian Army, from 65,000 men to nearly 300,000. More than 2,000 Soviet advisers arrived. In return, the Dergue made the Dahlak Archipelago, off Eritrea’s Red Sea coast, available to the Soviet Navy, and Soviet planes began making long-range reconnaissance flights over the Indian Ocean from the Asmara air base, which the Americans had deserted. The enormous military-assistance program allowed the Ethiopian government to launch the largest offensive ever against the Eritrean guerrillas, in February of 1982. Called Operation Red Star, it involved fifteen divisions whose troop strength was estimated at over 100,000.

This time the Ethiopians got nowhere. The EPLF held all its major positions, and reportedly as many as 40,000 Ethiopian soldiers were killed or wounded, although no one will ever know the toll for sure. Another offensive of the same magnitude was launched in 1983, but the results were similarly disastrous. At the time, the American public was preoccupied with fighting in Lebanon and Central America, but blood was flowing in larger quantities in the Horn of Africa, in a war that featured a guerrilla resistance, backed by virtually no one, that was capable of withstanding a large Soviet-equipped army.

The transformation of the Soviet Union from ally to oppressor, the continued indifference of the West, and the ambivalence of the Arabs and the rest of the Third World strengthened the EPLF’s desire for self-reliance. With an almost maniacal singlemindedness the Eritreans repaired all captured equipment or converted it to other uses. Comparisons between the EPLF and other insurgent movements in Africa and the Middle East elicit only contempt from the Eritreans. When I once asked an EPLF official about similarities between the Eritrean and Palestinian situations, he replied scornfully, Has the PLO ever captured an Israeli tank?

Africa’s Israelis?

The EPLF front line at Nakfa, sixty miles south of Orotta as the crow flies, is in a bleak, deforested region brutally scarred by landslides. Nakfa has been the scene of heavy fighting many times, leaving the town, which once had a population of almost 7,000, a patchwork of ruins above which rises a single minaret�a kind of modern-day African Pompeii. The trenches, a few miles farther south, are dug into a twisting spur of Denden Mountain. Soviet T-55 tanks and various kinds of artillery lie hidden in man-made recesses. Across a defile, on a similar ridge, are the Ethiopian lines. In some places the two armies are less than a hundred yards apart and a pair of low-powered binoculars is all that is necessary to see the low-powered binoculars is all that is necessary to see the faces of Dergue soldiers peering through the slits of their fortifications. The defile is a no-man’s-land of minefields, defoliated olive trees, and, when I was there, numerous decomposing bodies of Ethiopian soldiers.

In the warren of slate passageways, noisy with field mice, on Denden Mountain, war is the only reality. Few existences can be more rugged. Extremes of heat and cold are the norm. Soap is nonexistent. The crucible of toil and suffering has broken down sexual and religious barriers. In a society where clitorectomy and infibulation used to be widespread, the exigencies of war have liberated many women; women account for almost a third of all EPLF soldiers. But unlike other armies that include large numbers of women, such as Israel’s, the EPLF deploys women in front-line combat units, where they drive tanks and fire artillery. Reportedly, some 30 percent of the Eritrean wounded are women. There is an almost neuter quality to female Eritrean guerrillas. After years of living in the field exactly like the men, they have come to resemble them physically. Their hair is short, their hands and feet callused, their legs sinewy. Though men and women sleep side-by-side in the cramped front-line quarters, sex is said to be rare and pregnancies are unusual. The atmosphere of pent-up sexual tension, so prevalent in almost every Middle Eastern country is notably absent.

Elsewhere in the world the breaking down of traditional social barriers has often led to a measure of tyranny over the individual. But in Eritrea it has had the opposite effect. There exists a degree of concern for the individual that is rare in Third World armies. Every platoon is equipped with basic medical supplies. Makeshift operating rooms are set up in the field. One soldier I met, whose eardrums had been damaged in a bomb blast, had been provided with a hearing aid, something I found astonishing, considering that there isn’t even tea in the trenches. (Water is usually the only drink, aside from an occasional intelligence sources say that not even satellite photographs enable them to estimate EPLF battle losses, because the guerrillas get their dead and wounded off the field so quickly.

As the Israelis have demonstrated, bravery often derives from self-assurance: the knowledge that in the event of trouble your superiors will go to the limit to save you. Secure in that knowledge, Eritreans have more than once proved their willingness to take well-calculated risks�for example, by attacking the enemy air base at Asmara, in 1986, and destroying or damaging some forty MiGs and other planes. In contrast, it is hard to imagine an army with worse morale than the Dergue’s. Many of its soldiers are ethnically Oromos, who come from the southern lowlands of Ethiopia. They have been forcibly conscripted and given minimal training before being dispatched to the mountainous north of the country to fight the Eritreans, a people the Oromos have no interest in fighting. Even the Amharas serving in Mengistu’s army tend to be unenthusiastic.

A comparison of the EPLF and the Israelis is by no means far-fetched. It goes to the heart of what makes the Eritrean guerrilla movement unique in the Third World�and, by extension, explains why the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA), the civilian arm of the EPLF, is so much more effective than any other African relief group. Israel has long been noted for boldness in looking after the welfare of its citizens and even, in some cases, of Jews outside the country. Its concern was powerfully demonstrated by the secret rescue of some 10,000 black Ethiopian Jews from the provinces of Gondar and Tigre, in 1984 and 1985. At the same time and practically right next door, the EPLF was delivering more than 100,000 of its people to emergency feeding centers on the Sudanese border, providing them with whatever water and food it could muster at transit stations set up along the way. Of the approximately eight million peasants threatened with starvation by the Ethiopian famine, about two million�fully a quarter of the total�were in EPLF-controlled areas. Yet although in late 1984 and early 1985 the ERA received, according to some estimates, less than five percent of all international aid coming into Ethiopia, the efficiency of the ERA, coupled with support from Eritrean expatriates in the West and Saudi Arabia, held the number of deaths in Eritrea down to the tens of thousands. In Dergue-held areas, it is believed, as many as a million people died. Jack Shepherd, a food-aid specialist, noted in the Africanist journal Issue that the Eritrean guerrillas have reversed the classical guerrilla warfare pattern. Instead of peasants feeding an army, he observed, the guerrillas are feeding the peasants.

The ERA clinic in Port Sudan, across the Sudanese border, provides another illustration of the EPLF’s concern for those in its care. It was opened in May of 1979, in a cement building near the airport. There is not a tree in sight. The goats and stray dogs in the area escape the blazing sunlight by hiding under the rusted carcass of a school bus. Except for making the building available�at a monthly rent�the Sudanese authorities provide no help of any kind. Until the ERA constructed a small dormitory structure for foreign relief workers, visitors had to stay at the clinic itself, as I did. It was an unpleasant stay. The rooms swarmed with flies by day and mosquitoes by night. In adjacent beds, on soiled mattresses, were amputees and paraplegics, children among them�all told, close to a hundred civilian victims of the war. The clinic functions as both a school and a hospital. The wheelchairs and artificial limbs are made and repaired by the patients themselves. The clinic is part of an ERA health-care network that includes nine regional hospitals and an extension service whose six hundred paramedics travel to villages and nomadic encampments throughout the EPLF zone. I know of no other system that, given the same conditions and resources available, operates as efficiently, says Dr. Sam Richard Toussie, a Columbia University epidemiologist and rural-health-care specialist, who has worked in insurgent areas of Africa, Asia, and Central America. The biggest success has come in the realm of infant care. Since 1982 the number of nomads within the EPLF zone giving birth in hospitals has risen by about 50 percent.

Still, enormous suffering remains. More than half of all Eritrean children today are malnourished (as compared with 80 percent in mid-1985), and the population suffers from all the usual tropical diseases. And, of course, there is the fact of constant war.

Eritrea and the United States

In a world of imperfect choices, in which the United States often finds itself supporting regimes and resistance movements of limited caliber, the Eritrean guerrillas would appear to be useful proxies in a low-intensity war to exert pressure on the Marxist regime in Addis Ababa. Liberals on Capitol Hill would have relatively few complaints about a group whose exemplary treatment of the at least 8,000 Ethiopian prisoners of war under its charge has been witnessed by international relief officials and whose competence in famine relief is unquestionable. The only significant blots on the EPLF’s record are the recent attacks on famine-relief convoys (which the rebels claimed were also carrying weapons and supplies for the Ethiopian army) in heavily contested areas of Eritrea. Almost every day since the late 1970s MiGs and other Soviet-made planes have taken off from Ethiopian government airfields and bombed anything that moved in EPLF territory, effectively preventing EPLF famine-relief convoys from traveling there during daylight hours. After a decade of avoiding retaliation against the bombing and against the frustration of its famine-relief efforts�restraint that got the EPLF absolutely no Western recognition in return�the guerrilla organization changed its policy, and has been rightly condemned for doing so. Still, compared with the more muddled situation in a country like Nicaragua or Angola, the situation in the Horn of Africa offers something approaching a clear-cut choice between good and bad. The World Human Rights Guide, published by The Economist in 1986, gives the Eritreans’ enemy, Ethiopia, the lowest rating of any country in the world. Human-rights investigations by the State Department and Amnesty International have come to similar conclusions. Quite apart from the usual mayhem�unlawful detention, torture, the murder of children�the Dergue has been guilty of collectivizing millions of Oromos against their will and, as noted, of deliberately denying food to large segments of Ethiopia’s population. Governments don’t get much worse than the one in Addis Ababa.

During the 1984-1985 famine the United States quietly provided food to Eritrea from camps on the Sudanese border. Without this unofficial cross-border effort, in indirect concert with the ERA, little of the world’s famine-relief assistance, which was funneled mainly through Ethiopia, would have reached the northern province. Such a backdoor program might become important again soon: last fall virtually all the crops in northern Ethiopia failed again, and last spring the government ordered all foreign relief workers to leave Eritrea and Tigre.

But the United States has been unwilling to initiate a more intimate relationship with Eritrea. Why? The answer offered by officials of the State Department and the National Security Council is that the Eritrean guerrillas are Marxists, just as the members of the Dergue are, and thus cannot qualify for U.S. military support. Influential members of Congress, including Senator Orrin Hatch, the ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have also branded the EPLF with the Marxist label. Isaias Aferworki, who helped create the EPLF and is reputedly the real power in the organization, told me, We totally reject any labeling from any quarter. We have our own realities, and we begin from there to solve our social and political problems. We are a broad democratic front struggling for national liberation. A national liberation struggle cannot be a Marxist struggle since it must accommodate all viewpoints. Still, the EPLF cannot deny that it has a Leninist command structure, with its leadership organized around a Politburo and a Central Committee. Aferworki admitted that in its early stages the EPLF was heavily influenced by Soviet literature, in reaction against Western colonialism in Africa. Such terminology was all we knew, he claimed. Concerning the United States, Aferworki admitted that in its early stages the EPLF was heavily influenced by Soviet literature, in reaction against Western colonialism in Africa. Such terminology was all we knew, he claimed. Concerning the United States, Aferworki said, The standing of America here has always been positive. The food aid to Eritrea is what we expected from a people of noble ideas, and whatever the motives of the U.S. government in giving the aid, the fact is we have really benefited from it. Obviously, though, he is bitter over America’s refusal to recognize Eritrea as an independent polity.

Was Aferworki being honest about the EPLF’s orientation? No action that the EPLF has taken within the area under its control would suggest otherwise. The most left-wing program ever implemented by the organization has been land reform, and the program is a mild one. This program, the emphasis on women’s rights, the creation of health and agricultural extension services, and infrastructural improvements undertaken by the EPLF in the countryside it controls are exactly the kinds of things that the U.S. Agency for International Development encourages every government in Africa to do. Moreover, EPLF officials do not take a coercive approach to the civilian population, as officials do in so many communist societies.

After being bombed for a decade by a Soviet-supplied air force, the Eritreans harbor a dislike of the Soviet Union approaching that felt by the Afghans. The depth of hostility toward the soviets was made clear to me on my second journey into Eritrea, at an ERA camp in the heard of Sudan’s Tokar desert, where vehicles transporting grain from Port Sudan to Orotta are repaired. There were no toilets and virtually nothing to eat or drink. But the Eritreans did have a VHS unit hooked up to a generator, and I looked on at about 200 people, many of them children, watched an EPLF propaganda tape. After some predictable footage of marching soldiers, the scene switched to a ceremony in which Mengistu was shown smiling and shaking hands with Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet President and former Foreign Minister. At the sight of Gromyko there was a loud hiss from the audience, which grew louder as the camera focused closer on the Russian’s stony face.

No U.S. government official has visited the EPLF base area. Even the secondhand information available to people in Washington is sparse. A handful of analysts with access to satellite photographs at the State Department, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the CIA are knowledgeable about the EPLF’s military capability, but they lack a feel for the organization’s ideology and for the way in which the guerrillas and the leaders view the world and the superpowers. A senior Administration official admitted to me that the general view held about the guerrillas is not an educated view. People in Washington see these guys as leftists and as essentially separatist, while groups like the contras are attractive because they openly declare an intention to topple a Communist government. The official said that few in Washington realize that a separatist struggle in Ethiopia may be just as favorable to U.S. interests.

* * *

That struggle will go on, even if it must do so almost invisibly. The most frequently recurring image I have of Eritrea I never saw; it was described to me by a British colleague, John Murray Brown. He was sitting outside one night when he noticed an EPLF guerrilla lying on his back, searching the starscape. Brown asked the soldier if he was looking for anything in particular. The soldier replied that he was looking for satellites, which, he said, were easy to pick out in the clear night sky. The satellites gave him comfort, the soldier explained. They meant that at least somebody somewhere was paying attention to the war.

Source: Dehai Eritrea Online

Flashback: The Loneliest War

Just south of where Sudan’s border with Ethiopia meets the Red Sea, the ocher hills erupt into a chain of sandstone and granite peaks, whose eroded, sun-blistered faces suggest the forbidding surface of a distant planet. It is an environment of near total hostility. Plagues of locusts and army worms have followed the drought that has devastated Ethiopia since the early 1970s. The soil here has no absorptive capacity, and within minutes of any rainfall, bucketfuls of water streak in dendritic patterns down the canyon walls and flood the valleys. Later the mud at the bottom dries and cracks, and is diffused back into the air as dust. Anything that might pass for a road is blocked by boulders torn away from the scarps by the deluge. Mostly acacias grow here, and their scrawny roots and branches do little to anchor the soil or provide shelter against the sun’s glare. The acacias are of value chiefly to the yellow weaverbirds that nest in them, and to the camels that munch on their inch-long thorns. An aerial reconnaissance of this region would reveal few signs of human habitation. It is only as dusk approaches, when the sky becomes too dark for Ethiopian pilots to maneuver their Russian-made MiG-23 fighter jets, that these seemingly inhospitable fastnesses come to life.

In the enveloping darkness the defiles become crowded with people scurrying forth from daytime hiding places. Captured East German water tankers trundle out of their redoubts, and bulldozers begin clearing rocks from the roads. The light of the rising moon is answered by the glint of dozens of metal rods, for many of the inhabitants here are amputees equipped with crutches and artificial limbs. Fluorescent lights and gas lamps flick on in bunkers dug into the slate rock of the cliffsides, and workshops begin to operate. Tables, chairs, and other bits of furniture are being forged from ammunition boxes. Lumps of black plastic are washed by machines and afterward molded into sandals.

In one bunker, whose roof is camouflaged by dark blankets and acacia branches, people don white lab coats and turn on imported British, Belgian, and West German machines trucked in piece by piece from Sudan and then reassembled. This is a tablet factory. In 1986, according to the factory’s pharmacist, Sennay Kifleyesus, 40 million pills were manufactured here, including three million aspirin tablets and five million doses of chloroquine, to treat malaria. Kifleyesus hopes soon to start production of some of the basic ingredients�talc, starch, and magnesium separate. We have to be more self-sufficient; we can’t depend on anyone, he says. The tablet factory is part of a large hidden medical complex, which includes a thousand-bed hospital, where men and women trained in Ethiopia, Italy, Greece, Israel, the Soviet Union, the United States, and elsewhere are at work. In another bunker four kinds of intravenous solutions are produced and packaged, their plastic containers affixed with locally printed labels in the squiggly script of the Tigrinya and Tigre languages. Blood is stored in refrigerators powered by wind and solar energy. Skin grafting is done in an operating room with boarded-up windows and a rough cement floor. Flies buzz around a dirty overhead light. A few miles from the medical complex, in a mountainside hut, amputees operate an Italian-made machine that produces 10,000 sanitary napkins an hour for the many women soldiers at the front. In other workshops, radios and VHS video units are repaired. Engineers plan roads and design irrigation systems to be fed by the flood runoff.

It is fully dark now, and here, 5,000 feet above sea level, the close starscape seems to breathe. In a place where the daily routine is determined by the flight patterns of MiG jets and the lack of an effective anti-aircraft cover�where even reservoirs must be concealed beneath camouflage nets�the workday has just begun.

* * *

Welcome to Orotta, the base camp of what American intelligence experts consider to be the world’s most sophisticated guerrilla fighting force, the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front, or EPLF. The people of Eritrea have been fighting for independence from Ethiopia since 1961, when the government in Addis Ababa abrogated a United Nations-sponsored autonomy plan for the region. If one thinks of Orotta as the capital of a sovereign polity, which for most practical purposes it is, then by Western standards Orotta is one of the few black African capitals that actually work. It is also the only one not recognized by any Western power.

Orotta appears on few international maps. Eritrea itself appears only as the triangular northernmost province of Ethiopia. The province is dominated by a range of mountains that flattens out to form the Barka plains in the west, with the arm of the Danakill depression�one of the hottest regions on earth�jutting in a southeasterly direction, along the Red Sea. It is from the Greek name for the Red Sea, Erythra Thalassa, that Eritrea derives its name.

The 46,000 square miles of Eritrea (an area about the size of Pennsylvania or Mississippi) hold the key to Ethiopia’s political stability and territorial integrity. Without Eritrea, Ethiopia would be landlocked. The late Emperor Haile Selassie, who prosecuted a war against the Eritreans for the last decade and a half of his reign, was keenly aware of this. So, too, is the current, Communist ruler, Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. Behind all the mass executions, Cabinet-level shootouts, and opaque conspoiracies that helped Mengistu consolidate his power in the late 1970s lay disagreements over the conduct of the war in Eritrea. To this day the fortunes of the Marxist regime and the nature of its relationship with the Soviet Union are determined b the progress of the war. The war has been responsible for most of the logistical nightmares that hamper famine-relief efforts throughout Ethiopia. Weapons consignments, not consignments of food, receive priority at the Ethiopian port of Assab, and half of Ethiopia’s trucking fleet has been commandeered by the military. C-130 cargo planes transporting grain are often delayed at local airports so that fuel can be siphoned off to Ethiopian MiGs and Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships for patrols over Eritrea and its neighbor to the south, Tigre province.

The civil war in Ethiopia is the longest-running war in Africa and also the most competently fought (at least by one side). Facing off against 35,000 of the world’s best guerrilla fighters is black Africa’s largest (350,000 strong) and best-trained standing army. During the past quarter century more than 250,000 people have died on the battlefield in Ethiopia, and about 750,000 Eritreans have been exiled or intentionally displaced. In recent months this war, now about to enter its twenty-eighth year, has taken on a new intensity. The EPLF has newly captured certain significant pieces of territory, forcing the Ethiopian regime to acknowledge publicly for the first time that the guerrillas are threatening the very foundations of the Ethiopian state. The EPLF has also made recent attacks on food convoys in southern Eritrea; these have undermined its reputation and have perhaps made its goal of diplomatic recognition more elusive. The long-term trend of the fighting, however, seems unmistakably in favor of the guerrillas. It would seem that if the Marxist rulers in Addis Ababa are ever to be toppled, it will be not because of the pressures wrought by Ethiopia’s decade-long famine but because of the military pressure applied by the EPLF.

Eritrea’s four million people have built a society almost totally around war. Kidane Ghebermedhin, thirty-five, had already been at the front for nine years when I spoke with him not long ago. He is not unusual. There is no fixed period of service, and many Eritrean guerrillas have fought for a decade or more. Their khaki shirts and shorts, canvas anklets, black plastic sandals, and Kalshnikov assault rifles are often all they own. Many have gray hair by their early thirties. Never have I seen people who age as quickly as these Eritreans. When I asked Ghebermedhin if he was discouraged at having been a soldier for so long, he closed his eyes and shook his head. He didn’t seem to understand the question. I’m happy just being a fighter. I never think anymore about town life. A quarter century of conflict has engendered a monastic approach to existence. Absolute self-reliance, coupled with deprivation, has become a form of worship. And in place of formal religion, which has been de-emphasized in recent years, there has developed an intense national and social cohesiveness, born of isolation and historical entrapment.

A People Apart

Since 3000 B.C., when, according to Egyptian hieroglyphs, pharaonic galleys journeyed to the farthest reaches of the Red Sea coast in search of myrrh, the destinies of Eritrea and Ethiopia have been bound up with each other, even as Eritrea and Ethiopia have evolved along different lines. The complexity of this relationship has kept Eritrea from achieving a distinct identity in the minds of foreigners, and this lack in turn has contributed to the almost palpable sense of aloneness that permeates the Eritrean psyche.

The first great Ethiopian empire�the Roman-era kingdom of Axum�was centered in Tigre, and Axum’s maritime trade was conducted through the ancient Eritrean port of Adulis, near modern-day Massawa. Internal dissension, the migration of Beja nomads from Sudan, and the rise of Islam eventually led to Axum’s demise, in the ninth century A.D. After the tenth century the center of power steadily moved south, causing Eritrea to drift apart from the rest of the region, though it retained its importance as an outlet to the sea. In the fifteenth century the ruling Amhara people finally were able to re-establish a tenuous hold over Eritrea. Over the years, however, the Eritrean coastline was frequented by Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Arabs, and, finally, Ottoman Turks. Thanks in part to these outside influences, the Eritreans came to be more sophisticated and less xenophobic than the Amharas of the interior.

The Turks held sway over the coast for three centuries until they were displaced by the Egyptians�with the help of the British�in 1875. The Suez Canal had opened six years earlier, increasing the strategic importance of the Red Sea and causing the British to seek the assistance of a proxy to contain the French (already established in nearby Djibouti). The Egyptians, like the Turks before them, were unsuccessful in penetrating the Eritrean interior. This failure, among other factors, prompted the British to turn to Italy for help. With British assistance the Italians occupied Massawa in 1885 and began an invasion of the highlands. The trail was coated with the blood of thousands of Italian soldiers, the Eritrean scholar Bereket Habte Selassie has written. Nevertheless, by 1889 all of Eritrea had been occupied, and Menelik [the Amhara Emperor] had signed the Treaty of Ucciali, under which he recognized Italian rule over Eritrea. Two different imperial territories now existed side by side. One, Eritrea, was ruled by a white European colonial power. The other, Ethiopia, was ruled by a black African colonial power�the Amharas under Menelik, whose subjugation of the Tigreans to the north and of the Oromo to the south was viewed by the conquered peoples as no more desirable than European rule.

The perception of the Amharas as a colonial power is crucial to a proper understanding of the present conflict. When the Eritreans say they are fighting Amhara (Ethiopian) colonialism, they mean it in the same way that other Africans do when they are recalling their struggles against the French or the British. The Eritreans see as alien the generally darker-skinned Amaras of the central highlands, who speak a different Semitic tongue and have been perpetually insulated from the cosmopolitan influences of foreign cultures. Although the Italian occupation of Eritrea was characterized by all the evils inherent in colonialism, in Eritrean eyes Amhara domination would have been�and today is�no less intolerable. Eritreans fought in large numbers for Mussolini against the Amhara Emperor, Haile Selassie, during the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

From the very beginning the Italians had seen Eritrea as a staging point for a further invasion. With this in mind, a road-and-railway network was built and a settler population installed, bringing new technological skills along with it. Thousands of Eritreans left their ancestral villages to work on the Italians’ huge projects. A modern capital rose up in Asmara, which, with its yellow stone houses and adorned with bougainvillea, is still one of the loveliest cities in Africa. The coming of fascism in Italy led to further investment in Eritrea. In order to convey military and other supplies from the port of Massawa up to Asmara, 7,000 feet above sea level, the world’s longest aerial ropeway was built. The new transport system allowed Eritreans to visit parts of their country they had never seen before, facilitating the growth of a modern national consciousness. Trade unions were established, and political culture came to be more advanced in Eritrea than anywhere else on the continent outside Egypt and South Africa. Whatever its sins, Italian capitalism proved to be a liberating social experience for the Eritreans.

By the time the Italians met defeat at British hands at Keren, northwest of Asmara, in 1941, Eritrea was vastly different from the rest of Ethiopia, where the Italian presence had been pretty much restricted to the brief but brutal military occupation of Addis Adaba and other garrison towns. In the aftermath of the war, however, the outside world failed to recognize that difference. The British occupied Eritrea until September of 1952. By the time they left, the Western powers had imposed a United Nations mandate on the region and made Eritrea a semi-autonomous territory under the sovereignty of Ethiopia. The U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, explained: From the point of view of justice, the opinions of the Eritrean people must receive consideration. Nevertheless, the strategic interest of the United States [makes] it necessary that the country has to be linked with our ally, Ethiopia. In Eritrean eyes this was a gross betrayal of outside powers; that it has never been forgotten is apparent in the EPLF’s obsession today with self-reliance.

Selassie never respected the autonomy agreement Eritrea’s independent institutions were gradually subverted, political parties were banned, and Tigrinya, Tigre, and Arabic were suppressed as the languages of Eritrea and replaced by Amharic. In 1961 an organization called the Eritrean Liberation Front, or ELF, was formed. Civil war broke out in September, when the guerrillas began mounting hit-and-run attacks with antiquated Italian weapons. The following year Eritrea was formally annexed by Ethiopia and became just another of its many provinces.

* * *

The Eritrean guerrilla struggle began as very much a Moslem0oriented movement. Tom J. Farer, in War Clouds on the Horn of Africa, writes:

Its launching was facilitated by the 1950s recession-bred migration from Asmara and the port cities to Saudi Arabia and the Sudan. The workers, plus young [Eritrean] Muslims who went to Cairo for a university education, formed a pool of latent militants who could be organized beyond the Emperor’s reach. A second early asset was the 1962 eruption of civil war in the Yemen. Weapons from patrons poured into and overflowed the arsenals of the Yemeni belligerents. Some of these weapons filtered into the hands of the ELF.

But Eritrea is not Arab and is only part Islamic. The population is equally split between the Tigrinya-speaking Ethiopian Orthodox Christians of the highlands and the Tigre- and Arabic-speaking Moslems of the coast and western plains. The EPLF was formed in 1970. It had a strong Christian element and, as its name implies, a distinctly Marxist tinge at the beginning. Initially Isaias Aferworki, a Christian, commanded its field forces, and foreign relations were in the hands of Osman Salih Sabbe, a Moslem renegade from the ELF. Perhaps inevitably, even as they waged war on Ethiopia the ELF and the EPLF themselves came to blows, and as many as 3,000 Eritrean guerrillas lost their lives in a struggle that ended with no clear-cut victor By then�1975�the American-backed government of Emperor Haile Selassie had, amid worsening famine, been overthrown in a coup and a new government, headed by a committee of junior officers known as the Dergue (Amharic for committee), had come to power. The Dergue’s initial egalitarian posture and talk of reform raised hopes that it would seek a compromise with the Eritrean resistance, which was being heavily supported with money and arms not only by Arabs but also by the Russians. These expectations were dashed in November, when the figurehead chief of state, General Aman Michael Andom, a man of Eritrean heritage who had been negotiating with the Eritrean guerrillas, supposedly on the Dergue’s behalf, was killed in his Addis Ababa villa by Dergue troops precisely, it is said, because he was believed to be close to achieving a settlement.

In the aftermath of Andom’s death whole units of locally recruited government police in Eritrea deserted to the guerrillas. Students returned to their villages to join the ELF and the EPLF. Farer writes, Having at last converted the great mass of Eritreans into the enemy, the masters of Addis could now pursue the logic of counterinsurgency to its murderous end. The same famine that in the mid-1970s had ravaged the provinces of Wollo and Tigre and precipitated the overthrow of the Emperor now oppressed Eritrea. The Dergue not only forbade its newly created relief agency to distribute food in Eritrea; it also forbade foreign donor organizations to work there. From the very beginning starvation was one of the Dergue’s main weapons against a recalcitrant people.

Drought and internal divisions notwithstanding, the Eritrean guerrilla movement grew dramatically following Andom’s death, and its troops quickly encircled the Dergue’s in the main towns of Eritrea. Arab and Eastern-bloc aid (and Cuban advisers) poured in. Then came one of those sudden historic turnarounds that have dashed the hopes of so many fledgling independence movements.

In the midst of the guerrilla offensive the Carter Administration suspended all military aid to Ethiopia, citing its poor human-rights record. Mengistu had by now become the Dergue’s dominant member and the country’s leaders had already begun to drift toward Moscow. Faced with rebellion in the northern provinces and threatened with invasion from Somalia in the east, Mengistu decided to seek help from the Kremlin. The Soviets, eager to make a Russian client of a long-standing American ally, promptly switched sides. Mengistu arrived in Moscow in May of 1977 for a week-long state visit; Soviet arms began arriving in large quantities in Ethiopia later in the year, along with some of the same Cuban advisers who had been assisting some of the same Cuban advisers who had been assisting the Eritreans. The guerrilla offensive ground to a halt. Soviet Navy shelling from offshore battleships prevented the Eritreans from taking Massawa. By May of 1978 the Dergue had accumulated enough new weaponry to launch an offensive of its own. Soviet-bloc advisers ran the logistical backup. Through late 1978 and into 1979 war swept across the Eritrean landscape. Thousands of civilians were the Eritrean landscape. Thousands of civilians were killed, and many more were forced across the Sudanese border into refugee camps, which exist to the present day. Crops were burned. Reportedly, nerve gas and anti-personnel bombs disguised as children’s toys were used. The Ethiopians waged a form of war that the world would come to know better when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Eritrean guerrillas were in full retreat.

* * *

In 1979 the EPLF decided on a strategic withdrawal, deliberately giving up territory in southern Eritrea in order to consolidate a base area in the northern Sahel district, around Nakfa. In the meantime troops were rapidly deserting the ELF, which by mid-1980 had only 6,500 men, and joining the EPLF, whose ranks swelled to almost 30,000. Fighting again broke out between the two organizations in 1981; the ELF, though it still has a small following among Eritrean refugees in Sudan, has been militarily irrelevant ever since.

With a secure base area and no enemy except the Dergue to worry about, the EPLF set about strengthening itself in every way. A network of trenches and underground corridors, several hundred miles long, was constructed. Thousands of educated Eritreans who had been in exile returned to work with the EPLF. These new recruits, brought in by way of Sudan, staffed the hospital and ran the workshops that were being set up in the Orotta area. Many of the recruits were from middle-class Christian families that lived around Asmara, and their presence encouraged a drift in EPLF ideology away from its initial Marxist bearings.

While the EPLF dug in, the Soviets helped build up the Ethiopian Army, from 65,000 men to nearly 300,000. More than 2,000 Soviet advisers arrived. In return, the Dergue made the Dahlak Archipelago, off Eritrea’s Red Sea coast, available to the Soviet Navy, and Soviet planes began making long-range reconnaissance flights over the Indian Ocean from the Asmara air base, which the Americans had deserted. The enormous military-assistance program allowed the Ethiopian government to launch the largest offensive ever against the Eritrean guerrillas, in February of 1982. Called Operation Red Star, it involved fifteen divisions whose troop strength was estimated at over 100,000.

This time the Ethiopians got nowhere. The EPLF held all its major positions, and reportedly as many as 40,000 Ethiopian soldiers were killed or wounded, although no one will ever know the toll for sure. Another offensive of the same magnitude was launched in 1983, but the results were similarly disastrous. At the time, the American public was preoccupied with fighting in Lebanon and Central America, but blood was flowing in larger quantities in the Horn of Africa, in a war that featured a guerrilla resistance, backed by virtually no one, that was capable of withstanding a large Soviet-equipped army.

The transformation of the Soviet Union from ally to oppressor, the continued indifference of the West, and the ambivalence of the Arabs and the rest of the Third World strengthened the EPLF’s desire for self-reliance. With an almost maniacal singlemindedness the Eritreans repaired all captured equipment or converted it to other uses. Comparisons between the EPLF and other insurgent movements in Africa and the Middle East elicit only contempt from the Eritreans. When I once asked an EPLF official about similarities between the Eritrean and Palestinian situations, he replied scornfully, Has the PLO ever captured an Israeli tank?

Africa’s Israelis?

The EPLF front line at Nakfa, sixty miles south of Orotta as the crow flies, is in a bleak, deforested region brutally scarred by landslides. Nakfa has been the scene of heavy fighting many times, leaving the town, which once had a population of almost 7,000, a patchwork of ruins above which rises a single minaret�a kind of modern-day African Pompeii. The trenches, a few miles farther south, are dug into a twisting spur of Denden Mountain. Soviet T-55 tanks and various kinds of artillery lie hidden in man-made recesses. Across a defile, on a similar ridge, are the Ethiopian lines. In some places the two armies are less than a hundred yards apart and a pair of low-powered binoculars is all that is necessary to see the low-powered binoculars is all that is necessary to see the faces of Dergue soldiers peering through the slits of their fortifications. The defile is a no-man’s-land of minefields, defoliated olive trees, and, when I was there, numerous decomposing bodies of Ethiopian soldiers.

In the warren of slate passageways, noisy with field mice, on Denden Mountain, war is the only reality. Few existences can be more rugged. Extremes of heat and cold are the norm. Soap is nonexistent. The crucible of toil and suffering has broken down sexual and religious barriers. In a society where clitorectomy and infibulation used to be widespread, the exigencies of war have liberated many women; women account for almost a third of all EPLF soldiers. But unlike other armies that include large numbers of women, such as Israel’s, the EPLF deploys women in front-line combat units, where they drive tanks and fire artillery. Reportedly, some 30 percent of the Eritrean wounded are women. There is an almost neuter quality to female Eritrean guerrillas. After years of living in the field exactly like the men, they have come to resemble them physically. Their hair is short, their hands and feet callused, their legs sinewy. Though men and women sleep side-by-side in the cramped front-line quarters, sex is said to be rare and pregnancies are unusual. The atmosphere of pent-up sexual tension, so prevalent in almost every Middle Eastern country is notably absent.

Elsewhere in the world the breaking down of traditional social barriers has often led to a measure of tyranny over the individual. But in Eritrea it has had the opposite effect. There exists a degree of concern for the individual that is rare in Third World armies. Every platoon is equipped with basic medical supplies. Makeshift operating rooms are set up in the field. One soldier I met, whose eardrums had been damaged in a bomb blast, had been provided with a hearing aid, something I found astonishing, considering that there isn’t even tea in the trenches. (Water is usually the only drink, aside from an occasional intelligence sources say that not even satellite photographs enable them to estimate EPLF battle losses, because the guerrillas get their dead and wounded off the field so quickly.

As the Israelis have demonstrated, bravery often derives from self-assurance: the knowledge that in the event of trouble your superiors will go to the limit to save you. Secure in that knowledge, Eritreans have more than once proved their willingness to take well-calculated risks�for example, by attacking the enemy air base at Asmara, in 1986, and destroying or damaging some forty MiGs and other planes. In contrast, it is hard to imagine an army with worse morale than the Dergue’s. Many of its soldiers are ethnically Oromos, who come from the southern lowlands of Ethiopia. They have been forcibly conscripted and given minimal training before being dispatched to the mountainous north of the country to fight the Eritreans, a people the Oromos have no interest in fighting. Even the Amharas serving in Mengistu’s army tend to be unenthusiastic.

A comparison of the EPLF and the Israelis is by no means far-fetched. It goes to the heart of what makes the Eritrean guerrilla movement unique in the Third World�and, by extension, explains why the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA), the civilian arm of the EPLF, is so much more effective than any other African relief group. Israel has long been noted for boldness in looking after the welfare of its citizens and even, in some cases, of Jews outside the country. Its concern was powerfully demonstrated by the secret rescue of some 10,000 black Ethiopian Jews from the provinces of Gondar and Tigre, in 1984 and 1985. At the same time and practically right next door, the EPLF was delivering more than 100,000 of its people to emergency feeding centers on the Sudanese border, providing them with whatever water and food it could muster at transit stations set up along the way. Of the approximately eight million peasants threatened with starvation by the Ethiopian famine, about two million�fully a quarter of the total�were in EPLF-controlled areas. Yet although in late 1984 and early 1985 the ERA received, according to some estimates, less than five percent of all international aid coming into Ethiopia, the efficiency of the ERA, coupled with support from Eritrean expatriates in the West and Saudi Arabia, held the number of deaths in Eritrea down to the tens of thousands. In Dergue-held areas, it is believed, as many as a million people died. Jack Shepherd, a food-aid specialist, noted in the Africanist journal Issue that the Eritrean guerrillas have reversed the classical guerrilla warfare pattern. Instead of peasants feeding an army, he observed, the guerrillas are feeding the peasants.

The ERA clinic in Port Sudan, across the Sudanese border, provides another illustration of the EPLF’s concern for those in its care. It was opened in May of 1979, in a cement building near the airport. There is not a tree in sight. The goats and stray dogs in the area escape the blazing sunlight by hiding under the rusted carcass of a school bus. Except for making the building available�at a monthly rent�the Sudanese authorities provide no help of any kind. Until the ERA constructed a small dormitory structure for foreign relief workers, visitors had to stay at the clinic itself, as I did. It was an unpleasant stay. The rooms swarmed with flies by day and mosquitoes by night. In adjacent beds, on soiled mattresses, were amputees and paraplegics, children among them�all told, close to a hundred civilian victims of the war. The clinic functions as both a school and a hospital. The wheelchairs and artificial limbs are made and repaired by the patients themselves. The clinic is part of an ERA health-care network that includes nine regional hospitals and an extension service whose six hundred paramedics travel to villages and nomadic encampments throughout the EPLF zone. I know of no other system that, given the same conditions and resources available, operates as efficiently, says Dr. Sam Richard Toussie, a Columbia University epidemiologist and rural-health-care specialist, who has worked in insurgent areas of Africa, Asia, and Central America. The biggest success has come in the realm of infant care. Since 1982 the number of nomads within the EPLF zone giving birth in hospitals has risen by about 50 percent.

Still, enormous suffering remains. More than half of all Eritrean children today are malnourished (as compared with 80 percent in mid-1985), and the population suffers from all the usual tropical diseases. And, of course, there is the fact of constant war.

Eritrea and the United States

In a world of imperfect choices, in which the United States often finds itself supporting regimes and resistance movements of limited caliber, the Eritrean guerrillas would appear to be useful proxies in a low-intensity war to exert pressure on the Marxist regime in Addis Ababa. Liberals on Capitol Hill would have relatively few complaints about a group whose exemplary treatment of the at least 8,000 Ethiopian prisoners of war under its charge has been witnessed by international relief officials and whose competence in famine relief is unquestionable. The only significant blots on the EPLF’s record are the recent attacks on famine-relief convoys (which the rebels claimed were also carrying weapons and supplies for the Ethiopian army) in heavily contested areas of Eritrea. Almost every day since the late 1970s MiGs and other Soviet-made planes have taken off from Ethiopian government airfields and bombed anything that moved in EPLF territory, effectively preventing EPLF famine-relief convoys from traveling there during daylight hours. After a decade of avoiding retaliation against the bombing and against the frustration of its famine-relief efforts�restraint that got the EPLF absolutely no Western recognition in return�the guerrilla organization changed its policy, and has been rightly condemned for doing so. Still, compared with the more muddled situation in a country like Nicaragua or Angola, the situation in the Horn of Africa offers something approaching a clear-cut choice between good and bad. The World Human Rights Guide, published by The Economist in 1986, gives the Eritreans’ enemy, Ethiopia, the lowest rating of any country in the world. Human-rights investigations by the State Department and Amnesty International have come to similar conclusions. Quite apart from the usual mayhem�unlawful detention, torture, the murder of children�the Dergue has been guilty of collectivizing millions of Oromos against their will and, as noted, of deliberately denying food to large segments of Ethiopia’s population. Governments don’t get much worse than the one in Addis Ababa.

During the 1984-1985 famine the United States quietly provided food to Eritrea from camps on the Sudanese border. Without this unofficial cross-border effort, in indirect concert with the ERA, little of the world’s famine-relief assistance, which was funneled mainly through Ethiopia, would have reached the northern province. Such a backdoor program might become important again soon: last fall virtually all the crops in northern Ethiopia failed again, and last spring the government ordered all foreign relief workers to leave Eritrea and Tigre.

But the United States has been unwilling to initiate a more intimate relationship with Eritrea. Why? The answer offered by officials of the State Department and the National Security Council is that the Eritrean guerrillas are Marxists, just as the members of the Dergue are, and thus cannot qualify for U.S. military support. Influential members of Congress, including Senator Orrin Hatch, the ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have also branded the EPLF with the Marxist label. Isaias Aferworki, who helped create the EPLF and is reputedly the real power in the organization, told me, We totally reject any labeling from any quarter. We have our own realities, and we begin from there to solve our social and political problems. We are a broad democratic front struggling for national liberation. A national liberation struggle cannot be a Marxist struggle since it must accommodate all viewpoints. Still, the EPLF cannot deny that it has a Leninist command structure, with its leadership organized around a Politburo and a Central Committee. Aferworki admitted that in its early stages the EPLF was heavily influenced by Soviet literature, in reaction against Western colonialism in Africa. Such terminology was all we knew, he claimed. Concerning the United States, Aferworki admitted that in its early stages the EPLF was heavily influenced by Soviet literature, in reaction against Western colonialism in Africa. Such terminology was all we knew, he claimed. Concerning the United States, Aferworki said, The standing of America here has always been positive. The food aid to Eritrea is what we expected from a people of noble ideas, and whatever the motives of the U.S. government in giving the aid, the fact is we have really benefited from it. Obviously, though, he is bitter over America’s refusal to recognize Eritrea as an independent polity.

Was Aferworki being honest about the EPLF’s orientation? No action that the EPLF has taken within the area under its control would suggest otherwise. The most left-wing program ever implemented by the organization has been land reform, and the program is a mild one. This program, the emphasis on women’s rights, the creation of health and agricultural extension services, and infrastructural improvements undertaken by the EPLF in the countryside it controls are exactly the kinds of things that the U.S. Agency for International Development encourages every government in Africa to do. Moreover, EPLF officials do not take a coercive approach to the civilian population, as officials do in so many communist societies.

After being bombed for a decade by a Soviet-supplied air force, the Eritreans harbor a dislike of the Soviet Union approaching that felt by the Afghans. The depth of hostility toward the soviets was made clear to me on my second journey into Eritrea, at an ERA camp in the heard of Sudan’s Tokar desert, where vehicles transporting grain from Port Sudan to Orotta are repaired. There were no toilets and virtually nothing to eat or drink. But the Eritreans did have a VHS unit hooked up to a generator, and I looked on at about 200 people, many of them children, watched an EPLF propaganda tape. After some predictable footage of marching soldiers, the scene switched to a ceremony in which Mengistu was shown smiling and shaking hands with Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet President and former Foreign Minister. At the sight of Gromyko there was a loud hiss from the audience, which grew louder as the camera focused closer on the Russian’s stony face.

No U.S. government official has visited the EPLF base area. Even the secondhand information available to people in Washington is sparse. A handful of analysts with access to satellite photographs at the State Department, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the CIA are knowledgeable about the EPLF’s military capability, but they lack a feel for the organization’s ideology and for the way in which the guerrillas and the leaders view the world and the superpowers. A senior Administration official admitted to me that the general view held about the guerrillas is not an educated view. People in Washington see these guys as leftists and as essentially separatist, while groups like the contras are attractive because they openly declare an intention to topple a Communist government. The official said that few in Washington realize that a separatist struggle in Ethiopia may be just as favorable to U.S. interests.

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That struggle will go on, even if it must do so almost invisibly. The most frequently recurring image I have of Eritrea I never saw; it was described to me by a British colleague, John Murray Brown. He was sitting outside one night when he noticed an EPLF guerrilla lying on his back, searching the starscape. Brown asked the soldier if he was looking for anything in particular. The soldier replied that he was looking for satellites, which, he said, were easy to pick out in the clear night sky. The satellites gave him comfort, the soldier explained. They meant that at least somebody somewhere was paying attention to the war.

Source: Dehai Eritrea Online