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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Eritrea in War’s Aftermath

A firsthand account of a tired, scarred country following a senseless war.

Thursday, 24 August. I left Addis Ababa today around noon with the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, and headed for Eritrea. Because of border problems we flew from Addis to Sanaa, Yemen, then to Djibouti and Oman to re-fuel. Finally, at 3:00 A.M. on Friday morning, we arrived in the Eritrean capital of Asmara and were received at Holy Savior Inter-Eparchial Major Seminary by Abba [Father] Tekle Berhane, Rector.

Friday, 25 August. Before breakfast a friend who had been deported from Ethiopia came to see me about his son, who was detained in a camp in Ethiopia because he is of military age. During the week we would make a number of attempts to help. Although I sought the assistance of the Red Cross and the American embassies in Eritrea and Ethiopia, we were unable to help. The young man is still stuck in that detention camp.

Archbishop Tomasi and I ate breakfast with several priests from the seminary. We realized while speaking with them that the unresolved situation between Ethiopia and Eritrea remains the primary topic of conversation. Many people expect Ethiopia to attack Eritrea again, before peacekeeping forces can be deployed. We learned that there was a shortage of gasoline, which persisted until the following Friday. We also got a sense of the economy, which the people say is dead. Many Eritreans continue to live on the remittances received from relatives working abroad.

The World Bank has released a report stating that Eritrea had received approximately $400 million per year in hard currency remittances. Since Eritrea does not export enough goods to earn hard currency effectively, the remittances are a major source of income and hard currency for the government. Income taxes take out at least 40 percent of one’s annual salary in Eritrea and additional taxes are often added. Because of the large number of men currently serving in the military, many Eritrean households are without any breadwinners.

After lunch the Nuncio and I left with Abuna [Bishop] Luca Milesi, O.F.M., Cap., Eparch of Barentu. We stopped in Keren and met there with its eparch, Abuna Tesfamariam Bedgo. We then continued on to Barentu, arriving in the dark at 8:30.

Saturday, 26 August. After Mass and breakfast we took a short tour of the church compound in Barentu and visited the unfinished social services offices, which are under construction. Because of the war and consequent lack of workers, hardly any work had been completed on the building since my last visit in February. Before the Ethiopian troops arrived in Barentu the priest hid computers, motorcycles, clothing and a tractor in the basement. Although troops scoured the structure’s unfinished upper floors, they did not venture down to the basement. However, it should be noted that Ethiopian troops seized three four-wheel drive vehicles belonging to the eparchy.

Abba Tomas, the Nuncio and I then left for the village of Kona, where there is a Catholic parish; the construction of its church and rectory are both projects sponsored by the Archdiocese of Cologne. On the way, as we drove over the relatively new gravel road built by the Eritrean government to rush soldiers and supplies to the front, we spied wasted artillery shells and small bombs – dropped by Ethiopian planes – that never exploded. We also saw two trucks that were burned practically beyond recognition. Several hundred feet away we saw where 14 Ethiopian soldiers had been hastily buried. Further on we caught sight of an Ethiopian soldier’s boot lying on the side of the road. Two bones protruded from it.

In Fode we met the parish priest, Abba Theodoro, O.F.M. Cap., and visited the church and rectory. We discussed the activities of the church’s mobile clinic, which provides basic medical care to villages in the area. From the village of Fode, which is the closest one can get to the border, we could see the scattered Capuchin mission stations of both Bilbina and Fode villages as well as the Gash River, which separates the two armies. We learned that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Eritrean government are caring for those in displacement camps, but not for those who live outside the camps.

We visited a camp for the displaced in the village of Delle, about 18 miles west of Barentu. With some 45,000 residents, it is one of the largest camps in Eritrea. More people are expected to enter the camp as those who fled to Sudan during active fighting continue to return. As we walked through the camp we noticed that many inhabitants had set up shop in their tents and were selling everything from soap powder to beer. Under a canvas, a makeshift school had been organized for the children. I was relieved to see that the children in the camp looked healthy. By contrast, some of the children from surrounding villages ap-peared malnourished. Some of these people have been in the camp for two years.

There was a bit of commotion outside the camp as a good number of Sudanese trucks drove by. We were told that the Eritrean government currently imports a large amount of grain from Sudan.

Back at the parish, we talked with some of the priests about the war. They told us about the constant warfare that surrounded them when the Ethiopians arrived in the area; because the parish sits on top of a very steep hill, Ethiopian soldiers occupied the parish compound for four days. The priests spoke of the terrifying sound of low-flying Ethiopian jets and their fear of being bombed because of the parish compound’s strategic location. They also mentioned their amazement at the sheer number of Ethiopian soldiers, which was “overwhelming”: one night they counted two hundred trucks filled with Ethiopian soldiers heading toward the border town of Teseney. Later, the trucks returned loaded with munitions looted from Eritrean army stores. When Ethiopian forces left Eritrea, however, they left no trace of their presence: damaged artillery, trucks and all other signs of war were taken with them.

When we returned to Barentu I met with Abuna Luca Milesi and Abba Tomas to discuss how CNEWA might assist in helping those affected by the “emergency situation,” as this postwar period has been called. We also discussed the bishop’s plans to begin construction on the cathedral and other building projects. The major obstacle to starting these projects continues to be a lack of workers, as most men continue to serve in the military.

Sunday, 27 August. Abba Tomas, the Nuncio and I left early this morning for the village of Delle, where a Mass was celebrated with the people of the parish. After a quick breakfast with the people we left for Teseney. On the way we noticed artillery shells in several places along the road; some had already exploded, but others had not yet detonated and were sticking out of the earth, catastrophes waiting to happen. I also noticed that there were no tanks, artillery, trucks or debris. We were told of a number of incidents where priests found the unburied bodies of Ethiopian soldiers and buried them.

On reaching Teseney the three of us went to the parish and were received by Abba Stephanos, a parish priest whom we had met in Barentu, and Abba Corrado, an elderly priest also living in Teseney. We toured the compound and met the minor seminarians. We saw the wire screens that were ripped out of the walls so Ethiopian soldiers could search the church. Abba Stephanos showed us how soldiers pried open the tabernacle, scattered the sacred hosts and stole the ciborium. They did the same in other churches. In the priests’ and students’ homes we saw how soldiers destroyed locks and broke down doors.

After our tour of the church compound we toured Teseney, a town of 35,000 people. We had heard for some time that Ethiopian forces destroyed this town. We did not visit the cotton factory, but were told that this had been completely destroyed, along with the jobs of many who worked there.

What we saw in Teseney was not what we expected. We thought we would see the same kind of destruction we had seen the week before in Zalembessa, Ethiopia, where Eritrean troops destroyed every building in town. In Teseney, however, we encountered a selective destruction – roughly 50 shops or homes were burned beyond repair. What was not clear, however, was how these targets were chosen. We were told that selective huts were burned in areas of the displaced – soldiers’ personal vendettas carried out on particular individuals.

Why was Teseney so badly damaged but Barentu escaped destruction? The story we had heard, even in Ethiopia, was that Ethiopian troops had captured Teseney after capturing Barentu. At the same time, Ethiopian forces continued eastward. Suddenly the Ethiopian government announced that it had no intention of holding land it did not claim, and that it would withdraw from these areas. The Ethiopians halted their advance and announced that they would withdraw their forces from both towns.

The withdrawal from Barentu was uneventful, but when moving south from Teseney, Eritrean forces attacked Ethiopian soldiers, resulting in a great loss of lives. The Ethiopian forces then halted their withdrawal, counterattacked and again occupied Teseney, this time unleashing their wrath. It was reported that many Eritreans lost their lives, but we were unable to confirm this.

We also noticed that the bridge over the mighty Gash River, previously destroyed by the Ethiopians, had been rebuilt in just two months. Several government buildings, however, were severely damaged. My impression was that the overall damage in Teseney was not nearly as extensive as was reported by the Eritrean government.

We arrived in Barentu in the evening after a long but disturbing day. At supper the Bishop and several priests spoke about what it was like for them when the Ethiopian army attacked. They spoke of the nighttime artillery, the air attacks and low-flying jets with their deafening noises.

Monday, 28 August. After Mass and breakfast, the Nuncio and I left Barentu for Asmara. We arrived at the American Embassy in Asmara in the afternoon and met with the Deputy Chief of Mission, Vincent Valle. He told us of his trip to Nafka to visit Ethiopian POWs. Mr. Valle reported that there were 1,040 POWs in all – all were doing well.

Tuesday, 29 August. On Tuesday I visited with the Daughters of Charity and met a young Ethiopian sister whom I had taught in Ethiopia. At one time she was stationed in a mission located on the border; during the fighting, she was captured by the Eritrean army and thrown into a detention camp for two years. She was released when the Ethiopian army captured the area. The sister told me that she was too frightened to go to the Ethiopian Embassy in Asmara for fear she would be seen and detained yet again. She also shared her fear that she would not be able to obtain an exit visa because her Ethiopian passport had expired and she cannot renew it in Eritrea.

Conclusion. I spent my last few days in Eritrea meeting with various officials of the Eritrean Catholic secretariat and many religious working in Asmara.

Eritrea’s economy has been destroyed and those who work are finding it harder to manage because of high taxes and inflation. Those who are doing better receive remittances from relatives abroad or were deported from Ethiopia and had money to start again.

There is a pervading sense of brokenness among the Eritrean people, who clearly want peace.

They are exhausted from war.

Brother Vincent is CNEWA’s Regional Director for Ethiopia and Eritrea.

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