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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Forgotten War, Forgotten People

A 30-year war has resulted in death, famine, and desperation. Will it ever end?

The scene was of Eritrean villagers somberly gathering on a stony riverbank near the front to remember relatives who died in the past month of fighting and bombing. A shawled old woman addressed the people, struggling against tears.

“I knew we could crush grain, but not human beings the way the Ethiopian soldiers did in shame,” she cried. “If they can be that brutal it’s because other countries don’t say anything.”

The old woman raised her voice in defiance: “Our land is burning! Our trees, our crops, even our rocks are being consumed by fire. If we only had Mengistu to deal with, the war would not last a day longer. Mengistu has no tanks, no planes, no mines. Others provide him with weapons at our expense.”

She threw her arm down in disgust and seated herself on a rock amongst the others in silence.

A voice from the United States:

“By any reasonable standard of humanity this war ought to be leading our television newscasts,” Ted Koppel of ABC News’ Nightline said last year, commenting on the war in Eritrea. “It ought to be plastered across the front pages of our major newspapers and magazines. But the war and suffering it has produced are like a silent scream, It doesn’t disturb our tranquility because most of the time we neither hear it nor see what has produced it.”

The longest running war in Africa, the 30-year old battle waged by the central government against Eritrea is not a small tribal conflict, which is what the Western imagination may be apt to conjure up, so little is generally known about happenings in that continent, outside South Africa. The war between the government and separatists has raged on and off since 1962, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and millions more as refugees. In the strictest sense, it has been a conventional war since 1977, when the Eritreans began capturing tanks. Combat reached an even higher pitch last year, as the Eritreans captured the port of Massawa and encircled the provinces capital, Asmara.

As one relief worker noted after the great famine brought the world’s attention to the Horn of Africa in 1984, “Ethiopia fell hack into oblivion. The West, content with its generosity, moved on to other things.”

Another story went unnoticed. Throughout that famine, Ethiopia’s government pumped $1 million a day into its war in Eritrea, the region most afflicted by hunger. Presently, Ethiopia, the poorestcountry in Africa, devotes half its budget to its military. Three quarters of its army of 300,000 is stationed in Eritrea.

“Drought is not so much the problem,” said Father Pietros Ugbamariam, an Eritrean priest of the Ethiopian (Eastern) Rite, who now lives in New York City, where he ministers to his fellow expatriates, both Eastern Catholic and Orthodox. “This is sub-Saharan Africa. The people have learned to deal with drought for hundreds of years.”

Tesfa Alem Sayoum agreed. Tesfa Alem is the executive director of the Manhattan-based Eritrean Relief Committee, which was formed in 1976 as part of a larger association in response to the needs of famine and war victims.

“Actually the problem is the war, not the famine,” TesfaAlem said. “The famine is something the war created. The area cannot be free of drought; it’s going to be there, it’s cyclical. The drought occurred every ten years in the past, then came down to every two years. Now it’s every year.”

Tree-planting, irrigation, dam construction – all methods of combatting drought – make drought possible to live with, Tesfa Alem explained. But the war has severely hampered the efforts of the Eritreans and other ethnic groups in Ethiopia.

This year more than two million people have entered what is called “a critical famine situation.” Even when the world contributes emergency supplies, the war makes it difficult or impossible to deliver them.

But the Eritreans have proved a durable people. With little assistance from the outside and without sacrificing their independent nature as pawns in the Cold War, Eritreans have established a thorough support system for health care, such as an underground hospital stretching over two and a half miles. All their weapons they have captured from the enemy. And women comprise a third of the front line fighting force.

Ingenuity also has made up for a lack of resources. For example, a mini-microscope, designed and developed in the rebel-held territory enables doctors to perform lab work in the field.

“The EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front) probably grew stronger because it did not depend on outside aid,” Tesfa Alem said, suggesting that an independent Eritrea could be an example of self-government for the rest of Africa.

One Australian eye doctor volunteering his services to the rebels, said he decided to set up his center for eye treatment in Eritrea because he thought it could work there, despite the war. To him, for one thing, the province is free of the graft and corruption so common in much of Africa.

“Things work here,” he said.

But the Horn of Africa has by no means attracted wide attention, politically or from the media. Susan Palmer is project coordinator of the Carter Center’s conflict resolution program, which worked unsuccessfully to mediate a solution between the government of Lieut. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam and the EPLF. Led by former President Jimmy Carter, talks broke off in December 1989 when Colonel Mengistu rejected a rebel proposal to include a United Nations observer in the negotiations.

“I’m appalled about the lack of attention being paid to the war,” Palmer said. “Maybe part of it is racism on the part of the Western media. Look at all the attention being paid to the food shortage in the Soviet Union.”

Now the United States has stepped in as mediator, but peace plans it offered in February ended unsuccessfully, at least in one sense. The Mengistu government considered offering Eritrea the federation status it had before the province was annexed by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1962. Then it changed its mind.

“But you have to be optimistic about it because so many things are happening. They haven’t decided to break off the talks,” Palmer said, adding that at least this time the argument wasn’t over how to conduct talks. The issues themselves were addressed.

Asked why the United States suddenly entered as a mediator, she speculated “something like a carrot on a stick.”

“Certainly we wouldn’t be involved there if it weren’t in our interest;” she said. “Ethiopia is becoming important to us because of the instability of the countries surrounding it. The U.S. wants a stable country. The U.S.S.R. is scaling down its aid, so that’s an opportunity.”

One concludes, therefore, that nations only involve themselves in foreign situations for reasons all their own, and rarely because of the kind of “moral outrage” allied nations said they had over the Iraqi conquest of Kuwait.

Nevertheless, Tesfa Alem shared Palmer’s optimism for an eventual settlement, perhaps a referendum on whether Eritreans prefer independence or autonomy If it is opportunism that rules world politics, then that, he believes, runs in Eritrea’s favor.

He makes an analogy, for example, between Iraq’s attempted annexation of Kuwait and Ethiopia’s takeover of Eritrea: “Arab vs. Arab, African vs. African; the need for access to the sea by both.

“I am optimistic because the tensions between the superpowers has been greatly reduced. The Cold War distracted the world. Now nations in Eastern Europe are deciding their own destinies. The same goes for the Eritreans.”

On West 142nd Street in Manhattan, in the basement chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, a few dozen Eritreans attended an Orthodox liturgy on the first anniversary of the deaths of the parents of two of the members of the congregation. The men sat or stood in pews on the left; the women, most wrapped in traditional white calico from head to foot, were on the right. The Orthodox celebrant in a long golden robe chanted prayers, his back to the congregation, his head against the altar, while Father Uqbamariam swung a censor, filling the chapel with the aroma of frankincense.

Father Ugbamariam could only assist, not concelebrate, but the Eritreans, Catholic Ge’ez and Orthodox, often worship together. Their sense of simply being Eritrean is very strong compared to their religious differences.

Together they prayed for their dead and for their land. Whether in New York or in Asmara, the feeling is perhaps the same. As one poet wrote:

Napalm from the south,
merciless to my brother,
merciless to them all,
plight to humanity, shakes Eritrea.

Thomas McHugh is editor of Catholic Near East.

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