Africa’s for­got­ten war

For two years Ethiopia and Eritrea fought over a rugged bor­der in what be­came the 20th cen­tury’s last great con­ven­tional war. But the ques­tion re­mains: who won?


For two years Eritrea and Ethiopia fought bit­terly over the dis­puted bor­der

The 1990s of­fered lit­tle respite for Africa, with blood­shed and dis­or­der carv­ing a de­struc­tive path from Free­town to Mo­gadishu. As the decade neared its end one of the con­ti­nent’s youngest states was prov­ing to be a dif­fi­cult neigh­bour. Eritrea gained its in­de­pen­dence in 1993 af­ter 32 years of strug­gle against Ethiopia, which had it­self al­most col­lapsed fol­low­ing the over­throw of its Soviet-backed Marx­ist Derg regime in 1985 and the sub­se­quent in­ter­nal con­flicts that fol­lowed.

When Eritrea’s tough free­dom fight­ers, clad in their iconic leather san­dals, seized the colo­nial city of As­mara in 1991, a new state was cob­bled to­gether un­der the Peo­ple’s Front for Democ­racy and Jus­tice (PFDJ) and its tac­i­turn strong­man Isa­ias Afw­erki. But as ideal as the coun­try’s ter­ri­tory looked on the map – flanked by the Red Sea on one side and a tran­quil land bor­der with Su­dan on the other – Eritrea was soon bick­er­ing with neigh­bour­ing coun­tries over un­claimed land, first with Dji­bouti over their over­lap­ping ge­og­ra­phy, next with Ye­men be­cause of un­in­hab­ited is­lands, and then with its for­mer neme­sis Ethiopia, as a new bor­der couldn’t be drawn up be­tween them.

The bor­ders of Eritrea and Ethiopia did re­sem­ble a jagged scrawl on any map. Stretch­ing al­most 1,000 kilo­me­tres (621 miles) from end to end, it fol­lowed a colo­nialera bound­ary that didn’t re­flect the re­gion’s de­mo­graph­ics. Dur­ing the 1970s the Eritrean Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Front (EPLF), which was per­haps the finest guer­rilla army since the Viet Minh, sought to roll back the Derg regime’s con­trol over its home­land. Eritrean re­sis­tance be­gan as a re­volt against the late Em­peror

Haile Se­lassie’s inept gover­nance over the for­mer Ital­ian colony. The EPLF emerged from a col­lec­tion of rebel groups with a pan-eritrean na­tion­al­ist agenda. Even the Aus­tralian novelist Thomas Ke­neally, who un­der­took a pre­car­i­ous trip to Eritrea in the 1980s, couldn’t stop him­self from prais­ing the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s civic virtues and un­fail­ing dis­ci­pline. The Eritrean pa­tri­ots he met dug caves out of moun­tain­sides to turn them into hos­pi­tals and pro­vided free

school­ing for the fight­ers, whose ap­parel was of­ten made form sacks and as­sorted cloth­ing.

As the EPLF’S power grew in the for­ti­fied moun­tains of north­ern Eritrea, it slowly forged an al­liance with the Tigray dis­si­dents in Ethiopia who were also chaf­ing un­der the Derg’s harsh rule. When the EPLF fi­nally drove back the

Derg forces from Eritrea’s cities, the Tigrayan rebels launched the fi­nal push that drove the hated dic­ta­tor Mengistu Haile Mariam into ex­ile and sup­planted the regime dom­i­nated by the Amhara eth­nic group.

In that mo­ment of tu­mult, two new coun­tries were fash­ioned, and the near fu­ture looked promis­ing. Prospects for trade and co-oper­a­tion were good and Eritrea could pos­si­bly as­sume the role of tran­sit hub for land­locked Ethiopia, which was now gov­erned by Tigrayan re­formists.

But the once-bud­ding re­la­tion­ship soured over a town called Badme, lo­cated along the western edge of a bor­der re­gion known as the Yirga Tri­an­gle. Ex­actly where did this both­er­some set­tle­ment fall? In the Eritrean cap­i­tal As­mara the regime made it clear, through of­fi­cial state­ments and the lo­cal press, that Badme was Eritrean. What­ever the ar­gu­ments, in May 1998 thou­sands of Eritrean troops con­verged on the town to en­force As­mara’s will just days af­ter Ethiopian guards shot a del­e­ga­tion of vis­it­ing Eritrean of­fi­cers. To no­body’s sur­prise, the ar­rival of thou­sands of Eritrean sol­diers trig­gered a bel­liger­ent


re­sponse from Ethiopia, and a pro­tracted bat­tle was soon un­der­way. Within weeks the mea­gre air forces of both coun­tries struck each other. Ethiopian jets at­tacked the air­port in As­mara while the Eritreans bombed a school in the city of Mekelle.

In what proved the most in­tense fight­ing in East Africa since WWII, the Ethiopi­ans sought to drive away the en­trenched Eritreans with Soviet-vin­tage tanks and ar­tillery, but these ef­forts were blunted by de­ter­mined re­sis­tance. The Eritreans, whose vet­eran lead­er­ship had fought in the long and dif­fi­cult strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence, were not go­ing to back down, and sent thou­sands more troops to the front. As the fight­ing dragged on for weeks, the

in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity barely mus­tered a re­sponse to this lat­est African quag­mire. It had been just four years since the Rwan­dan geno­cide and in 1998 the drama of Kosovo’s own strug­gle against Ser­bia com­manded Western prime­time news cov­er­age.

But at the very least the United States, through its State Depart­ment, tried in vain to dif­fuse the war. A cease­fire drawn up with help from the Rwan­dan gov­ern­ment sought to cool As­mara and Ad­dis Ababa’s griev­ances. Yet a set­tle­ment couldn’t be agreed on be­yond the prom­ise of an ‘air strike mora­to­rium’, where both cap­i­tals swore to avoid bomb­ing each other’s pop­u­lated ar­eas.

Fight­ing con­tin­ued for the rest of the year as the armies hurled ar­tillery rounds at each other from fixed po­si­tions, with the Eritreans us­ing cap­tured stocks of how­itzers seized dur­ing the war of in­de­pen­dence. As a means of fur­ther re­tal­i­a­tion, mass de­por­ta­tions were car­ried out on Eritreans liv­ing in Ethiopia. Of course, Eritrea re­sponded in kind by forc­ing Ethiopi­ans to leave the coun­try.

Oper­a­tion Sun­set

As the war dragged on for months, the penury of the belligeren­ts had a strange ef­fect on the ac­tual fight­ing. At the time Eritrea was ranked among the ten poor­est coun­tries in the world. This was un­der­stand­able, since its un­der­de­vel­op­ment was caused by decades of civil strife. But to put its econ­omy in per­spec­tive, Eritrea’s only rail net­work – a late 19th-cen­tury relic from its colo­nial past un­der Ital­ian ad­min­is­tra­tion – was re­vived by the per­sis­tent ef­forts of el­derly work­ers with help from the army. Lo­cal in­dus­tries were lit­tle more than sweat­shops for ba­sic goods and so lit­tle in­fra­struc­ture was usable.

At the out­break of the war, neigh­bour­ing Ethiopia had an an­nual GDP below $10 bil­lion and half its pop­u­la­tion lived in poverty, but its size and pos­i­tive de­mo­graph­ics com­pen­sated for its un­der­de­vel­op­ment. Un­der the lead­er­ship of Me­les Ze­nawi and the Ethiopian Peo­ples Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Demo­cratic Front (EPRDF) re­la­tions with the West were re­stored and Ad­dis Ababa was seen as a key ac­tor in re­gional sta­bil­ity. But the un­ex­pected bor­der con­flict with Eritrea dimmed its as­pi­ra­tions, and the state’s


pre­cious sup­ply of for­eign ex­change went to arms ship­ments from China and East­ern Eu­rope. The big­gest ex­pense went to 14 ad­vanced Sukhoi Su-27 mul­ti­role fight­ers. These twinengine air­craft were seen as crit­i­cal in­vest­ments at a time when the Ethiopian air force’s as­sorted Migs were show­ing their age.

In 1999 the war en­tered a new phase, as Ethiopia had suf­fi­ciently mo­bilised its re­serves and re­plen­ished its ar­se­nal. It now had, on pa­per, 250,000 sol­diers ready with hun­dreds of tanks and ar­moured ve­hi­cles.

Not to be out­done, the Eritreans mus­tered an equal num­ber and fielded heavy weapons can­ni­balised from left­over stocks from the war of in­de­pen­dence. True to the egal­i­tar­ian val­ues of their in­de­pen­dence move­ment, women were de­ployed along­side men in the Eritrean mil­i­tary, and for­eign jour­nal­ists grew a habit of men­tion­ing how one-fi­fith of those con­scripted for na­tional ser­vice were women. As­mara also scram­bled to strengthen its ar­se­nal and im­ported vast quan­ti­ties of mu­ni­tions from East­ern Eu­rope. Lit­tle could be done, how­ever, to blunt Ethiopian air­power on the front­lines since there weren’t suf­fi­cient anti-air­craft weapons avail­able.

But Ethiopia’s war plans quickly bogged down ow­ing to its shabby lo­gis­tics. Fleets of trucks had to be com­mis­sioned for trans­port­ing its man­power, who were of­ten ill-trained and car­ried no ra­tions, and when mo­tor transport was lack­ing thou­sands of pack an­i­mals were


gath­ered in long car­a­vans to haul food and am­mu­ni­tion. De­spite the mod­ern weaponry it moved against the Eritreans, the forth­com­ing bat­tles seemed closer in spirit to the doomed Ital­ian cam­paigns against the Abyssinian em­pire in the late 19th cen­tury.

In what was named Oper­a­tion Sun­set, on 23 Fe­bru­ary 1999 thou­sands of troops were thrown into bat­tle against the Eritreans in the Yirga Tri­an­gle, who had put their own knowl­edge to good use by build­ing elab­o­rate fortificat­ions along the bor­der. Af­ter four days of com­bat, Ad­dis Ababa made sure to in­form the in­ter­na­tional press that the of­fen­sive had re­sulted in an over­whelm­ing vic­tory.

But there was scant ev­i­dence of this on the front­lines, which were un­changed. One of the cu­ri­ous en­coun­ters of the bat­tle was a mi­nor air en­gage­ment. As nei­ther coun­try had siz­able air forces, the few jets that were utilised of­ten played cat and mouse over the sun-drenched ter­rain. In one par­tic­u­lar duel, an Ethiopian Su-27 in­ter­cepted a MIG-29UB and shot it out of the sky with its can­non. Upon land­ing, the Sukhoi pi­lot was hailed for a unique dis­tinc­tion: Cap­tain Aster Tolossa be­came the first woman to con­firm an air-to-air kill in a fighter jet. Distinc­tions were scarce on the ground, how­ever, as the fight­ing usu­ally left stag­ger­ing body counts and murky out­comes.

A much larger as­sault took place a month af­ter Oper­a­tion Sun­set in a dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tion 100 kilo­me­tres (60 miles) east of the Yirga Tri­an­gle. The ob­jec­tive this time was an­other bor­der set­tle­ment named Tsorona. Once again, the Eritreans held fast. A pre­cise ac­count of the events in this bat­tle has yet to sur­face, but what has been pieced to­gether from dis­parate reportage of­fers up a chill­ing chron­i­cle. Like Oper­a­tion Sun­set be­fore it, the Ethiopi­ans massed their forces and sent them in waves against the en­emy. The out­come was grisly, as the Eritreans – young men and women with just weeks of train­ing – wit­nessed the first hu­man wave get an­ni­hi­lated by land mines. The as­saults that fol­lowed were mowed down by ar­tillery and ma­chine-gun fire. Dur­ing the night and early morn­ing the com­bat moved to close quar­ters, and when the Eritreans be­gan their coun­ter­at­tack they wiped out the re­main­ing Ethiopian units, in­clud­ing their bag­gage train of don­keys and horses.

The bat­tle for Tsorona may have seen the com­plete loss of sev­eral Ethiopian divi­sions. Ap­par­ently, the high com­mand in Ad­dis Ababa never con­ceived a plan of us­ing their at­tack air­craft, he­li­copters and tanks to pierce the Eritrean lines. Groups of jour­nal­ists who were given tours around the Tsorona front wit­nessed the car­nage. Thou­sands of un­col­lected bod­ies were left strewn on the sand and rocks, some­times piled in dread­ful rows, bak­ing un­der the un­for­giv­ing heat. The Ethiopian army didn’t have a proper sys­tem for col­lect­ing its war dead, and the hor­rific losses were broad­cast and pub­lished by the world’s press agen­cies.

Both sides were loathe to ad­mit how cru­cial the Tsorona cam­paign was. If the Ethiopi­ans had pre­vailed, their army would have seized the roads lead­ing to As­mara, al­low­ing them to threaten the very ex­is­tence of the Eritrean state. While the Ethiopian com­man­ders did fail to meet any ob­jec­tive, once a new round of peace talks was opened the Eritreans were more re­cep­tive than dur­ing the pre­vi­ous year. Ow­ing to the im­pen­e­tra­ble pro­pa­ganda broad­cast by Eritrean tele­vi­sion and gov­ern­ment-con­trolled news­pa­pers, it’s still a mat­ter of spec­u­la­tion if the Eritrean mil­i­tary was in­deed bro­ken in Tsorona – hav­ing suf­fered their own crip­pling losses dur­ing the days of hard fight­ing, and no longer hav­ing enough sup­plies to pros­e­cute the war.

As the months dragged on the Eritreans seemed over­joyed at sym­bolic in­stances such as col­lect­ing pris­on­ers of war or down­ing the oc­ca­sional en­emy air­craft. In the mid­dle of 1999 an Ethiopian Mi-24 at­tack he­li­copter was de­stroyed over the east­ern bor­der run­ning par­al­lel to the Red Sea. Jour­nal­ists were im­me­di­ately trans­ported to the site and shown the burnt wreck­age, in­clud­ing the charred bod­ies of its crew. The Eritrean sol­diers present, at­tired in their mot­ley uni­forms, danced around the fallen he­li­copter and cel­e­brated as if a mor­tal blow had been dealt to their foes.

A re­luc­tant peace


The fight­ing did come to a halt af­ter the UN suc­cess­fully bro­kered a cease­fire in Al­giers on 18 June 2000 and a to­ken unit of peace­keep­ers ar­rived in Ethiopia to sep­a­rate the belligeren­ts. On 12 De­cem­ber that same year a peace agree­ment was signed, end­ing the war. An ab­surd con­di­tion of the agree­ment was keep­ing the use­less arms em­bargo on Eritrea and Ethiopia in place. In Ethiopia, for ex­am­ple, the em­bargo was shelved a few years later when Ad­dis Ababa agreed to help the US

mil­i­tary pacify So­ma­lia as part of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ‘War on Ter­ror’. This meant Ethiopia could im­port weapons again and even re­ceive free de­liv­er­ies sanc­tioned by the US, and had a man­date to send its army abroad.

As part of the Al­giers agree­ment a small peace­keep­ing force was de­ployed to Badme and other dis­puted ar­eas to guar­an­tee that both sides de­mo­bilised. The ef­fort had lim­ited suc­cess. Even when the Hague ruled that Badme was in­side Eritrean ter­ri­tory an Ethiopian gar­ri­son re­mained in the town. This frus­trated the work of the 5,000 peace­keep­ers who formed the UN Mis­sion to Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE). The unit’s mis­sion was to pre­serve the Al­giers agree­ment and de­mil­i­tarise the shared bor­der. But as lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port from Eritrea and Ethiopia dwin­dled, so did the pro­ject’s long term fea­si­bil­ity. UNMEE was ended in 2008, and since then the bor­der has be­come tense once more.

One of the war’s more prob­lem­atic out­comes is as­cer­tain­ing who won. To this day, Eritrea in­sists it emerged vic­to­ri­ous be­cause its troops slaugh­tered thou­sands of Ethiopi­ans, and Eritrean pro­pa­ganda claims that armed cit­i­zens blunted a full-scale in­va­sion to re-oc­cupy their land. But Eritrea fared worse in the years af­ter the war. Isa­ias Afw­erki’s iron grip on the PFDJ al­lowed him to rule as a dic­ta­tor for life, and the coun­try em­braced a bizarre eco­nomic pro­gram fo­cused on self-suf­fi­ciency. The op­pres­sive na­tional ser­vice led to wide­spread dis­con­tent as many Eritreans were torn from their fam­i­lies and jobs, dis­ap­pear­ing for years in the dread­ful con­scrip­tion sys­tem.

But Ethiopia pros­pered in the en­su­ing decades as a mag­net for for­eign in­vest­ment and a model of sta­bil­ity in a rough re­gion.

It was Eritrea that turned rogue, keep­ing its army mo­bilised for years on end and burn­ing its bridges with the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. In what amounts to a com­plete fail­ure to rec­on­cile, 20 years af­ter the Badme ques­tion nei­ther As­mara or Ad­dis Ababa both­ered to con­vene and es­tab­lish new bor­ders, which means the same con­flict could erupt again at any point.

This al­ready hap­pened in June 2016 when a pitched bat­tle was fought in Tsorona, the


same set­tle­ment that was the site of the last war’s most gru­elling bat­tle. The clash couldn’t have come at a worse time, as both Eritrea and Ethiopia were – and still are – reel­ing from do­mes­tic trou­bles. In the lat­ter’s case, decades of one-party rule by the EPRDF in­flamed ten­sions be­tween eth­nic Amhara and Oromo, who feel they’ve been harshly marginalis­ed by the cur­rent Tigray-dom­i­nated gov­ern­ment.

In 2018 the spec­tre of wide­spread civil un­rest spread­ing across Ethiopia’s cities forced the EPRDF to fast-track the rise of a new leader, Prime Min­is­ter Abiy Ahmed, who is tasked with chart­ing a way out of the cur­rent cri­sis. Un­for­tu­nately, in what amounts to a stan­dard ploy by less-than-demo­cratic regimes, the EPRDF has also as­signed some blame to Eritrea for its present trou­bles.

The ul­ti­mate con­se­quence of the bloody two years Ethiopia and Eritrea spent fight­ing each other was how much was left un­re­solved de­spite the losses in­curred by each side. Like so many other frozen con­flicts, the murky bor­der­lands separat­ing Eritrea and Ethiopia will likely re­main a flash point for years to come.

To pros­e­cute the war, Ethiopia mo­bilised thou­sands of re­servists and mili­ti­a­men, who were thrown straight into bat­tle. Many per­ished dur­ing the con­flict

An Ethiopian sol­dier car­ries a PSL sniper ri­fle as he moves along the dis­puted bor­der

ABOVE: Eritrean Pres­i­dent Isa­ias Afw­erki has been in power since 1993. Known for his prickly dis­po­si­tion, un­der his lead­er­ship Eritrea be­came a re­gional pariah

Old Soviet T-55 medium tanks proved in­valu­able in the gru­elling stale­mate of the 1998-2000 war. Both sides used tanks as mo­bile fortificat­ions to shore up their ever-shift­ing de­fen­sive lines

Strong dis­ci­pline and co­or­di­na­tion al­lowed the Eritrean mil­i­tary to hold their own against the nu­mer­i­cally su­pe­rior Ethiopi­ans. An of­fen­sive by the lat­ter in Fe­bru­ary 1999 col­lapsed within days in the face of de­ter­mined re­sis­tance

The dis­mal economies of the belligeren­ts meant the war was punc­tu­ated by many long pauses where nei­ther side could af­ford to at­tack the other

Eritrean mi­grants gath­ered in huge num­bers in ‘The Jun­gle’ camp in Calais, flee­ing poverty and re­pres­sion in their home coun­try

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