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Thursday, 25 January, 2001, 15:13 GMT
No easy road to peace
UN soldiers in front of a tank
The UN are eager to police the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea
By Nita Bhalla in Addis Ababa

As you drive towards the Ethiopia-Eritrea border, the dry, dusty roads and blazing hot sun, are not the most amenable conditions.

Those that live along the 1,000 km border may be accustomed to it, but what of the thousands of fresh-faced peacekeepers who started arriving one month ago, with the aim of making peace stick between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

More than three-quarters of the 4,200 strong peacekeeping force have been deployed so far. They are keen and eager, but they are in inhospitable territory.

Map showing position of Adigrat
Temperatures in some areas like the Eastern Bure front, are soaring above 50C. The terrain is hazardous and varies from treacherous mountain regions to desert-like, barren landscapes. And communication with the local population is problematic as most people only speak the local dialect.

Well equipped

The United Nations Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia (Unmee) seems to be prepared for any practical eventuality, bringing with them everything from portable toilets through to armoured ambulances.

At the Central Sectoral Headquarters in Adigrat, a 1,600 strong Dutch-Canadian battalion is deployed. Captain Van den Berg showed me some of the other equipment the peacekeepers had brought with them.

Food rations... include lemonade, goulash, Indian chicken with rice, sweets and crackers. The rations have all the nutrients that the soldiers need

Captain Van den Berg
"We have extreme weather tents - for hot and cold climates. For clothing we have the blue helmets, chest webbing, flak jackets and bulletproof vests.

"For two or three day patrols, we have food rations which we give to the soldiers. These include lemonade, goulash, Indian chicken with rice, sweets and crackers. The rations have all the nutrients that the soldiers need."

Crucial mission

It is evident that the UN wants this mission to succeed, having suffered problems elsewhere in the continent. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone are prime examples of missions gone wrong. Sources say the reputation of UN peacekeeping hinges on Ethiopia and Eritrea.

But the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Ethiopia and Eritrea, Ambassador Legwaila Joseph Legwaila, denies this.

UN ambassador Legwaila Joseph Legwaila
UN ambassador Legwaila Joseph Legwaila (left): we will have a brilliant success here
"We are not here to redeem our reputation. We are here to continue the good work that the UN blue berets have always done throughout the history of the United Nations. And I can tell you that we will have a brilliant success here in Ethiopia and Eritrea."

Diplomats say the mission could not be any easier. It has been described as 'textbook peacekeeping' as there are no rebel movements and no unpredictable groups. Just two sovereign states fighting a conventional war over a conventional issue - their borders.

Lack of trust

But it is the political challenges that could prove the undoing of Unmee's mission.

Despite signing a peace agreement last month, the distrust between the two sides is increasing. Hate propaganda continues and each side keeps up allegations that the other is attempting to restart the war.

Both sides still harbour the idea that the government on the other side is vulnerable and that it lacks legitimacy in the population

Andres Eshete
Ethiopian law professor
This is having a major impact on the peace process and last month, this distrust resulted in the failure of both countries to establish a buffer zone where the peacekeepers will deploy and supervise the cease-fire.

Ethiopian law professor Andres Eshete has been following relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea for many years now, he advises that the UN take the issue of mistrust much more seriously.

"Both sides still harbour the idea that the government on the other side is vulnerable and that it lacks legitimacy in the population. They still harbour hopes that this would serve to undermine the other parties bargaining power and threat advantage and so in that sense the war continues," he says.

Political analysts argue that in order to smooth the path to peace, the UN must stop thinking of their own status and reputation as peacemakers.

The UN should rather gain a better understanding of the complex historical relationship between the two countries.

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See also:

23 Jan 01 | Africa
Slowdown in Horn peace process
04 Jan 01 | Africa
Horn peace setback
16 Jan 01 | Africa
Horn 'hiccup' on path to peace
23 Dec 00 | Africa
Eritrean prisoners' joyful return
19 Dec 00 | Africa
Ethiopia to release Eritrean POWs
10 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Ethiopia
10 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Eritrea
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