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Friday, 12 May, 2000, 11:30 GMT 12:30 UK
Reggae and tea as shells fall
Eritrean soldier in bunker
Watching the enemy: An Eritrean soldier scans the battlefield
Alex Last travelled to the Eritrean side of the front line last summer, and filed this report from Hill 1162.

Up the dry slopes, past Ethiopian corpses, turned yellow after lying in the sun since March, we walked to the rough-hewn rock trenches. The hills below extended on all sides.

Battle in the horn
From Hill 1162, the Eritreans had moved forward several kilometres to the last line of hills before the disputed area of Badme.

Beyond the ridge, the flat plains of Badme dropped away.

Occasionally, the faint whistling of an Eritrean artillery volley could be heard passing overhead, the flash of impact on the ridge beyond marking Ethiopian front line positions.

The sound of the explosion would follow seconds later and echo around the hills. It was a quiet day on this section of the front.

Scrambling for position

Away to the right, however, Eritrean and Ethiopian forces had been fighting since the morning.

Artillery from both sides were pounding each other as the infantry scrambled for better positions on high ground.

"The fighting has never stopped, it just cooled," explained Colonel Berhane Ogbagober.

He said Eritrean forces on all sides of the 50 km long u-shaped front line had advanced, some up to six kilometres.

The Ethiopians were attempting to retake lost ground, while the Eritreans were trying to make further gains.

Many of the hills now being contested were irrelevant before Eritrean forces were forced to pull back from positions they held on the Ethiopian side of the Badme plains at the end of February.

Unburied corpses

To reach secure ground on Hill 1162, the Eritreans had retreated 17 km. Now hill by hill they were moving forward again.

Walking in single file to the front line, through dry river beds, the shrapnel crunched underfoot. The crackle of machine guns could be heard from the battle to the right.

A few Ethiopian corpses lay unburied, a week old, the smell of decay overwhelming. Others were partly covered by sand.

Many rocks were stained by dry blood, the thorny branches of some trees were hung with torn, bloodstained fatigues, the ground littered by contents of knapsacks.

In total, I counted 30 Ethiopian dead during the walk to the line. It was impossible to tell from this whether the claims of over 20,000 casualties made by either side were true.

High tension

The Eritrean soldiers scoffed at Ethiopian claims about the number of Eritreans killed.

"We don't even have that many on the entire front line," said one.

Eritrean soldiers leant into the rocks, makeshift protection from snipers, whose bullets had scratched the rocks white.

Sheltering in the trenches
Sheltering in the trenches
The front line was new. There had not been time or security to build trenches. The soldiers stared intently at the Ethiopian positions just 50 metres away.

They said Eritrean snipers had killed four Ethiopians that morning.

The tension was high. The fighting had not reached this section of the line, but just an hour after journalists left, it did.

As night drew in, the wind picked up and rain clouds approached. Soldiers at a camp in a village behind the lines ran into shelters dug into the hillside, illuminated by the fires for making tea.

Volleys of shells

The rain was expected to stop the fighting but no soldier was confident that it would.

As the rain fell, the shelling did subside, until 11 o'clock that night.

Eritrean soldier on the radio
Planning the next move
Then Ethiopian gunners decided to say good night to their Eritrean counterparts, sending volleys of shells over the village, waking us from a brief sleep.

The Eritrean guns answered, then fell silent for a few hours as other parts of the front became the target.

The next morning, the sound of artillery never stopped. Eritrean soldiers behind the lines relaxed, ignoring the constant boom of the artillery battle.

They ate breakfast and drank tea while listening to reggae, sometimes slowed by the dying batteries in the cassette player.

Only the jolting crack of Eritrean guns occasionally broke the strangely peaceful atmosphere.

An Eritrean soldier smiled "One love, one heart, peace."

Peace though still seems a long way away.

Links to more Africa stories are at the foot of the page.


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