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Wednesday, 3 November, 1999, 13:33 GMT
Ethiopia's waiting game
Training near Zalambessa
Ethiopia has sent reinforcements to the Zalambessa front
BBC News Online's Justin Pearce travelled to Ethiopia's frontline in October 1999, and filed this report - the first in a series of three.

The colonel sits in a makeshift wooden building, the walls lined on the inside with plastic grain sacks, and decorated with paintings of the 19th Century Ethiopian kings who kept the Italian colonialists at bay.

"Our priority is a peaceful solution," the colonel says. "But if that process breaks down, if there is no other way, then we will take back the territory by force."

We are in Badme - the district which in February this year saw the loss of tens of thousands of lives, when the Ethiopian army moved in to recapture the territory which had been gained by Eritrean forces in May 1998.

Colonel
The "liberator" of Badme: Will use force if necessary
The decaying bodies of some of those soldiers can still be seen in the bush around Badme. And while a tortuous process of mediation continues between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the search for a peaceful solution, the district has been in the news once more.

In October 1999, the Ethiopian government announced it had repelled a fresh offensive near Badme - a report which the Eritreans said was not true. Either way, diplomats in Addis Ababa fear that the conflict is far from finished.

For security reasons, the colonel will not reveal his name - but looks pleased when another journalist asks whether he was the "liberator of Badme". Our Ethiopian guide explains that he was indeed the man who led the first Ethiopian troops into Badme village following the battle.

How long is he prepared to wait for the political process to be concluded?

"Until we run out of patience. We have not yet done so."

Village abandoned

Soldier
Smoke - but no firing - in Badme
We drive on to the village. Here and there, a clearing in the bush reveals a tank, sackcloth tied over the muzzle of its gun.

None of the original residents has returned to Badme - the Ethiopian authorities say landmines remain in the surrounding bush and fields. Now the only inhabitants are a few dozen soldiers, a couple of prostitutes, a few stray goats and a cat.

The colonel insists that morale among the men remains high.

"When our country was occupied by Eritrea our people were very angry," he says. "Almost the whole country wanted to fight. The soldiers who trained to do this task have always known we will do what we have to do, whatever it takes."

But eight months waiting for war in a hot little village never did anyone's morale any good.

A Swedish television journalist in our party is desperate to get some moving pictures, and asks the soldiers to play volleyball for the camera. They take to the game in a way that suggests it is the most exciting thing that has happened in months.

Reinforcements

Two days later and 200km to the east, we stand on a hill high above Zalambessa. Up here the weather is mild, a breeze blows through fields of ripe wheat - and if Badme seemed lost in the bushes, here we have a commanding view over the town which is currently under Eritrean occupation.

And whereas in Badme the Ethiopians are playing a defensive game, here they are determined to regain Zalambessa. Armed with binoculars, the regional commander points out features of the landscape as though on a map.

Front line near Zalambessa
Surveying the front line near Zalambessa
"You see those corrugated iron roofs behind the town? That is Eritrea," he acknowledges. "But the town itself is in Ethiopia."

The present line of control now passes in front of the town, where the Ethiopian and Eritrean trenches face each other, only 200 metres apart.

"Because we did not expect a problem on the Eritrean border we had to bring forces from central Ethiopia to Zalambessa," the commander says. "Our purpose was to contain the Eritreans, and we did that."

Like many Ethiopians, he argues that his men are fighting against the government of President Isaias Afwerki, and not against the Eritrean people.

The colonel maintains that the forces outside Zalambessa now have the capacity to push the Eritrean army out of the town.

The nearby village of Fitsie has become a base for soldiers in the region. The residents have sought shelter elsewhere, but return every Saturday to trade grains, coffee, salt, and clothes in the market.

Early in the morning, the road to the village is lined with soldiers marching, jogging, doing push-ups. Later in the day, the thud of heavy artillery echoes from hill to hill as the soldiers train.

Their commander echoes the words of his colleague in Badme. "We will try the peaceful way - and if that does not work we will try by force."

See also:

08 Nov 99 | Africa
04 Nov 99 | Africa
Links to more Africa stories are at the foot of the page.


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