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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 June 2006, 11:39 GMT 12:39 UK
'I fought at the Eritrean front'
Andualem Ayalew, a former lieutenant in the Ethiopian army who was kicked out without a pension after contracting HIV from a prostitute at the Eritrean front, now educates fellow soldiers in Addis Ababa on the dangers of the virus.

Here he recalls for BBC News his experiences of the 1998-2000 war, a conflict many compare with the horrors of World War I, though on a much smaller scale:

I was at the front for the whole war, for three years [post-treaty troop withdrawals from the war zone were not officially completed until 2001]. I was there from the beginning to the end.

Andualem Ayalew

When we had to dig trenches, in some places the soil was very hard, but we weren't bothered by the hardness of the soil. We were all patriotic.

It didn't take one hour to dig the trenches and we strengthened them with branches from trees and we made bunkers with stones, branches and soil.

There was quite a lot of malaria. There was medication at the front if you were sick or in pain and if you couldn't be cured at the front then you were taken to other places like Addis Ababa.

I commanded 144 soldiers and we had one doctor between us.

I joined the army when I was 17. I lied and pretended to be 18 because I like the army and was set on joining.

A lot of people went crazy after losing close friends, after seeing their friends dying
The worst day of fighting I remember was on 12 June 1999 in a small place called Gemahalo.

The Eritreans were on the peak of the mountain and we were at the bottom and the place was good for attacking but very difficult for us.

It was very difficult for us to take control of that mountain and a lot of people died there.

I couldn't tell you how many died that day because at that time we couldn't count but people were dying in front of you. You had to just leave them where they were and try to get to the top of the mountain. In the end our army took control of the mountain.

There was no food and no water because the Eritreans had the advantage and when a lorry came with food they just shot up the truck and it was a major disaster for us.

It took four days of fighting, day and night. On the other side of the mountain there was a big gorge and there was only one way to get food and water.

Avenging a friend

Very many of my friends and comrades were killed and I was also injured so many times [he shows gunshot wounds all down his legs and on his shoulder].

It pains me to think that had these soldiers who died of Aids lost their lives at the front, they would be heroes now

I feel sorry for the comrades I lost and I often cry about it. But the main thing was having the sovereignty of the country respected.

War is of no use to anyone. Peace is much better but if things are not solved in peace then we have to apply some force. My comrades died for their country and they are heroes.

There was one close friend of mine. We grew up together in the same village and we were very close and I saw him getting shot and I saw him die. I found a new strength to avenge his blood.

I was furious and I wanted to go to the front to make them pay for his blood but it was a very, very sad time for me because we were raised together.

Nightmares and madness

Sometimes I have nightmares.

An Ethiopian woman in front of ruins in the Ethiopian town of Zala Ambesa, February 2001
Relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea remain strained

I remember my dead comrades but I always remember them as real heroes. I always think about people who die of Aids, particularly soldiers.

It pains me to think that if these soldiers who died of Aids had lost their lives at the front, they would be heroes now.

A lot of people went crazy after losing close friends, after seeing their friends dying.

Some of the people would just run around naked in the street and now they are kept in the Armed Forces Hospital in the psychiatric ward.

These soldiers went crazy and had nightmares about the blood, the sounds of the screams, the guns and the cannons. They remember all that and they have gone mad.

Interview and photo by Amber Henshaw




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