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The BBC's Alex Last
"Once more on the brink of all-out war"
 real 28k

Monday, 17 April, 2000, 18:19 GMT 19:19 UK
Fear and farming on the Eritrean front
Eritrean soldiers
The Eritrean army is on high alert
By Alex Last on Eritrea's western front

Cut deep into a dry hill on the western front, 300 km south-west of the Eritrean capital, a section of the Eritrean front line looks down on the Ethiopian forces who are dug in just 200 metres away.

The section is known as "Trenches of the Sky", a romantic name which belies the dangers.

Sentries keep watch, standing on firing steps, staring through small holes cut into the trench fortifications, just large enough to fit a sniper's rifle.

They stand to the side of the hole. Snipers from both sides have trained their sights on the firing holes. The occasional crack of a bullet aimed at the trench keeps all aware of the consequences of movement.

As the sun sets, the risks increase. Patrols crawl out into no man's land for reconnaissance, for laying mines, or to raid the other trench.

Ertirean sniper
Snipers keep a close watch on the Ethiopian trenches
Any movement that is detected is met with fire from snipers, artillery and anti-aircraft guns point not at the sky, but at soldiers and their trenches.

Growing vegetables

The soldiers consider this deadly activity normal. It is not reported by either government, but deaths occur daily, and are noted down to be revealed after the war.

In their time off, a part of each Eritrean battalion has started farming just behind the front line, a drive for army self sufficiency.

For the soldiers, peace cannot come soon enough
Fresh tomatoes, lettuce, courgettes and onion are available for the soldiers.

It appears that if the war ends, any demobilisation of the Eritrean army will focus on turning the soldiers into farmers.

Such plans, though, lie in the distant future. Over the last two months, the Eritrean army had gone on high alert, with commanders saying they expect Ethiopia to launch a new attack.

None of the commanders believe the ongoing peace process will succeed.


The US mediator Anthony Lake and OAU envoy Ahmed Ouyahia left the region recently after failing to persuade Ethiopia to accept the "Technical Arrangements" for implementing an OAU peace plan. Eritrea accepted the arrangements over six months ago.

Refugee children
War has disrupted civilian life to a huge extent
Faced with deadlock, the mediators tried and failed to get Eritrea to agree to amendments to the "Technical Arrangements" to make them more acceptable to Ethiopia.

So once again everything is stalled, and it appears that the mediators have lost the trust of the Eritreans

But with a population of only three million against Ethiopia's 60 million, Eritrea is very keen to end the war which by now is consuming the bulk of the small country's human and economic resources.

Eritrea is now calling up its 12th round of national service recruits, at least another 30,000 people lost to the army.

It is expected that some of the army will be rotated back to Asmara to make up for the desperate lack of a workforce.

Fears for future

The consequences of diplomatic failure are ominous. If the fighting restarts it will could be on an even bloodier scale than the earlier battles, which killed an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 soldiers.

Refugee women
Refugee camps are home to 130,000 people
Most observers consider a decisive military victory for either side as unrealistic because the two armies are too evenly matched.

The continuation of the "no war, no peace" scenario is another possibility.

Listeners to Eritrean radio have recently heard a more aggressive tone, with Eritrea calling for peace on the one hand, and on the other almost daring the Ethiopians to attack.

But there are fears that Ethiopia, with its bigger economy, can prolong the conflict almost indefinitely and try to bleed Eritrea dry economically.


Eritrea does however have the support of its diaspora to sustain the country. More than $600m has been given to the Eritrean government or to Eritrean families since the war began.

The war has disrupted civilian life to an enormous degree. According to the UN, Eritrea needs assistance for 370,000 war-affected and 211,000 drought-affected people.

Camps have sprung up to shelter 130,000 people who fled the fighting.

Plastic sheeting and woven mats provide some protection from the scorching days, swirling dust and freezing nights.

The camps are well organised, but they lack food, blankets and medicine. As one camp official said, "we just have enough to stay alive, not to live."

For the young soldiers dug in at the "Trenches of the Sky", peace cannot come soon enough. The reality is that it will be a long time before they can go home.

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