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Thursday, 18 May, 2000, 15:41 GMT 16:41 UK
Asmara fears the worst
Women in Asmara market
The capital has been gripped by rumours
By Alex Last in Asmara

The news of the fall of Barentu has had a devastating effect on the mood in the Eritrean capital, Asmara.


I don't think anyone slept last night

Eritrean businesswoma
It was announced on Eritrean TV late on Wednesday evening,

"I don't think anyone slept last night" said one Eritrean businesswoman. The city remains calm, but people are very depressed.

For many Eritreans, the news had came as a shock. The local rumour mill, known as "Bado Seleste" meaning "03" - a reference to the unofficial news during the war of liberation - had been full of stories of counter-attacks and the recapture of villages right up until Wednesday night.

As with most countries which are facing an overwhelming invader, the rumours tend to be what people want to hear, not necessarily the truth.

Anger

Anger at the inactivity of the international community is growing.


It is clear that their agenda is to destroy Eritrea.

War veteran
"Why don't they do something?" demand local people - a question not easy to respond to .

"If this is a border dispute, what has is got to do with Barentu? It is clear that their agenda is different. It is to destroy Eritrea. When will the West realise this?" said an Eritrean veteran who had just returned from Keren - a town which is is already filling with refugees from the western front.

"Where are the Ethiopians?" is the question on many Eritrean's minds.

Eritrean soldiers
Reinfocements are on their way to the front
The southern Eritrean town of Mendefera is likely to be site of the next crucial battle. The loss of Mendefera would threaten Eritrean positions on the central front.

Decorations

It looks bizarre, and a little tragic. Asmara has been decorated with flags, while thousands of coloured light hang across the main streets.

In less than a week, the young nation was to celebrate its ninth year of victory over the previous Ethiopian regime, which led eventually to independence.

The event normally sees hundreds of thousands of Eritreans singing and dancing throughout the eve of 24 May. It is quite probable that people will still do some kind of demonstration for independence day, if only as a show of defiance to Ethiopia.

Right up until the night before Barentu fell, young children had been practising their dance routines in anticipation of the huge festivities planned for 24 May. They spontaneously chanted slogans abusing Ethiopian Prime Minster Meles Zenawi as they ran up and down Asmara's main avenue.

Suspicion

There is also small but growing resentment and suspicion of Ethiopians living in Eritrea.

Refugee woman and donkey
Refugees are on the move again
Around 100,000 Ethiopians live in the country, whose population is 3.5m.

Around 10% of the entire populaton was mobilised for the war. Ethiopians in Eritrea are, obviously, exempt from national service and have been able to continue work and, ironically ,even benefit as the Eritrean workforce has gone to the front.

Many Ethiopian families have lived in the country for generations. But in a country as nationalistic as Eritrea, and in a situation like this, doing anything regarded as unpatriotic is not wise.

There have been isolated reports of Ethiopians being found with radio equipment who have been denounced as spies. The attitude of suspicion could rise, especially outside Asmara if the Ethiopians move any closer to the capital.

Refugees

For Eritreans in the west of the country there are more pressing problems. At least 200,000 are fleeing the Ethiopian advance. Most are women children and the elderly.

Asmara skyline
Asmara is usually regarded as a haven among African cities
Around 100,000 had been displaced by fighting over the last two years and had lived in makeshift camps in south-western Eritrea. Now their tragedy is doubled, as they are forced to move again.

They have been joined by civilians from other villages which had not previously been affected.

The Eritrean army evacuated the town of Barentu before it pulled out. The Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission is in desperate need of help. Ironically , the Eritreans have received very little help from donors due to the focus on the famine in Ethiopia. The need for assistance is greater than ever.

The extent of the humanitarian problem is likely to see the capital fill with refugees.

In Asmara on Thursday morning children still went to school, but students held a demonstration, as students who have received military training are being called up.

The Ethiopians may be hundreds of kilometres away but the siege mentality is setting in.

The foreigners are considering their options. Some want to stay. The country which is free of corruption, harassment and full of generosity was regarded by many westerners as a haven in Africa. But as the situation deteriorates many will consider leaving.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Beyene Negewo, Ethiopian Ambassador to Britain
"The Ethiopian government makes specific precaution not to hurt civilians"
See also:

18 May 00 | Africa
18 May 00 | Africa
17 May 00 | Africa
16 May 00 | Africa
16 May 00 | Africa
11 May 00 | Africa
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