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Battle in the Horn Friday, 23 July, 1999, 11:46 GMT 12:46 UK
Touring the Ethiopian front
Ethiopian soldier with rocket launcher
The front line is nearly 1,000km long
Reporter Laeke Mariam Demassie was taken with other journalists on a tour of the Ethiopian front line. This is his account of what he saw:

We started in Mekele, the capital of Tigray in northern Ethiopia.

Battle in the horn
Here life goes on normally, even though intense fighting continues 300 km to the west and east.

The only signs of war are the Ethiopian MiG fighter planes which plough the skies above the town.

We visited one of the camps where Eritrean prisoners of war are being kept and found 24 soldiers confined in a compound but allowed to play volleyball, listen to the radio, and smoke cigarettes.

Captured women

I met a young Eritrean woman soldier who was captured at Gemehalo on the Badme Front in February.

Many women are fighting on both sides
Many women are fighting on both sides
"We were instructed to fight all the way and if caught to kill ourselves," she said.

"We were captured by Ethiopian soldiers. The food here is good. We have vegetables and some meat. The medical personnel are very kind."

"I want to see my parents when peace prevails, but I leave that to God," she said.

From Mekele we travelled to Adi Nebried, then drove for three hours through mountains and ravines before walking to May Dogali, where fierce fighting took place nine days before.

As we walked along the river we could hear mortar fire. A dead body lay eaten by a hyena and not far away the corpse of a donkey.

Eritrean trenches

We climbed a rocky hill and met a commander who said he had led a group of soldiers that had driven back the Eritrean contingent in mid-June.

Major Tilahun Berhi, an ex-fighter with the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) said we were nine kilometres from the Mereb River. "That is Eritrea", he said, pointing to a mountain beyond the Mereb.

He said that if the Eritreans had managed to capture Adi Nibreid they would have been able to cut the western Mereb front. The fighting had lasted 22 hours and 153 Eritrean soldiers had been killed, he said.

Driving on through Shiraro we reached Badme and the site of the trenches held by Eritrea before Operation Sunset in February 1999.

The trenches were like European subways with roofs built out of sand and heavy wood.

The Eritrean soldiers could live in them and move back and forth over 100km, without being seen by the Ethiopian air force and soldiers on the mountains and hills.

They had bunkers with triangular openings where they can fire heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns.

"A determined army"

At the bottom of the hills there were paved hideouts for Eritrean tanks and stretches of landmines running parallel to the trenches.

Destroyed tank on the Ethiopian  front
Signs of devastation are everywhere along the front
Lt Negash Kahsay of the Ethiopian Defence Force said it took "military genius, a determined army and the Ethiopian air force to break the Eritrean trenches and landmines."

Eventually we reached Yirga Town - historically known as Badme town. Lt Negash said it had been occupied by the Eritreans for nine months before being won back by Ethiopia in four days of intense fighting.

We were 25km from the Mereb River and I could hear heavy artillery as I walked through the deserted town.

The lower part of town was in ruins. The only modern school had been destroyed.

I could see soldiers from all over Ethiopia - including darker-skinned ones from Gambella - the south-western part of Ethiopia bordering Sudan.

Further north, We met a commander who had come from the western Badme front near Sheshebit. I asked him how long the war was going to continue.

"It depends on the Eritrean government and people he said.

"As far as we are concerned, we have the means to finish the war the way we want, and when we want."

As we left, we drove south through Badme - flat land with rich soil, forest, incense trees and livestock.

When I asked the Ethiopian authorities why Eritrea was concentrating on Badme, I was told it was because Badme had great agricultural potential, as well as minerals, including gold, and precious stones.

It made me more convinced that the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea is economic - in contrast to what western sources say when they label it a fight over barren land.

'No choice' for soldiers

I interviewed two young women soldiers from Eritrea who had been captured the day before at the western Badme front.

One said she had a 10-year-old son and was from Asmara. I asked her how she joined the Eritrean army.

"In Eritrea military service is obligatory, " she said. "Unless I did it there would be no housing, no job, no passport. So, no choice."

"Before we came to the front we were told our country had been invaded so we came with Eritrean forces to Badme.

"There was heavy fighting. We were surrounded by Ethiopian soldiers and told to surrender. I want to go back to Asmara and see my son and parents," she said.

"I have a sister married to an Ethiopian in Mekele, and I would like to go and live with them.

"After all this is a war between two brothers. Everybody has a cousin on the other side."

Links to more Battle in the Horn stories are at the foot of the page.


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