Tensions Escalate Between Ethiopia and Eritrea

An Ethiopian soldier cleans a grenade launcher. i i

hide captionAn Ethiopian soldier cleans a grenade launcher at the border with Eritrea near the town of Zalambessa.

Jason Beaubien, NPR
An Ethiopian soldier cleans a grenade launcher.

An Ethiopian soldier cleans a grenade launcher at the border with Eritrea near the town of Zalambessa.

Jason Beaubien, NPR
A woman braids her sister's hair in the disputed town of Badme, Ethiopia. i i

hide captionA woman braids her sister's hair in the disputed town of Badme, Ethiopia. An international border commission has ordered Ethiopia to return Badme to Eritrea but Ethiopia refuses to do so.

Jason Beaubien, NPR
A woman braids her sister's hair in the disputed town of Badme, Ethiopia.

A woman braids her sister's hair in the disputed town of Badme, Ethiopia. An international border commission has ordered Ethiopia to return Badme to Eritrea but Ethiopia refuses to do so.

Jason Beaubien, NPR

Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea are to attend United Nations-led talks Friday to discuss escalating border tensions. From 1998 to 2000, the two African nations fought a border war that killed tens of thousands of people.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In the Horn of Africa, tensions have been rising between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Both countries have recently moved additional troops and military equipment to their common border. The UN has called for a meeting tomorrow between military officials from both countries to try to cool the escalating conflict. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Zalambesa on the Ethiopian side of the border.

(Soundbite of climbing)

JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:

On the northern outskirts of Zalambesa, Colonel Getnet Yalu(ph) scrambles up the dry rocky hill to the Ethiopian army's new trenches. The foxholes stare out across a valley at Eritrea. During the 1998 to 2000 border war, Eritrea overran Zalambesa. Colonel Getnet says that won't happen again.

Colonel GETNET YALU: We will never, never and never give this place. You see, militarily, it is a strategic place. Unless he take this one, he will never go far.

BEAUBIEN: Eritrea and Ethiopia are two countries bound together by culture, language, history and geography. And like two brothers who've fallen into a lengthy family feud, they can't seem to resolve their differences.

Col. GETNET: From here, we can fire at any directions. That's why we're here.

BEAUBIEN: Eritrea and Ethiopia both still blame the other for starting the 1998 border war that killed some 70,000 people. In the end, the boundary between the two countries changed very little. And even among historians, the exact origins of the 1998 conflict are still in dispute.

(Soundbite of military equipment)

BEAUBIEN: At the top of the rocky plateau, two dozen Ethiopians soldiers are cleaning their weapons. They're polishing grenade launchers, oiling AK-47s and adjusting the scopes on sniper rifles. Colonel Getnet insists that he can see Eritrean militiamen across the valley.

Col. GETNET: Before the houses, you see? The pink one.

BEAUBIEN: The small specks across the crevasse are clearly people, but it's pretty hard to tell whether they're shepherds or sharpshooters. Colonel Getnet says they're Eritrean troops sent into the demilitarized zone in violation of a 2000 peace accord. Eritrea says it's moved troops into the region to harvest crops. Ethiopia, for its part, refuses to abide by an international border commission's ruling that a remote town in northwestern Ethiopia be given back to Eritrea. Despite having agreed that an international border commission's ruling would be final, Ethiopia's now digging trenches around that town and vowing to defend it against an Eritrean attack.

United Nations peacekeepers, at a cost of more than $1/2 million a day, are trying to enforce the 2000 peace accord and keep the two armies apart. But recently Eritrea grounded the UN's helicopters and has imposed additional restrictions on peacekeepers' movements in the buffer zone. The UN's top official in the region, Legwaila Joseph Legwaila, complained to the BBC that the international community isn't taking the dispute seriously.

Mr. LEGWAILA JOSEPH LEGWAILA (United Nations): Well, sometimes it makes me feel like I'm on my own with my peacekeepers. To be honest with you, sometimes I feel like I'm abandoned, like I'm the only one who sees danger if this thing is not solved.

BEAUBIEN: Tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea run deep. Ethiopia annexed Eritrea in 1962. Over the next three decades, Eritrean rebels fought a guerrilla war against the government is Addis Ababa. Eritrea eventually won independence from Ethiopia in 1993 but only after tens of thousands of people lost their lives. When Eritrea became independent, Ethiopia reluctantly became a landlocked country. One Ethiopian looking at a map of the Horn of African, with Eritrea sprawling along the Red Sea, says it looks like Ethiopia had its head chopped off.

(Soundbite of an espresso machine)

BEAUBIEN: The Italian occupation of Ethiopia under Mussolini was brief, but it lasted long enough to instill a deep love of espresso. Jaam Lemlem(ph) runs the Ethiopia Hotel. It's more of a cafe/bar/restaurant than a place to sleep. In 1998, like most of the rest of Zalambesa, he fled to the south.

Mr. JAAM LEMLEM (Hotel Owner): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: `Zalambesa was completely destroyed during the war,' he says. `I was only able to rebuild because I was given some money by the government.'

Jaam Lemlem says people in Zalambesa are afraid that such disastrous and destructive war could sweep across the region again. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Zalambesa, Ethiopia.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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