Forgotten War, Forgotten People

by Thomas McHugh

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The scene was of Eritrean villagers somberly gathering on a stony riverbank near the front to remember relatives who died in the past month of fighting and bombing. A shawled old woman addressed the people, struggling against tears.

“I knew we could crush grain, but not human beings the way the Ethiopian soldiers did in shame,” she cried. “If they can be that brutal it’s because other countries don’t say anything.”

The old woman raised her voice in defiance: “Our land is burning! Our trees, our crops, even our rocks are being consumed by fire. If we only had Mengistu to deal with, the war would not last a day longer. Mengistu has no tanks, no planes, no mines. Others provide him with weapons at our expense.”

She threw her arm down in disgust and seated herself on a rock amongst the others in silence.

A voice from the United States:

“By any reasonable standard of humanity this war ought to be leading our television newscasts,” Ted Koppel of ABC News’ Nightline said last year, commenting on the war in Eritrea. “It ought to be plastered across the front pages of our major newspapers and magazines. But the war and suffering it has produced are like a silent scream, It doesn’t disturb our tranquility because most of the time we neither hear it nor see what has produced it.”

The longest running war in Africa, the 30-year old battle waged by the central government against Eritrea is not a small tribal conflict, which is what the Western imagination may be apt to conjure up, so little is generally known about happenings in that continent, outside South Africa. The war between the government and separatists has raged on and off since 1962, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and millions more as refugees. In the strictest sense, it has been a conventional war since 1977, when the Eritreans began capturing tanks. Combat reached an even higher pitch last year, as the Eritreans captured the port of Massawa and encircled the provinces capital, Asmara.

As one relief worker noted after the great famine brought the world’s attention to the Horn of Africa in 1984, “Ethiopia fell hack into oblivion. The West, content with its generosity, moved on to other things.”

Another story went unnoticed. Throughout that famine, Ethiopia’s government pumped $1 million a day into its war in Eritrea, the region most afflicted by hunger. Presently, Ethiopia, the poorestcountry in Africa, devotes half its budget to its military. Three quarters of its army of 300,000 is stationed in Eritrea.

“Drought is not so much the problem,” said Father Pietros Ugbamariam, an Eritrean priest of the Ethiopian (Eastern) Rite, who now lives in New York City, where he ministers to his fellow expatriates, both Eastern Catholic and Orthodox. “This is sub-Saharan Africa. The people have learned to deal with drought for hundreds of years.”

Tesfa Alem Sayoum agreed. Tesfa Alem is the executive director of the Manhattan-based Eritrean Relief Committee, which was formed in 1976 as part of a larger association in response to the needs of famine and war victims.

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Tags: War Relief Eritrea Hunger Drought