Ethiopia must not be blinded by victory
Even the optimists would hardly dare to pronounce the world’s most senseless war finally to be over. Wars which begin as irrationally as the fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea are never likely to terminate neatly. Nevertheless there is at least a chance for peace now that Ethiopia’s forces have reconquered all the territory on its disputed border which Eritrea unexpectedly occupied in May 1998. Over 19 days the Ethiopian army drove forward into the contested area and well beyond it, seizing several Eritrean towns. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says he has made his point and has given the orders for a partial pullback. He has told the international team of mediators which is conducting indirect talks in Algiers that he is willing to abandon all the undisputed territory.
But his victory has come at a fearful price. Some 120,000 people are thought to have died in the two-year conflict, many in the last three weeks. To say that this was an “old-fashioned” war in which the bulk of the dead were soldiers rather than civilians is of marginal comfort, since most were pathetic conscripts from urban shanty-towns or drought-threatened villages, and many died in pain from untended wounds. The war has also caused terrible displacement, with as many as 1.5m Eritrean civilians estimated to be on the move, either to Eritrean towns away from the front or into neighbouring Sudan. A huge humanitarian aid effort will be needed, if they cannot soon return to the farming areas from which they come. On the Ethiopian side, the war had less effect than once seemed likely on the delivery of relief for the 10m people facing drought. Foreign-donated grain has been arriving in large quantities and in spite of the army’s demands enough lorries have been kept free to transport it.
The issue now is to ensure that the ceasefire turns into a lasting peace agreement. Ethiopia wants guarantees that the Eritreans will not reenter the disputed territory. Once again, the United Nations will find itself having to mount a ground mission, at least of truce observers and possibly of larger forces.