Back to Magazine Homepage

Out of the spotlight:
The conflict between
Ethiopia and Eritrea

by Frédéric Joli
For nearly two years, Eritrea and Ethiopia have been tearing each other apart over a border dispute that is threatening to destabilize the whole region, already badly shaken by the crises in southern Sudan and Somalia. The main victims of this international armed conflict are the hundreds of thousands of civilians sent fleeing in both directions away from the front line.
The two former brothers-in-arms, who fought against the regime of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, are now locked in a bitter battle along the 1,000 km frontier separating the fledgling Eritrean nation from its Ethiopian big brother. Since the outset of hostilities, the ICRC has been present on both sides and has been working, in cooperation with the Eritrean and Ethiopian Red Cross Societies, to assist and protect the displaced populations. Driven from their villages by artillery fire and aerial bombing, thousands of families of herders and farmers have lost everything - their houses, their livestock and their lands.

It was against this backdrop that, at the beginning of August, Cornelio Sommaruga, president of the ICRC, travelled to the region to draw attention to this bloody, but forgotten, conflict. During his week-long diplomatic marathon, President Sommaruga was able to remind the Eritrean president and the Ethiopian prime minister of the Red Cross's concerns over the fate of prisoners of war and civilian internees, displaced people and people expelled from their countries of residence, and discuss the ICRC's access to certain regions on either side of the frontier.

"In this year of the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions," explains Sommaruga, "I was called upon to carry out this mission to Eritrea and Ethiopia to remind both countries of their obligation to respect international humanitarian law. For, in this conflict, the Geneva Conventions apply in their entirety. For instance, the ICRC should have access to all prisoners of war, protected by the Third Convention, and be able to ascertain the fate of the civilian populations, protected by the Fourth Convention."

Eritrea, a sovereign nation of 3 million people, is one of the last three states not to have acceded to the Geneva Conventions, but this could change shortly following a pledge made by its government during the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. The former Italian colony is nonetheless bound by the customary rules applicable in the event of armed conflict. On this basis, the ICRC set up a delegation in Asmara as soon as the fighting erupted. Although it has still not received authorization to visit prisoners of war, the ICRC has been active in restoring contact between families dispersed by the conflict and in ensuring deportees a safe passage across the front line. In addition, it has been mobilizing and coordinating relief efforts in the camps for displaced people.

"Our aim," explains relief delegate Monica Zanarelli, "is to coordinate assistance supplied by the ICRC through the Eritrean Red Cross. Thus, the ICRC is responsible for 60,000 displaced people, that is, around 30 percent of the displaced population in Eritrea."

Civilian exodus
Although the Eritrean Red Cross is not yet officially recognized - since Eritrea has not yet signed the Geneva Conventions - the National Society remains the ICRC's main partner in the field. Together they are supplying food, material assistance and water to 11 camps for displaced people scattered in the no-man's-land bordering the disputed frontier. The government agency, Eritrean Relief and Refugees' Emergency Commission (ERREC), is supporting these assistance programmes and financing them in part.

"We are working closely with the ICRC," explains Abraham Habte, head of the ERREC. "Most of the people we are helping have lost everything, including their livestock, which the herders had to sell because of a lack of fodder. These people have gathered in camps on the edges of villages, whose inhabitants are showing enormous solidarity with them."

Deda, in the Debub region, is one such camp, 60 km south of Asmara, sheltering 3,400 people from several border villages. Most are women, elderly people and children; the men, for the most part, have either willingly or forcibly remained at the frontier. The families have travelled several dozen kilometres to settle here, out of the range of the fighting.

It is the beginning of August. With the rainy season discouraging any military movements and with the Organization of African Unity representative Abdelaziz Boutflika engaged in a diplomatic ballet from his base in Algiers in an effort to reconcile the warring brothers, the guns have fallen silent, temporarily. But the conflict is still fresh in the minds of the displaced people anxious to know when they can return in safety to their villages and pastures.

The nine ICRC delegates in the Asmara delegation, supported by some 15 local staff, are devoting all their energies to improving the living conditions of these people. The Eritrean Red Cross, recognized or not, is working towards the same goal.

"We are delighted with our cooperation with the ICRC," says Tsehaye, a National Society official. "The Eritrean Red Cross, ERREC and the ICRC are very complementary and effective, but our work will not be finished until all these people have been able to return home."
An outstanding commitment
Working in the country since the 1970s, the ICRC delegation in Ethiopia has shown proof of a commitment commensurate with this country of 60 million inhabitants. With 34 expatriates dispersed among five regions and 135 national staff, the organization is working closely with the Ethiopian Red Cross. Before the violent resumption of fighting on the border with Eritrea last January, the delegation was providing substantial logistical support to the National Society in the Tigray and Afar regions close to the frontier. This included setting up an evacuation plan for war-wounded, with the pre-positioning of surgical and first-aid materials. But the ICRC, at the Ethiopian authorities' behest, had to withdraw from Tigray soon after the renewal of hostilities.

The issue of the ICRC's return to this region was one of the points broached by Sommaruga at his meeting with the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. Since then, the ICRC has been able to go back to Tigray and put in place a relief operation for displaced people in cooperation with the National Society, while providing support to medical facilities treating the war-wounded.

"We have to mobilize our forces where there are things to achieve, that is my mission," continues Sommaruga. "Clearly, in a situation such as the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict, we must concentrate our efforts on the victims. We must use all the weapons of humanitarian diplomacy available to promote the application of the law."

Frédéric Joli
Frédéric Joli is an ICRC delegate based in Paris.

Top | Contact Us | Credits | Current issue | Webmaster

1999 | Copyright