The World

In dubious battle

March 20 1978
The World

In dubious battle

March 20 1978

In dubious battle


For three decades, the people of the northern Ethiopian province of Eritrea have been fighting for their independence. Early this month, they had won control of 90% of their homeland. But the topsy-turvy world of power politics has turned against them and they face the full fury of a Russian/Cuban/Ethiopian assault. Maclean’s correspondent George Somerwill, back from a four-week stay with the rebels, eating their frugal meals, travelling at night,and bombed by Ethiopian warplanes in the trenches above Asmara, filed this report from the safety of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

“0200 GMT, this is London,” the carefully-phrased and cultured tones of the

BBC announcer, crackling and hissing through the transistor radio, bring a frown of concentration to the face of Tesfai Lidet. He shivers and pulls his cotton blanket tighter round him. He is struggling not only with a foreign language but with the biting, pre-dawn chill of a trench 8,000 feet up in the Eritrean highlands. Just to keep still makes you frown.

Today the news is bad. The government of Somalia, bowing to the overwhelming firepower of the Soviet-supplied and commanded Ethiopian army and its thousands of Cuban “volunteers,” has withdrawn its forces from the disputed Ogaden region to the south. This means one thing-, many of the 60.000 troops who have been fighting on the Ethiopian side in the Ogaden will be sent north to relieve Asmara, capital of Eritrea, which Tesfai and his comrades of the Eritrean Popular Liberation Front (EPLF) and their allies in the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) have been besieging for months.

Tesfai pokes his head over the top of the trench for a quick look at the still-sleeping city. This will be the last chance for him to do so until nightfall; during the day such an action would invite instant attention from the city’s defenders, or from an Ethiopian plane—one of the many that seemed to be continually overhead.

Now, however, dawn has not yet touched the mountains seven miles away on the other side of the city, whose 300,000 people are still asleep in their homes. There is enough light, however, for Tesfai to pick out the mosque’s spire, the twin towers of the Coptic church—and the runways of the international airport. There aren’t many planes there; the Ethiopian

garrison doesn’t want to risk their capture. But there are three giant Russian Antonov transport aircraft which arrived the day before with three new Soviet-made rocket launchers, the ones they call Stalin Organs. They look very impressive but Tesfai and his comrades laugh at them: “They make a great noise but they don’t do much damage,” he says.

Ducking back into the trench Tesfai joins an animated conversation among his colleagues. Early morning is the time for the political discussion. Today the subject is the Somali withdrawal. In the next few minutes a consensus emerges: the Somalis made a grave error of judgment in expecting the United States and the other Western powers to come to their aid.

One of the basic philosophies of the EPLF fighters is that they must be selfreliant, whatever the cost. They acknowledge gratefully the aid given by the Sudan, Libya, Kuwait, Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization; but Eritreans are taught that they must continue their struggle for independence as though all such aid might cease immediately.

On the question of the military implications of the Somali rout, the unit’s views are divided. Some of the younger men have been saying for months that the early impetus of their fight for independence has been lost, that the classic guerrilla tactics which resulted in the rapid liberation of towns like Keren, Dekemhare and Ghinda have been abandoned. In their eyes the war has become conventional: “Sitting in a trench all day allowing the enemy to hit you with bombs, rockets and artillery is not how to capture Asmara. We must strike now, before the Ethiopians have a chance to move forces from the South,” they argue. The older men say the time has not yet come, that the enemy will be starved out.

Briefly the discussion then turns to the Russian involvement in the tangled and bloody affairs of the Horn of Africa. No one has much to say. There was a time when the Soviet Union supported the EPLF, but the tide of superpower politics ebbs and flows and now the Russians are fighting with the enemy, helping to suppress the “freedom fighters” they once championed. Perhaps, say Tesfai and his friends, the Russians have made a mistake? A rumor has been circulating that the EPLF has been having secret contact with Moscow again recently. But nothing is for sure. The unit’s political officer, who has been taking notes, moves off. Later he will make his daily report to the zonal commanders, meanwhile there is fighting to be done.

EPLF strategy on the Asmara front is simply to contain the garrison in the city. The Ethiopians regularly try to break out to clear the main road to the capital, Addis Ababa. They also need access to the water supply in the western suburbs of the city: Asmara is short of water and the small dam

there is vital. So the EPLF has to be vigilant. The need is all the greater because that section of the besiegers’ front is held by the ELF, the smaller and less well organized of the independence movements. The garrison has exploited this weak link frequently and the EPLF always has to be ready to send in reinforcements.

Both sides know that control of Asmara is crucial. To the Eritreans, its capture would mean international recognition and acceptance. To the Ethiopians, to lose it would mean the fall of the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. So, daily, Ethiopian F-5, Mig-17 and Mig-21 jet strike aircraft take to the air, pounding guerrilla positions, while overhead drones an endless stream of transport planes bringing in reinforcements and supplies for the garrison of 20,000. The civilians have to buy what they can on the black market. An endless stream of refugees and military deserters testifies to the bad conditions of the garrison and the citizens.

Tesfai is not the only member of his family fighting in the EPLF. He has a brother in the front lines at the nearby port of Massawa. There, the EPLF controlled 80% of the city, with the Ethiopians entrenched in the port and dockyard area. Russian and Ethiopian warships anchored five miles out to sea keep up a desultory barrage of shells and rocket salvos from ship-mounted Stalin Organs. Even if the Ethiopian garrison was to be pushed into the sea, the shelling and salvos would continue. Backed by the ever present threat of air attacks, normal life in the once fashionable port city of Massawa would be impossible.

In the other liberated towns and villages, a semblance of normal life exists. Tesfai’s sister is a civilian “fighter” in the EPLF’S department of mass organization in Eritrea’s second city of Keren. Before the revolution, she would have been relegated to the life of second class citizen. Her parents would have arranged a marriage for her and she would have been confined to life

behind the veil. Now, she carries her Russian Kalashnikov rifle slung carelessly over her shoulder as she arranges temporary housing for displaced persons, organizes political orientation classes for civilians, and shepherds young children to school each evening.

The only concession made by the EPLF to the fact that it is wartime is that schools now operate at night, to avoid the potentially disastrous effects of daylight bombing. Ethiopian aircraft concentrate entirely on civilian targets. Keren’s hospital was flattened by a 250 kilogram bomb, and one person was' killed in the grain market. Other liberated towns and villages, notably Dekemhare and Adi Hawsha.have fallen victim to internationally outlawed phosphorus bombs, as well as napalm. In both cases, was there military activity immediately nearby.

For fighters like Tesfai, this is all part of the war. Ignoring the phosphorus bombs, fighters with the dedication of Tesfai Lidet are rapidly constructing a viable society. Eritrea has always been a fertile land and in those liberated areas which have seen a complete growing season under independence, the harvest has been greater than ever.

However, the “Eritrean problem”, outlined by the United Nations as long ago as 1950, still exists. In the neighboring Sudan, there are estimated to be upwards of 70,000 Eritrean refugees; countries such as Sweden and the United States have several thousand more. And now that the Ethiopian government can turn its undivided attenion to Eritrea it is scarely likely that the 23,000-strong guerrilla army will be able to withstand the storm of fire that will be turned against them. The tactical argument in the hills above Asmara may already have been settled, for them, by overwhelming odds, by the time these words are read.