|Eye on Eritrea 3|
In 1998, the Ethiopian government initiated an ongoing programme of ethnic cleansing. There was systematic deportation of long-time Eritrean residents, though many had lived in Ethiopia for generations, intermarried, and had homes and businesses. Families were forcibly severed, people were rounded up and deported without prior notice, others allowed one suitcase before being put on a bus on the long journey to the border.
In the town of Decemhare, forty miles from Asmara, we visited the Don Bosco Catholic Technical School, now converted into a refugee relocation centre. The refugees, young and old, some sick or women about to give birth, arriving weary from the border were first received, given a mattress in the school or tent shelter, and food. Then they were processed, that is, each person or family provided with a blanket, some grain, pots and pans, even a small sum of money to help them restart their lives. Over 70,000 Eritreans would suffer this fate.
In October, 1998, we took our sketch pads to the war zone. En route, we saw typical scenes of children walking to school, men and women cutting grain and donkeys loaded with the harvest. It was hard to imagine major battles having taken place a short distance from here five months ago. We were told of eight minor attacks by Ethiopians which occurred one week before our visit.
In Zalambessa, the signs of war were evident. Many of the pastel-painted adobe shops and homes along the unpaved main street had bullet, mortar, or artillery shell holes and were roofless. In ‘Eritrea: A Small War in Africa’ (Combat and Survival, October 1998), Paul Harris describes how the Eritrean Defense Force (EDF) retook this town claimed by Ethiopia in May 1998: "...from a strategic ridge from which they could look down on Ethiopian forces who several times attempted to storm the EDF positions in human wave attacks. Hundreds — if not thousands — of men died in these attacks, mowed down by machine-gun fire, mortars, artillery and rockets… the streets of Zalambessa were littered with bodies which baked in the sun for days until they were scooped up and dumped in a mass grave."
We drove beyond Zalambessa, passing a fertile valley where most fields still awaited harvesting, to Gelaba, a frontline village. We finally found the EDF headquarters situated in a family compound of several adobe rooms. In the sunlight outside one doorway were two young women fighters, Selam and Zemame, combing and braiding each other’s hair.
In the room that served as headquarters, the furniture consisted of one narrow bed and an artillery crate, which was also a seat. After several fighters and commanders came in to meet and talk with us, I sketched Mengesteab Fessehia and Berhans Seltan. Their worn expressions reflected what they had seen and experienced during the past few months.
Soon coffee was prepared and served by Selam and Zemame, just as it would be in any village home, except that the beans were crushed in a tin can with a crowbar. After this welcoming ritual, several fighters accompanied us for a close look at frontline activities. They pointed to the distant mountain ridges where the Ethiopians were entrenched, but we could clearly see the nearby Eritrean rock and artillery bunkers, though they were camouflaged with branche s.
Stretching along this surreal front were fields of yellow flowers (perhaps a weed), where cows grazed and little boys played. A short distance away, a team of oxen threshed grain, their repeated rotations guided by several EDF fighters who were committed to helping the farmers between battles as they desperately tried to salvage their crops.
When we returned to headquarters, I sketched Mikiel Gebremeskel and Samiel, a young child, whom he gently sheltered between his legs as they sat together on the artillery box. I was told that the boy’s grandmother had been killed by a stray enemy bullet the week before, and Samuel had been temporarily adopted by the fighters.
Soon a big platter filled with rice seasoned with salt was carried in by Selam and Zemame and placed before us on a small cardboard box which served as a table. The fighters insisted that we eat with them. About ten of us ate with spoons from a communal bowl. I was also aware that Selam and Zemame, besides cooking, were very capable of using Kalashnikovs, just as Terhas and Elsa had in the past.
I look at my sketches and wonder if Selam, Zemame, Mangesteabe, Berhans, Mikiel, and Samiel, the young child, survived the fierce fighting that occurred a year later when they had to retreat. Ethiopians eventually occupied Zalambessa and completed the destruction they had begun. No homes were left standing, no seed was planted nor grain harvested.
A leading contemporary American artist, Betty LaDuke is also known for her documentation
of the work of women artists all over the world. She lives in Oregon