Eritrea and Ethiopia have now, finally, made peace.
There is no such resolution between the ruling parties on both sides of the border. The Eritrean PFDJ (formerly EPLF) and their neighbours in Tigray – the TPLF are still at daggers drawn. As a semi-official Eritreans website put it:
“TPLF as a political entity is dead. Its soul has been bound in hell, but for a little while, its skeleton will be walking like a zombie to create chaos and harm innocent civilians to disrupt the ongoing transition in Ethiopia and terrorize its people…The devil and its surrogate, the TPLF junta has been cornered and thrown into the bottomlesspit.”
This is not the description one friend uses of another.
Since the 1970’s Eritrea’s fight for independence was run by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front or EPLF. Just to the south, Tigrayans were forming their own movement – the TPLF. At first they co-operated. Tigrayans came north to learn the art of warfare from their Eritrean cousins. Some Eritreans even joined the TPLF. They had ideological differences, but these seemed scarcely important: there was a common enemy in Addis Ababa.
Then, in 1982, the Ethiopian government launched its largest ever campaign to crush the Eritrean rebels. The Red Star campaign saw 100,000 Ethiopian soldiers almost destroying the EPLF. The town of Nakfa, held by the movement, was almost overrun. Eritreans threw everything into the fight, including their Tigrayan allies. The TPLF was not consulted, and was furious.
Relations were mended, but only for a while. During the terrible drought of 1984 to 85 another, even more serious dispute arose.
Divisions between the movements – over a whole range of issues – boiled over.
At the height of the famine the Eritreans closed the road from Sudan that brought vital aid into Tigray. The TPLF were left with no alternative but to march 100,000 impoverished, starving, supporters into Sudan. The suffereing was immense. A Tigrayan complained bitterly: “the EPLF behaviour was a savage act…I do not hesitate to categorise it as a ‘savage act’. It must be recorded in history like that!”
But the war had to go on and the two movements finally patched up their differences once more. Unity led to success on the battlefield. In 1991 Eritreans finally took their capital, Asmara. In a co-ordinated drive, Tigrayan fighters captured Addis Ababa, with Eritrean soldiers fighting alongside them.
For a moment, all was well. Eritrea became a sovereign state. Ethiopia went its own way, but relations seemed cordial. Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi was at Eritrea’s independence celebrations. Eritrean fighters even provided him with personal protection in the first years of his premiership.
Yet the old enmities never fully healed.
Gradually small scale – trivial – incidents along their poorly designated border led to minor incidents. There were disputes during harvest time, over exactly where one farm ended and another begun.
These festered, unchecked. Finally, there was an almighty clash, leading to all-out conflict. The border war of May 1998 killed the hopes of a generation. Former allies were locked in a seemingly intractable confrontation. Peace was signed, but troops faced each other all along the frontier for two long decades.
It is this legacy of smouldering anger, and unspoken resentment, that both sides will have to overcome, for this week’s initiative to succeed. But if peace can be achieved these communities have everything to gain from it.