By JEFFREY GETTLEMANJUNE 13, 2016
NAIROBI, Kenya — The Eritrean Embassy in Kenya sent a text message alert Monday morning: The Ethiopians had attacked. Fighting on the border. Situation unfolding.
The jagged line separating Eritrea from its former ruler, Ethiopia, has been one of Africa’s most combustible flash points. Tens of thousands of soldiers died from 1998 to 2000 in a war that had been called as pointless as two bald men fighting over a comb.
As the news of renewed clashes in the rocky, barren frontier began to spread on Monday, many Ethiopians and Eritreans feared the worst. Witnesses said both sides were rushing troops to the Tsorona border area, and heavy artillery was apparently fired from both sides. On the Eritrean side, several people were reported to have been killed The reports of fighting and the lack of solid information raised fears that the two countries could be sliding once again toward all-out war.
But by Monday afternoon, the extent of the fighting was unclear. The Ethiopian government said Eritrea started it. Getting more information out of Eritrea is like trying to see into a pitch-dark room: The government is one of the most secretive, isolated and repressive nations in the world.
Just last week, a United Nations panel accused Eritrea’s leaders of committing crimes against humanity, including murder, rape and enslavement.
According to Meron Estefanos, a journalist and activist from Eritrea living in Sweden who maintains a large network of contacts in Africa, anger at the government is steadily rising within Eritrea, and the shelling across the border may have been started by Eritrea as a distraction.
“There is no reason for Ethiopia to start a war right now,” Ms. Estefanos said. “It just doesn’t add up when everything is going their way.”
“But,” she added, “if there is a war, or the rumor of a war, it could be a way for the Eritrean government to get support and divert attention.”
Eritrea is a tiny country, with about one-sixteenth the population of Ethiopia, against which it won a celebrated war of liberation in the early 1990s. Since then, the government’s isolationist policies have created dire economic conditions, with shortages of electricity, water, gas and bread. Many young people in Eritrea have said they are virtually imprisoned in a national program that requires them to serve indefinitely in the military or other branches of government.
Each year, thousands of young Eritreans try to flee to Europe; in recent months, hundreds have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, adding to the anti-government feelings, Ms. Estefanos said.
Recent talk of another border war against Ethiopia has opened a nationalistic vein.
“Here in Asmara, it’s peaceful despite #EthiopianAttacks against #Eritrea on the Tsorona front,” one Eritrean-American, using the handle Red Sea Fisher, wrote on Twitter on Monday, referring to Asmara, the Eritrean capital. “And you wonder why there’s national service?”
A ruling by an international commission, which both Eritrea and Ethiopia agreed to respect, awarded a piece of the disputed territory near the border to Eritrea. But Ethiopian troops still occupy that territory more than 10 years after the ruling was issued, and Eritrea has complained that the international community — especially the United States and Britain — has exerted little pressure to get the Ethiopians to leave.
Eritrea has used the dispute over the border to justify its war footing and the suspension of many civil liberties.
Analysts have said the discontent in Eritrea could erupt at any time.
Mutinous soldiers staged a coup attempt in 2013, which was quickly crushed. In that case, like the border clashes in the past two days, little is known about what really happened.