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In the ‘90s, Ex-Soldiers Don’t Just Fade Away

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Qudusam Sile was only 15 when she fired an AK-47 assault rifle for the first time. The tiny, ponytailed Eritrean was not much older when she killed the first of a dozen Ethiopian troops. During Africa’s longest war of independence, Sile in turn took bullets in the back, leg and hand.

“I was willing to do anything, to kill and even to die, to free Eritrea,” she said with neither bravado nor guilt.

Yet when the three-decade conflict against Africa’s largest army finally ended in 1991, Sile was among thousands of guerrillas who suddenly had a country--but no future.

“I should have been celebrating, but peace scared me more than war,” she said. “My skills were all about fighting.”

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The war-ravaged economy in Africa’s newest state, where the per capita annual income was $149, offered few alternatives.

Then an innovative scheme helped Sile help herself.

By creating employment options for disabled troops, female vets, unskilled men and youths with little education, the government project has in turn fostered the birth of a nation.

Now 31 and a mother of two, Sile sells homemade “I Love Eritrea” T-shirts and colorful baby clothes with animal motifs at a shop she and 11 other female fighters opened in 1994. Each takes home about $430 a year, with the remaining revenue going back into the business.

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As the program converts warriors into workers, it also addresses a major global challenge of the 1990s: With the end of the Cold War and several little hot conflicts, oversized, big-budget armies are being downsized or demobilized. And governments from Maputo to Moscow are scrambling to figure out what to do with the soldiers.

Little Eritrea, about the size of Pennsylvania and with 3.6 million people, has proved to be a model--especially compared with highly publicized efforts in Cambodia and Angola, where the United Nations spent millions to restore peace and sent thousands of troops to keep it. Both efforts eventually imploded.

With the biggest troop cutback in history still underway, the challenge is global. Over the past decade, military manpower worldwide has been slashed about 25%--from a Cold War high of 30 million to 22 million, Pentagon officials say.

China, Iraq and Russia have each cut about a million troops, according to the Bonn International Center for Conversion, which monitors military reforms. U.S. defense cutbacks have totaled 694,000 positions. Bulgaria, Cuba, Mozambique, Nicaragua and Vietnam are among 15 countries that have halved their armies.

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Africa Home to Major Conflicts in the ‘90s

But nowhere is the issue more critical than in Africa, home to a third of the 40 major conflicts that have occurred in the 1990s.

Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Congo (formerly Zaire) and the Republic of Congo almost disintegrated under the weight of internal strife.

Yet these countries, with the weakest economies, do not have the resources of wealthier nations to integrate troops into civilian jobs--a problem posing the greatest danger to lasting peace, according to Nat Colletta of the World Bank.

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“When a war is over, you can’t expect soldiers to be dropped off at a bus stop and survive,” he said.

Conflict almost bankrupted many countries.

Angola, Ethiopia and Somalia spent twice as much on defense as on health and education combined, the World Bank reported. When the Cold War ended, Angola ranked among the world’s 20 poorest states--and its 14 top arms importers. To pay for arms imports, the country’s oil and diamond income has been mortgaged for years to come.

Finding formulas to successfully downsize armies is now a top U.N. and U.S. priority.

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“Re-integrating combatants into the normal life of society is critical in translating peace from theory into reality,” said J. Brian Atwood, chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Since 1994, AID has helped re-integrate combatants in Eritrea, Guatemala, Haiti, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Philippines. The U.N. Development Program trains former fighters in projects worldwide. And the World Bank has “post-conflict” projects in 11 African countries, with 10 others under consideration.

New Government Fends for Itself

Eritrea’s success is all the more striking because the new government fended for itself for the most part--and succeeded.

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Last year, it completed the phased demobilization of about 60,000 of 95,000 troops. The only outside funding came for retraining--and then only in small amounts.

“The Eritreans bring a lot of positive things to the nation-building experience, including a strong sense of self-reliance,” said Gregory Craig, a senior U.S. State Department official.

The odds were against success on many fronts:

* Ethnically, Eritrea has nine groups roughly split between Christian and Muslim--a formula for disaster from Africa to Eastern Europe, the Middle East to South Asia.

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* Politically, Eritrea--the biblical land of Punt, later the Aksum kingdom and, over the past century, an Italian colony and an Ethiopian province--had to start from scratch.

The government of President Issaias Afwerki was born out of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, a ragtag and ill-equipped guerrilla movement.

* Socially, Eritreans were unprepared for the transition from war. Nearly two-thirds of the ex-fighters left school before the fifth grade, only 20% had nonmilitary skills, and almost 80% were from rural areas, according to the Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission. Most fighters’ only diploma was a “certificate of patriotism” issued at demobilization.

* Economically, Eritrea had little to work with. In the 1930s, its 730 factories and 2,200 companies made this mountainous country bordering the Red Sea one of Africa’s most industrialized areas. But 80% of its infrastructure was destroyed in the war for independence, leaving only 38 plants operational, according to Eva-Maria Bruchhaus, who studied Eritrea for the Bonn conversion center. By 1991, Asmara was a tacky, dilapidated capital.

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What’s more, the liberation front provided food, health care, uniforms and even cigarettes--but no pay.

While Ethiopia alternately had U.S. and Soviet aid, guerrillas relied on remittances from the Eritrean diaspora. After the war, the new government promised soldiers $30 per month of military service but then drew only $12 million of a requested $48 million at a 1994 Paris donor conference. It couldn’t pay up.

“Demobilization had left the government with a debt of about $75 million and a not-yet-honored promise of service pay of around $100 million,” Bruchhaus said.

Necessity then spurred an imaginative alternative that, in turn, spawned dozens of new enterprises and thousands of jobs.

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The government continued the basic support of the war years. Combatants and their families--including Cabinet ministers--moved into former Ethiopian army barracks. The only new perk was $7 to $14 a month per combatant for expenses.

But the state-owned Commercial Bank allowed former combatants to use the promise of payment--instead of assets--as collateral for loans, Bruchhaus said.

‘Barefoot Bankers’ Provide Loans

A wave of “barefoot bankers,” half of whom were former female combatants, went countrywide to provide loans--from as little as $20--to start businesses.

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With U.N. and other foreign help, the government offered training in everything from woodworking to bookkeeping, construction to catering.

A Belgian group taught Sile and her partners how to print on T-shirts. Fighters-turned-farmers were granted 4 1/2 acres of land plus seeds, blankets and food rations until the first harvest, as well as access to tractors and land-clearing services. U.S. aid of $2 million bought tractors for community ownership.

Other Eritreans struck out on their own to find jobs or financing. The result has been an array of businesses, products and services needed by a new state.

Among the most ambitious enterprises is the Gemel Bus Co., which was started by 180 ex-combatants who pooled their loan potential to raise $1.9 million--and then employed themselves as drivers and ticket-takers. Headquartered in old shipping containers decorated with yellow wallpaper and lace curtains, Gemel now runs 49 buses in Asmara.

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“This kind of business offers a way to survive and, more importantly, hope,” said Tekie Twelde, Gemel’s chief administrator.

Female veterans founded a textile plant, a honey-making cooperative and the Gejeret Fish Shop, which Hillary Rodham Clinton visited on her African tour last year. Among those she met was Wehazit Hiwet, who started working as a liberation front radio operator when she was 10 but now wields a butcher knife instead of a rifle.

Her hair covered by a pink-and-white scarf and her brown plastic apron splattered with raw fish bits, Hiwet, now 25, reflected on her young company.

“We work hard because we are our own bosses. If we fail, it’s our own fault,” she said.

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The shop is struggling because fish is new to the diet of inlanders, but each woman still manages to take home $72 a month.

Eritrea’s efforts draw on mitias, a Tigrinya word for self-help mixed with traditional community aid for those starting a new life.

The idea is reflected in figures about ex-combatants now employed: 66% found jobs without outside help. More than half started modest businesses using their own money.

“Emphasis was put on helping the ex-fighters to re-integrate spontaneously, to wean them off and encourage them to take their life into their own hands, helped by their family and the community as a whole. The demobilization money was meant to serve as investment,” Bruchhaus said.

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The idea was also to avoid mistakes made by others.

“Zimbabwe gave out lump sums of money that was often spent on consumer goods, radios, drink and other perishables that left fighters broke within six months,” said Martin Nwengye, U.N. Development Program representative in Asmara.

“In Eritrea, resources are made available gradually for homes and businesses, things people need over time,” he said. “It’s a strategy that also cuts dependency on government.”

Ingenious Recycling of Resources

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Resources are also ingeniously recycled. During the war, Eritrean rebels plotted strikes against Ethiopian troops from a rural base called Orota, where bullets and simple weapons were crafted from scrap metal.

Today, Orota is still command central for the former rebels. But now the name hangs over a steel foundry in downtown Asmara where onetime guerrillas melt down enemy tanks and artillery to make steel beams to reconstruct the war-tattered capital.

“I came back to Asmara and found my parents had died and my sister was a refugee in Sudan. I had to start life from scratch in my 40s,” said Tekeste Egziabher, the Orota managing director. “This place was my transition.”

Self-reliance extends to all sectors of post-conflict society.

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Ghebre Habte makes no effort to hide the hole in his face where he lost an eye during the war’s final campaign in 1991. A land mine ripped the lower leg off Petros Fessehaye in a 1982 battle near the Red Sea. Yemane Yohannes lost upper mobility when he was shot in the back in 1976.

In December, the three were among 16 disabled former soldiers who pooled resources to open a restaurant and bakery of neat cream-colored walls and tile floors that they built themselves at the bus terminal in Mendafera, an hour from Asmara.

The workers overcome their disabilities through teamwork. Habte, a tall, spindly former infantryman, baked bread for opening day with help from Fessehaye and Yohannes. Yohannes guided a blind work-mate to a ribbon-cutting ceremony to hear a band named Haben (Pride). The band has a blind lead singer, a double-leg amputee on sax and two paraplegics on guitar and keyboards. Haben’s popularity led to a tour of the U.S. and Europe in 1996.

The Mendafera complex was the 31st set up by the Disabled Fighters Assn.

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“Lack of job opportunities was our No. 1 problem, so we decided, like everyone else, to do it for ourselves,” said Teklay Kidana, the association chief, who was partially paralyzed in 1978 from head injuries.

The overall result is one of the most stable nations on the world’s most unstable continent, U.N. officials say.

Asmara now has clean streets with new storefronts and restaurants. Crime is virtually nonexistent. Unlike a host of other war-torn countries, where troops buried arms rather than turn them in, Eritrea successfully disarmed combatants and made all firearms illegal. Even police do not carry them.

Not All Ex-Troops Have Made Transition

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Eritrea’s transition is far from complete. Of more than 60,000 demobilized soldiers, only 5,000 have completed training, while 10,000 have gone into the fields.

Female vets complain that they have lost the equality they had on the front lines. And the country is still very poor.

But Eritrea stands out next to programs elsewhere that not only failed but backfired.

After 15 years of conflict ended in 1990, Cambodia demobilized tens of thousands--only to have thousands bribe their way back onto the payroll.

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Cambodia’s severance package included six months’ pay and civilian clothes.

Training was optional, but it did not match marketplace needs, said Svay Sitha, Cambodia’s demobilization commission chief.

“People faced severe starvation during the Khmer Rouge era and afterward, when the economy did not work. Cambodians clung desperately to the army because losing that connection meant not having a daily rice or corn ration,” Sitha said.

Last year, Cambodia announced that it would try to downsize again--this time by a third of its 134,000-member force. Then fighting erupted--again.

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“Ending a conflict isn’t enough to guarantee peace. You have to make changes in society that encourage peaceful integration,” said Barry Blechman, defense specialist at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.

El Salvador’s disgruntled former government troops led demonstrations and occupied the legislature in 1993 and 1994 after promises of land and pensions went unfulfilled. After Namibia’s demobilization in the early 1990s, former South-West Africa People’s Organization guerrillas marched on Parliament to complain that they had not been given their share of the peace dividend.

“People have enormous expectations when conflicts end. Too often, governments make promises they can’t keep to convince troops to lay down their arms. It’s really dangerous not to follow through,” said Nicole Ball of the Overseas Development Council, a Washington-based policy organization.

To succeed, converting combatants into civilians must correlate with the needs of war-ravaged economies.

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Eritrea also helps ex-fighters engage in reforestation, soil conservation and reconstruction of schools, roads and clinics.

Without new skills, fighters may find outlets for old ones.

In the mid-1990s, about 2,500 soldiers, mostly from the former South African Defense Force, joined Executive Outcomes, a South African firm that sent mercenaries to Angola and Sierra Leone, according to the Bonn center. Onetime Ugandan troops fought in Rwanda and the former Zaire.

“To make the transition, former fighters have to have a sense of a future,” AID specialist Frederick Barton said. “Unfortunately, all most countries have the resources to do is give people a start, rather than a guarantee.”

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Military Demobilization

Successful army downsizing is a symbol of stability in the post-Cold War world. In the early 1990s, Ethiopia demobilized a third of a million troops, leaving behind a 120,000-member military. After its civil war ended, Mozambique cut 70,000 government troops and 20,000 rebel troops and established a new army of only 12,000. Following are some of the more dramatic cases of demobilization, in relative and absolute terms:

COUNTRIES THAT CUT MILITARY RANKS BY 50% OR MORE

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Nicaragua

Guyana

Cuba

Belgium

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Bulgaria

Cape Verde

Guinea

Ghana

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Equatorial Guinea

Eritrea

Georgia

Iraq

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Ethiopia

Mozambique

Vietnam

Argentina

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*

TROOP REDUCTIONS SINCE THE END OF THE COLD WAR*

China: 1.17 million

Iraq: 1 million

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Russia: 915,000

U.S.: 694,000

Vietnam: 688,000

Ethiopia: 330,000

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Germany: 263,000

France: 150,000

*

*either completed or ongoing

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Source: U.S. AID, the U.N. Development Program, the World Bank, the Bonn International Center for Conversion, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.


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