It's a Battle of Economics, Ethiopians Say


Outside Ayder Elementary School, the grounds are pocked with holes, each innocuous-looking depression representing a crater left by a cluster bomb. In recent days, there was a hailstorm of explosives here that sent glass, rocks and searing, twisted metal flying helter-skelter among classroom buildings. The spray ripped through doors, concrete-block walls--and children.

"This was barbarism. There was no fighting near here," said Desali Fisaha, a spokesman for the government of northern Ethiopia's Tigray province, looking with indignation at the scene where more than a dozen pupils were wounded or killed in an Eritrean air attack June 5.

The bombing of Makele, which killed at least 47 people, and a subsequent aerial attack that killed four people Thursday at Adigrat, 50 miles to the north, are part of a nasty border war that has broken out between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a former province.

The war between the two former friends is not only a human tragedy, it also is a setback for U.S. foreign policy, which had banked on Ethiopia and Eritrea to be partners in creating a new zone of stability in the famine-and-war-plagued Horn of Africa.

To outside observers, the war has been mystifying. Why should two of the planet's poorest countries, which only recently began rebuilding from decades of war and stagnation, choose to fight over a few hundred square miles of remote, semiarid land? Ethiopia calls it "insanity" and says it was attacked without provocation; Eritrea says that it is duty-bound to assert control over an area it was rightfully due under 19th century treaties.

But Desali and many residents here discern more in the recent bombings than a dispute over frontiers: They think Eritrea is motivated primarily by economics--that it is lashing out against Ethiopia's Tigray province in part out of frustration with a region that could become a commercial rival.

Tigray, Ethiopia's northernmost province, adjoins Eritrea. It traditionally has been known for growing grain and raising cattle and sheep. But lately, attention has shifted here to industry. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is a Tigrayan, and, under his leadership, the central government in Addis Ababa has been funneling more and more resources to the far north, including investment and development projects.


Eritrea, struggling to make its economy function, has not welcomed the competition, said Nefsannet Asfaw, a member of the Ethiopian Parliament from Tigray. "They think that we shouldn't have factories that they have," she said. Desali agreed, asserting, "The Eritreans say it openly: that each of these industries is like a bomb pointed at them."

Makele, indeed, looks like a boomtown. Situated in a watered valley surrounded by plateaus and mountain ridges, the city of 115,000 people bustles with commerce and enterprise. Its roads are crowded with giant trucks, camel caravans and donkey trains, all carrying goods off to markets in different directions.

Since the end of Ethiopia's 17-year civil war in 1991, a number of government-owned and private factories have opened here, some built by Tigrayans returning from the United States and other places of exile. They are making leather products, bicycles and truck parts, as well as marble goods. Workers are rebuilding the main highway. There is a new electrical substation, and half a dozen hotels are operating or under development to cater to European tourists interested in Tigray's early Christian churches and other antiquities.

The soaring spirit is epitomized by a 170-foot monument, topped by a golden globe, constructed on a hill overlooking Makele. It is meant to symbolize Tigray's reemergence from the bloodshed and suffering of the country's long war.

Officials here think it is no coincidence that the bombed school is near Makele's industrial zone, a mile from where the government is building a modern cement factory. Similarly, at Adigrat, helicopter gunships fired rockets at a new pharmaceutical plant and set fire to a grain silo storing the province's food surplus.

The cement and pharmaceutical plants were showpieces of Ethiopia's industrialization program. But for Eritrea, these factories pose an economic threat. If Tigray can produce its own cement and medicine, it will no longer need to buy such products from Eritrea.

Nefsannet, the member of Parliament from Tigray, said Eritreans--who were colonized for decades by the Italians--have always looked down on Tigrayans as their poor country relations. Although the populations of Eritrea and the province of Tigray are roughly equal, at about 3.5 million each, and they share the same language--Tigrayan--Eritrea has long looked at Tigray mainly as a source for natural resources and cheap labor to build its own industrial base, she asserted, adding, "They boasted that they would be the Israel or the Singapore or the Taiwan of Africa."

But Tigray is not following that script, and, the lawmaker noted, "The point is [this relationship] should be a partnership."


At the Makele hospital, where 100 of the 135 wounded in the June 5 raid are still receiving care, Sagalu Tomalu, 48, said from his bed that economic jealousy was the only reason he could imagine for Eritrea's choosing to attack this city, about 100 miles south of the contested frontier. Like many others here, Sagalu, an executive with a heavy-machinery rental company, was wounded in a second sortie after he rushed to help victims of the initial bombing.

"Nobody expected this. I think they were desperate, because all of their economic policies have failed," Sagalu said of the Eritreans. "This is truly an economic conflict."

Eritrean media have offered different explanations, saying the bombings in Makele were retaliation for Ethiopia's bombing of the airport in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, and that Adigrat was attacked because the town was being used by the Ethiopian army as a staging and logistics center.

While it is hard to see any logic in this conflict between countries that were close until a short time ago, it is clear that economic factors have contributed to tensions. Eritreans fought a 30-year guerrilla campaign for independence from Ethiopia. In 1991, when rebels defeated the Soviet-backed dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Eritreans, de facto, achieved their goal, as the regime that then came to power in Ethiopia had backed Eritrean independence. There were smiles all around when Eritrea's sovereignty became official in 1993.

The two countries' economies were based on the Ethiopian birr until last November, when Eritrea issued its own currency. That step has caused disruptions in trade, because, to Eritrea's irritation, Ethiopia said that all transactions between the two nations would have to be settled in hard currency, as with Addis Ababa's other African neighbors.

To some Ethiopians, Eritrea had been living for a long time off their largess. Before the present conflict, Eritrean businesses profited by importing goods for ultimate sale to Ethiopia's huge market of 60 million people. With its Red Sea ports, Eritrea also made money by exporting to the world produce from landlocked Ethiopia.

"They don't have coffee, they don't have cattle, they make very minor export items," a Tigrayan businessman in Makele scoffed, discounting Eritrea and its business potential if it does not repair relations with Ethiopia.


Whatever the reason for the bombings, though, they have had ghastly effects. At Ayder Elementary, which has not yet reopened, a trail of bloodstains leads from the door into the classroom, across a sidewalk and into a gutter. Elsewhere, broken sandals lie beside a congealed pool of blood.

The school, officials say, will be rebuilt. But the emotional wounds may never heal.

"Our house was completely burned, and one of my children was burned to death inside," said Desta Hailu, 37, sitting as if still in shock in the hospital next to a crib containing her son Mewael, 2, his hand bandaged from burns.

All her possessions, she said, were consumed in the blaze that killed her 14-year-old daughter. "Even this shawl was given to me by my neighbors," Desta said.

Doctors say her son is fit enough for discharge, but she has decided they will stay in the hospital for now. "Where can I go? I have nothing now," she said, before starting to sob softly into the borrowed shawl.

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