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Ethiopians Displaced by Fighting Inundate Town

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the front line of war, a family loses its home, bodies lie bloating in the sun, tons of grain are black and smoldering from fire, wounded cram a hospital, and suddenly a bright future has turned to dread.

“War is not the World Cup--there are no winners,” observed Mesfin Haileselasse, a young man recently hired to manage the nightclub in a tourist hotel here. He fears that he will have no customers now--no one in northern Ethiopia feels like dancing.

A border conflict that began last month between Ethiopia and Eritrea, two impoverished Horn of Africa countries, at first seemed trivial. One British journalist has compared it to two bald men fighting over a comb. But in Adigrat, the largest town near the front, flooded with displaced refugees and targeted last week by an Eritrean bombing that killed four people and wounded more than 30, the human toll already has been enormous.

Abady Tesfye, a day laborer and father of seven, seemed close to tears as he described how he watched from the distance while his house was destroyed by shelling in the border town of Zalambessa, 19 miles north of Adigrat.

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“I am sleeping on the road,” the 46-year-old man said. ‘My family is begging, just to live.”

Abady is one of an estimated 30,000 Ethiopians who have flooded this small town since the beginning of this month, when they were displaced by fighting at the border. Most have found places with relatives or friends. But large numbers loiter on Adigrat’s dusty main road, in torn and dirty clothes, sleeping atop their few belongings.

They wonder when, and if, they can go home.

These refugees suffered a second blow June 11 when an Eritrean helicopter gunship attacked the emergency food warehouse in Adigrat, setting it ablaze.

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Now city officials have no food to give them. More than half the internationally donated wheat and sorghum inside was burned. The warehouse is a ruin of charred grain--smelling something like burnt toast--fallen bricks and pieces of white plastic World Food Program bags that melted in the heat.

Big sections of the warehouse’s metal roof lie on the ground, along with the blackened skeleton of the truck that was used to distribute food aid. Officials say they do not know when they will be able to resume distributions.

At least half the 2,000 tons of grain in the warehouse--donated by Western nations--was destroyed, said Mewcha Gebremedhin, a relief official in the town.

“The situation is very critical,” a Roman Catholic priest said as he looked over the damage.

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He noted that the fighting comes at a time when food supplies are ordinarily at a low, just before the growing season. If people along the border cannot plant now, they will go another year without crops.

“It’s very bad in the 20th century,” the priest said sadly, “that people are just killing.”

For Abady, the refugee from Zalambessa, the war arrived, perhaps, on June 2. “I can’t remember exactly. My mind is not normal now,” he said in apology.

He said he was asleep at home around dawn when he heard fighting. At first, it seemed limited to the border crossing, but eventually he realized that the town itself was being shelled. That is when he took his family and ran.

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“I just have the clothes on my back,” he said. “My house was burned. . . . The Eritreans targeted it with artillery.”

He said he watched the attack from one of the brightly painted, pagoda-shaped Ethiopian Orthodox churches that dot the mountainsides around Adigrat, and “half the town was destroyed.”

He never had anything against Eritreans before, he said. But now, “I am ready at any time to fight because I don’t want to suffer like this anymore. It’s better to fight than to beg.”

That martial spirit and thirst for revenge are evident among the thousands of soldiers, both regular troops and militia members, who have poured into Adigrat and its environs during the past three weeks. Many are veterans of Ethiopia’s 17-year civil war who were only recently demobilized but have now been called back to service.

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In a wood next to a stream just outside town, the members of the militia camp out and wait for orders.

When two journalists appeared, they began to dance and shout out the courage-building chants that their ancestors, wielding spears and shields made of hippopotamus hides, employed when Ethiopians faced Italian invaders.

“Even with stones, we will fight!” the chant leader shouted, as the soldiers whirled around him in a kind of dance in which they brandished their Kalashnikovs, waved knives and bayonets and enacted a battle in pantomime. “I will not miss my target! . . . We will win!”

Weldes Sellaissie, a volunteer who received his old automatic rifle and one month of military training two years ago when he enlisted, insisted: “I will fight to the end of my days.”

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Although he does not even speak the Tigrayan language of the people of Adigrat, he said he is ready to die for them because “I know this was Ethiopia’s land. It is our land.”

And many have fallen already for it, said Col. Efraim Bangey, an Ethiopian army commander on Dongola Mountain, three miles south of Zalambessa, where soldiers in camouflage hid behind huge tawny boulders. From this vantage point, the Ethiopians peer into Zalambessa, still held by the Eritreans.

This week, the fighting has ebbed, except for occasional exchanges of tank and artillery fire. Efraim said the Ethiopian forces are biding their time, waiting for international negotiations, before taking back the town.

Although Efraim would not give any Ethiopian casualty figures, he insisted that 800 Eritreans were killed here between June 4 and June 8, when they made a fierce attempt to break through the Ethiopian lines.

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“They are beaten, so all is quiet now,” he said.

At the bottom of the mountain, there are still many Eritrean bodies lying in the sun, unburied, Efraim said.

Journalists were not allowed to visit this no man’s land, where they would be exposed to Eritrean guns. But the commander’s account was corroborated by shepherds and cattle herders on the mountain.

One herder boy, perhaps 10 years old, claimed that he had seen about 200 corpses.

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