Ethiopia's Army Is Walking Home

Former government troops defeated by a coalition of rebel forces in May face long journeys

WHAT'S left of one of Africa's biggest and best-equipped armies is walking home.Stripped of their weapons, but still in uniform and carrying only their canteens and a few personal items, many of the foot-sore and exhausted remnants of Ethiopia's Army straggle into the northern Ethiopian town of Mekele. In May, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) defeated the Army of former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in the northern province after a 30-year war to gain independence. Now the Eritreans are booting the soldiers out. Most of those arriving at a transit camp in Mekele are bussed or trucked from Eritrea just over the border into Ethiopia proper. Then, depending on their physical condition, their journey on foot to Mekele takes three to five days. Most only want to reach home and resume normal lives. "I'll continue my farming," says Marcos Tadesse, from southern Ethiopia. m happy to be out of the military." But a few soldiers still want to fight. "I have never seen anyone so cruel and inhumane," says Sgt. Ahmedin Salih, speaking of his Eritrean captors. A career soldier, who joined the Ethiopian Army in 1978, Sergeant Ahmedin adds: "I hate them. In the future, maybe we can get some more training and start war with them again." While the defeated soldiers are in no position to start a war, they are of concern to the Tigrean-led Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which, along with other rebel groups, defeated Mr. Mengistu's Army in the rest of Ethiopia in May and now heads the new coalition government. "They don't want large numbers of soldiers to be lingering around," says Walter Stocker, an official with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is running the transit camps along with the Ethiopian Red Cross. So the government is screening the soldiers, separating out "for reeducation ... officers and perhaps career soldiers," Mr. Stocker says. Judging by the EPRDF'S record in areas they conquered, the "reeducation" is likely to be political. Meanwhile, Ethiopian academician and human rights activist Mesfin Walde-Mariam has accused the new government of "blatant disregard of human rights in its treatment of officers already being detained. Some 13,000 officers are being held in deplorable conditions in a facility near the capital, Addis Ababa," says Professor Mesfin, who has visited the facility. "There is insufficient food and [for most of the officers] no protection from sun or rain," Mesfin says. Ethiopia's new president, Melas Zenawi of the EPRDF, says the government will continue screening the soldiers prior to releasing them. United States officials have made no public statements about the detention camp, but a Western diplomat said conditions there are "pretty bad." Altogether, an estimated 150,000 Ethiopian soldiers were in Eritrea when the EPLF won. Thousands of them fled on foot to neighboring Sudan. Now, many of those soldiers have left Sudan and returned to other parts of northern Ethiopia. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees is flying others to Addis Ababa. Some of the soldiers arriving here are so exhausted their friends have to help them. On a recent dawn visit to the main transit camp, this reporter saw thousands of men sleeping in the open, huddled under cloth wrappers or camp-issued blankets. Many had put small rocks around their places in the dirt to lay claim to them and avoid being stepped on during the cold nights. The lucky ones, like Cheru Temessgen, had a sliver of sleeping space on black plastic inside one of the tents. A 13-year veteran, wounded four times, Mr. Cheru was only 17 when he volunteered for the military in 1978. "I was looking for work," he says. Thousands of other young Ethiopians were conscripted into the military, especially in the final, desperate years of the war. Now, Cheru is apprehensive about going home. He hasn't heard from his family in years. "In 13 years of military life, I didn't get any letter or message from my family. Some of my neighbors came and told me they were still alive. I'm not happy to go to my family, because I don't have money. I'll look for work - any work." But the unemployed already fill the streets of every Ethiopian town and city, their ranks swollen with returning soldiers. Ethiopia is one of the world's poorest countries, its economy shattered by 30 years of war. The government is giving each dismissed soldier the equivalent of US$65, and once home they will get several months worth of food from the ICRC and the Ethiopian Red Cross. But getting home is the problem. There is a shortage of trucks and buses in Ethiopia, and many of those arriving here and in other transit camps live hundreds of miles to the south. It may take "up till Christmas to get everyone home," says the ICRC's Stocker. A very few determined soldiers have continued south from here on foot. Four soldiers of the Oromo tribe met on the road about 20 miles south of Mekele were heading to their homes in southeastern Ethiopia. They said it would take them about two months to walk there. But just then, a truck driver stopped and agreed to take them to Desi, which would have taken two weeks to reach on foot. The driver said he would look for another ride for them south from there. The Eritreans have also been evicting the soldiers' families and, according to a variety of sources, many other non-Eritrean civilians. Some of the women expelled say they were stripped of their jewelry and other possessions before being evicted, according to their accounts given to foreign journalists in Ethiopia. These claims are strongly denied by EPLF head Isaias Aferworki. He has promised to investigate the charges, saying that any civilian found to have been forced out "can go back to Eritrea."

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