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Out of the Wreckage of War, Eritrea Finds Reason to Hope

By Nora Boustany, Washington Post, Friday 15 December 15, 2000; Page A32

In hindsight, was the 2 1/2-year Ethiopia-Eritrea war for control of an arid patch of wasteland worth it for the Eritreans? No, was the answer of Yemane Gebreab, a political adviser to Eritrean President Issaias Afwerki. And not just in hindsight.

The war resulted in thousands of dead, almost a million displaced Eritreans and losses running to millions of dollars. What was lost in terms of opportunities is much more difficult to assess, he added.

But following the signing of a formal peace agreement Tuesday in Algiers, Yemane said, We have an agreement now to demarcate the border. . . . We are planning a major demobilization and a major scaling down of our forces. It will start very soon [along with] drastic reduction of military spending. The accord was signed by Issaias and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, following intensive mediation efforts by the Organization of African Unity, the United States and the United Nations.

The World Bank has come out in support of a $270 million emergency reconstruction package. The bank and the European Union have come up with $90 million, and Italy and other countries will be providing the balance, according to Yemane. While we work on reconstruction, we are trying to interface that with the development phase, he added.

What has been remarkable, and offers the country a lot of hope, Yemane said, is how the conflict brought Eritreans together, from all walks of life, all over the world, especially the young generation.

It has brought young people to the center of the political process. We saw this not just in Eritrea, but here, in Europe and among all communities in the diaspora. Because of this war, they have become engaged in ways we never imagined, he said. At the height of the crisis last May, 3,000 Eritreans living abroad bought prize plots of land in Asmara, the capital, for a total of $29 million so they can eventually build homes there. During the war, Eritrea sold bonds and raised up to $200 million in contributions from the diaspora.

In December of next year, Eritrea is planning elections to its 150-seat legislature, which will choose the next president. Eritreans who live abroad and who are allowed to hold dual citizenship will have to make individual choices on whether they want to vote, he added. For us, Eritreans all over the world have the right to vote. A commission has been set up to create the legal framework for political parties, but there will probably not be enough time for parties to emerge in time for election campaigns, the adviser said. What we expect are independent candidates.

Yemane said Anthony Lake, President Clinton’s troubleshooter for the Horn of Africa and the author of a new book called Six Nightmares, referred to the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict as his seventh nightmare. It looks like the nightmare is over.