- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2001

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The young soldier was trying to convince his mother that Ethiopias 21/2-year border war with Eritrea was really over, and that he would be safe returning to his post. But she just sat and sobbed.

Moments earlier, a neighbor and two officials had come to Alemitu Bellayneh´s door with the news that her older son, Kifle Ghirma, was killed in action on the Zalembessa front, the site of heavy fighting last May.

She didn´t want her other son, Pvt. Besu-Fekad Ghirma, to leave her after his 15-day furlough.

"I kept weeping all day, but I cannot bring Kifle back, can I? What I am worried about now is him," she said, pointing to her younger son as neighborhood women roasted beans over a charcoal burner for afternoon coffee.

Four months after the war over the 620-mile border ended with a peace treaty on Dec. 12, 2000, the Ethiopian Defense Ministry began informing families of their losses, some dating back years. But it refuses to put a number on total war casualties.

In Eritrea, presidential spokesman Yemani Gebremeskel said the government has not begun informing Eritrean families of deaths but pledged it would be done "in our own way."

"The people will be told. It is important to tell them fully what happened … the name, when the person died and which battle," he said.

Throughout most of the conflict that broke out in May 1998, both sides claimed to have killed and wounded tens of thousands of enemy soldiers in battles fought along conventional front lines and often with heavy artillery. But neither country has ever given even partial figures for its own losses.

Western military analysts using satellite imagery say losses of more than 30,000 on each side would not be surprising. Ethiopia has an estimated population of 62 million; Eritrea has about 4.1 million people.

As far as can be determined, most of the dead were buried where they died.

Ethiopia began the process of informing families April 1. Notification is being carried out by officials of the country´s "weredas," or administrative districts, with assistance from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Medhin Gebre-Hiwo, deputy chairman of Addis Ababa´s Wereda 13, said the "elaborate, delicate and discreet" preparations took several months and involved painstaking checking and double-checking against a master list of the next-of-kin and address of each dead soldier.

It´s a cumbersome process — just in the capital, Addis Ababa, a city of 2.4 million, there are 20 weredas divided into 305 "kebeles," or subdistricts. Mrs. Medhin would say nothing about the number of dead, even in her own wereda.

"Each family is entitled to a six-month salary and a pension," she said. The so-called pension, also a lump sum, varies by rank. An Ethiopian army private earns the equivalent of about $51 a month — a hefty sum compared with the country´s annual per capita income of about $120.

On the fateful day, two representatives of the respective wereda and a trusted neighbor call on the family.

"A stranger cannot knock on the door of a family and inform them of the death of their son," Mrs. Medhin said. "Sending a stranger on such a mission is considered inhuman under Ethiopian custom."

The family is usually expecting the bad news because neighbors have already raised a traditional canopy over the courtyard and the wereda has sent food for the customary three days of mourning.

A day after the official mourning, Kassa Haile was still lying on a mattress in his living room, lamenting the loss of his 24-year-old son, Pvt. Teferra Kassa. Beside him was his neighbor and friend Konjit Haile, who had been chosen to deliver the bad news to the 82-year-old retired army corporal and his wife.

"After I told them of Teferra´s death, the corporal almost fainted, and his wife screamed so loudly that all the neighbors descended on the house. In a few minutes, it was full of weeping and wailing people. You see, this is not the first time they have lost a son in action," he said, pointing to photographs of four young men on the wall.

Mr. Kassa´s first two sons were killed in the 30-year war that ultimately resulted in Eritrea´s independence from Ethiopia in 1993. A third son remains officially missing in action from that war.

Mr. Kassa received condolences from neighbors on his narrow verandah. He said he was proud his son had died defending his country´s sovereignty, then he burst into tears.

"Of course, we will miss him," he sobbed. "He was so young."


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