Eritreans plea for peace in native land

by David Anderson

Before leaving for the University in 1996 for a doctorate in geography, Yohannes Gubsa was a lecturer at the University of Asmara in the Eritrean capital.
Eritrea, which seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, is a small nation in northeastern Africa.
“Eritrea back then was quite a peaceful country,” Gubsa said.
Four years later, both Eritrea and Ethiopia are engaged in one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts. The two-year war over territorial boundaries has killed tens of thousands and led to numerous human-rights abuses.
Populations on both sides of the border have been displaced.
“It’s a government-sponsored looting of property,” said Alamin Adam, another Eritrean student at the University. Adam is a senior in food sciences.
More than 600 local Eritreans and Ethiopians gathered on the steps of the State Capitol in St. Paul on Tuesday in a plea to the international community for peace in the Horn of Africa. The march was part of an “Eritrean World-Wide Call for Peace.”
For eight months, the two countries have been working toward peace, although each side accuses each other of breaking the cease-fire.
“Those kind of things cannot be resolved entirely by force,” said Gubsa. “We have to give peace a chance. That is what we’re trying to do in this march.”
Gubsa, 38, went back to Eritrea last summer. As a demographics buff, he interviewed people who had been displaced from both sides. What he learned was many people were forced from their homes because of their nationalities. Eritreans were forced from Ethiopia and vice-versa.
Gubsa, whose wife and children followed him to Minnesota right after the conflict began, hopes to finish his doctorate sometime next year. He plans to return to his lecturing job in Asmara afterwards.
A war over land
A former Italian colony, Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in a 1993 referendum after decades of guerrilla warfare.
In 1997, the once-solid relations between the two countries were tainted by economic and territorial disputes. One year later, war broke out.
U.S. special envoy Anthony Lake and his counterpart from the Organization of African Unity, Ahmed Ouyahia, are in the Horn to discuss the conflict with local officials at Asmara and Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.
Representatives from both countries say they accepted the OAU proposal for a peace plan. Each blames the opposite side for not respecting the cease-fire.
An eight-month lull in the fighting was interrupted when Eritrean and Ethiopian forces clashed Feb. 24 in the Bura area of eastern Eritrea.
Gubsa and Adam said, unlike Eritrea, the Ethiopian government has made little effort toward peace.
“It doesn’t look like there is any hope, because the Ethiopian government refuses to accept the peace plan by the OAU,” said Adam.
Gubsa said the leaders in Addis Ababa have to come to terms with resolving the conflict.
Local march, worldwide impact
Marchers at the Capitol encouraged Minnesotans to contact their representatives about the need for the international community to press both sides of the conflict for peace.
“Eritreans are a very forgiving people,” said local Eritrean community organizer Petros Haile. “We are willing to work with Ethiopians.”
The march for peace was completely nonviolent. On the Capitol steps, the crowd waving Eritrean and U.S. flags gathered to listen to a number of speakers who called for Ethiopia to sign the peace treaty and for the United States to take action for peace in the region.
“When you add (the facts) up, (the war) is not for the benefit of either of the people,” Haile said.
Sens. Chuck Wigger, DFL-North St. Paul, and Linda Scheid, DFL-Brooklyn Park, gave their support to the marchers in resolving what Sen. Wigger called a “gross human-rights violation.”
Adam said the Ethiopian military drafts adolescents as young as 13 to increase its size. He also said the governments in Eritrea and Ethiopia — two of the world’s poorest countries — should use its resources to fight the famine rather than finance the military.
Some marchers attended the senate while it was in session. Haile said there are about 3,000 Eritreans in Minnesota.
“We are civilians, we have nothing to do with politics,” said Gubsa. “But we are concerned with the conflict.”