By Dan Connell
KEREN — The road to Keren, Eritrea's second largest city, is littered with the twisted, rusting remains of Ethiopian army vehicles — Fiat transports, heavy-duty Russian trucks, eight-wheeled BRDM-2 armoured cars and T-54 and T-55 tanks. The highway itself is in shreds, its ageing asphalt surface torn up by military traffic and apparently not repaired for over a decade.
But it is not only the land that wears the ugly scars of a war that engulfed this contested Red Sea territory for more than 30 years. An estimated 50,000 Eritrean combatants and as many as 200,000 civilians lost their lives. Another 11,000 people were permanently maimed before the brutal regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam fell last May, bringing an end to Eritrea's long and bitter fight for independence.
Ethiopian casualties were probably three or four times this number, though precise figures do not exist. The new Transitional Government of Ethiopia says that the former regime armed and trained over 1 million soldiers in 15 years and lost 320,000 of them in combat in Eritrea and elsewhere in Ethiopia. Tragically, the suffering is not yet over.
Recently three young boys herding their sheep and cattle on the slopes of Mt Lalamba on the outskirts of Keren were severely wounded when one of the animals stepped on a hidden land mine, left behind by panicked Ethiopian forces who fled to neighbouring Sudan on May 25, the day after the Eritrean People's Liberation Front captured Asmara, the Eritrean capital, and brought the war to an abrupt end.
Fifteen-year-old Idris Hamed lost one eye and suffered a compound leg fracture. Nuredin Farig also lost an eye. Eighteen-year-old Jamel Ali Jaber lost both of his legs.
The three boys are the latest of more than 200 civilian land mine casualties in Keren alone since the end of the fighting, according to doctors at the Keren hospital. They say that 90% of the serious injuries they now treat are land mine victims. The youngest amputee to date is five years old.
Officials of the provisional government of Eritrea, as the former insurgents now call themselves, say they have removed over 200,000 mines from farmland around Keren and more than 1 million elsewhere in Eritrea. They also warn that thousands more are still buried in the rocky soil here.
The problem is compounded by the rush of many local residents to resume agricultural activity after more than two years during which they were forcibly prevented from entering their fields. After EPLF fighting units entered the area in 1988, following the surprise defeat of government forces north of Keren at Af Abet, local authorities cleared a "cordon sanitaire" 10 kilometres from Keren and mined the entire strip around the city, farmers interviewed here say.
However, with a severe drought now in its second year and with the dstill due to the effects of the war, many farmers are anxious to get back to work. They are returning to plough their fields or to graze their animals regardless of the continuing danger from mines.
Idris Hamed Ali, 60, was walking from his village to the market in Keren when he inadvertently triggered a land mine and blew his right leg off below the knee. "I was a carpenter — now I can do nothing", he said sadly.
Meanwhile, Keren has other problems as well. The city, whose population in the 1970s was only 20-25,000, swelled to three times its former size as displaced and impoverished villagers sought refuge here from fighting that reached a terrible peak in its last months.
"The mountains were flaming, all roads were blocked, and whole villages were reduced to debris. It was beyond the medieval times of Europe", said Afa Ghebre, a relief worker here with the Eritrean Catholic Secretariat.
Now that some villagers are returning to their homes outside Keren, however, other refugees are flowing in from squalid camps across the border in Sudan, where more than 500,000 Eritreans sought sanctuary over the past quarter century. This is putting a severe strain on Keren's meagre municipal resources, already stretched to the breaking point, local officials say.
Water, in short supply due to prolonged drought, is now being trucked daily to crowded neighbourhoods that lack functioning wells. Electricity is rationed, unemployment levels are extremely high, and most of the population is subsisting on donated relief grain.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is establishing a headquarters in Eritrea to assist returnees, but the official repatriation program is not scheduled to begin until January. Meanwhile, local Eritrean officials are struggling to keep up with the current influx. What they fear most is that returning refugees will camp in Keren rather than resettle in the countryside. "It will take time and much help to get these people back to their villages", said Keren deputy mayor Mohammed Saleh. "It is hard to convince them to go home because we have services here in Keren, and there is nothing for them to go back to in their villages."