Eritrean leader gets sobering homecoming at end of 30-year war


AFABET, Ethiopia -- At the end of Africa's longest and bloodiest war in modern times, Isaias Afwerki returned home Thursday to this rocky, sandy outpost near the Red Sea, the victorious leader of Eritrea, a province that has fought for independence for 30 years.

But the Eritrean rebel chief's homecoming, in a khaki Land Cruiser driven through a bush border post in Sudan, was not the jubilant affair that could have been expected after the long struggle ending last month in the ouster of the government of President Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Mr. Isaias' vehicle had to weave between hundreds of bloated bodies of Ethiopian soldiers, dead from thirst and heat exhaustion as they tried to reach sanctuary in Sudan. Some bodies already had been scavenged by animals.

A few miles on, hundreds more soldiers, with scanty rations and not enough water, struggled on under parching sun. They picked their way between bodies on these thinly populated, barren plains, where it has not rained for two years and the few local people live off famine relief.

Deeper inside Eritrea, between the towns of Teseney and Barentu, lay the bodies of Ethiopian soldiers, victims of the last battle for the province.

For Mr. Isaias and those with him, the sights struck a sobering mood that proved difficult to lift with music from the --board tape deck.

"When you see such destruction you forget about victory," he said. "It's a very sad thing to see these innocent people put in this position, thirsty and hungry and even if they survive, no future to look forward to."

TTC Mr. Mengistu, who fled his country May 21, "should be made to see this," Mr. Isaias said. "He is living in a nice villa in Zimbabwe and he sent these people to their death."

With its victory, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front led by Mr. Isaias has formed a provisional government here in the province. It and the other two members of the loosely aligned Ethiopian rebel coalition are preparing to meet no later than July 1 to form a transitional government for the country as a whole.

Under arrangements mediated by the United States as the Mengistu government crumbled last month, the capital of Addis Ababa is under the control of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, a force dominated by guerrillas from Tigre Province. It is unclear whether the Tigrean-dominated front, which traditionally has espoused national unity, will support the Eritreans' goal of independence.

Mr. Isaias, who returned here after the U.S.-mediated peace talks in London, said he would defer aplanned referendum on independence for Eritrea for a year or more, according to his aides, to ensure that stability prevails in Ethiopia.

This country's rulers, drawn for the last century from the Amhara ethnic group, have opposed a separate Eritrea, saying it would leave the rest of the country landlocked and lead to a further fragmentation of the ethnically diverse land.

Mr. Isaias, 45, said that Eritreans were content for the moment to be "spiritually" independent. "We are still searching for a definition but we are not bothered by that," he said in London before coming home.

After a 10-hour drive from Sudan, Mr. Isaias arrived unannounced after midnight in Keren, the second-largest center in Eritrea.

Over three decades of strife, members of the Eritrean front normally functioned at night -- to keep underground factories going, for example -- while sleeping during the day to avoid the bombing raids of the Ethiopian air force. The habit is so ingrained that even in victory manypeople remain nocturnal.

While his name is well-publicized by radio in a largely illiterate society, Mr. Isaias was not recognized the next morning and he made no effort to make his presence felt. One of his aide said it was not the Eritrean way to promote a cult of a personality, in contrast with the Ethiopian tradition of emperors and then Mr. Mengistu.

Of immediate concern, Mr. Isaias said, was what to do with the enormous amount of Soviet arms captured from the Ethiopian army, the largest army in sub-Saharan Africa. It is a quantity that he said far exceeds the requirements of the fighting force he plans to keep intact until a United Nations-sponsored referendum can be held. He said he was considering selling some of it as scrap metal, perhaps to the Japanese, to gain cash to start the overwhelming task of reconstruction for a people impoverished by the war and famine.

In the last several years, the Eritreans were joined by the roughly 80,000 fighters of the Tigrean-dominated front -- largely trained by the Eritreans -- and by a less powerful rebel group drawn from the Oromos, the largest ethnic group in the country, which seeks autonomy or separation for much of the southern half of Ethiopia.

The Eritrean Front, which ditched its Marxist-Leninist principles in the 1980s, has argued thatEritrea, an area of 3 million to 5 million Christians and Muslims that was colonized by Italy in the 19th century, was unfairly handed back to Ethiopia by the British in 1952 as part of a federation. It also contends that Emporer Haile Selassie abrogated the federation agreement in 1962.

In late May, as negotiations began in London on the future of Ethiopia, the military situation was a fait accompli: The Tigrean-led front walked into the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, with the blessing of the United States, sponsor of the talks.

Before returning here, Mr. Isaias capitalized on the moment and announced in London that Eritrea was forming a provisional government, separate from the one being set up by its allies in Addis Ababa.

The military victory and announcement of the provisional government has changed outside perceptions of the front.

Italy, which had hesitated over donating $3 million in medical aid because of its diplomatic relationship with the Mengistu government, said it would release the money.

France has promised its first airlift of assistance this week. The U.S. ambassador to Sudan, James Cheek, who has been the moving force behind the distribution of much of the American famine relief that has gone to Eritrea through the Sudanese border, invited the Eritrean leader to his residence for a chat last week.

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