There's not much left of Zalambessa. Shops have been flattened and the roofs and front walls of houses ripped down, revealing brightly colored interiors. Ethiopia says the town was destroyed two years ago, when Eritrean soldiers invaded Ethiopia and stripped the buildings in this small town of tin roofing and wooden doors to use in their trenches. Pastoral scenes painted on walls, however, were still in place last week when Ethiopian troops finally retook the town. The military operation was an important one: using a well-orchestrated pincer movement, Ethiopian generals squeezed the Eritrean army like a tube of toothpaste, forcing the exhausted Eritrean soldiers back into their own territory--a deep defeat.
The capture of the border town of Zalambessa raised hopes of a quick end to the conflict between the Horn of Africa neighbors. Fighting continued to the north of Zalambessa late last week, despite the fact that Eritrea had said it would withdraw from all disputed territory to its prewar position. Ethiopia seems happy to press its advantage home and grind down the Eritrean army as a way to ensure future peace.
The war has been called Africa's most senseless, which is saying a lot for a continent where petty squabbles have started wars. Eritrea has had formal independence from Ethiopia for less than a decade--but it has spent the past two years in conflict with its neighbor. The fighting began in 1998, centered on a 154-sq.-mi. disputed triangle of rocky, barren land near the border town of Badme. Since then, an uneasy stalemate has been punctuated by short but fierce set-piece battles that have left tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. Unlike other African wars, which typically pitch poorly armed rebel groups against each other or against government troops, both Ethiopia and Eritrea have used warplanes, including Sukhoi 27 fighters and MiG-29 interceptors, combat helicopters, multi-barreled rocket launchers and tanks. Military analysts in the region estimate that each country, among the poorest in the world, has spent about $1 million a day on the war.
News of Ethiopia's victory in Zalambessa was received with jubilation in the capital, Addis Ababa. Thousands of people gathered in the city's main square and cheered on truckloads of waving Ethiopian soldiers. At the office of the government representative, a computer screen saver read, ZALAMBESSA LIBERATED!! Chief spokeswoman Selome Taddesse popped open a bottle of Ethiopian Champagne as her staff danced to a popular song celebrating past Ethiopian victories. "I've been waiting for this day for two years," said Taddesse.
In the Eritrean capital, Asmara, the mood was somber and uncertain. Colored lights and strings of flags hung in the streets, but these were leftovers from last Wednesday's celebration of independence day. There was no Champagne. The Eritreans, presumably, are saving that for the arrival of a real peace.
--By Simon Robinson/Zalambessa. With reporting by Helen Gibson/London