WASHINGTON—While the eyes of the world were focused on the Balkans, new fighting erupted in June between Ethiopia and its former colony, Eritrea.

A Vatican statement released May 21 made reference to the conflict as one of the world's “forgotten wars.” A number of those struggles, it said, “bear a striking resemblance to the Kosovo conflict but have proved even more deadly.”

Specifically, the Holy See said the brutal conflict between Ethiopia and its northern neighbor Eritrea is one of the conflicts that is “soaking Africa in blood.”

Indeed, fighting from June 13 to 19 between the recently liberated Ethiopia and its former colony, Eritrea, was the bloodiest yet, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department told the Register. The fighting, which began over a border dispute in early May 1998, shows no signs of letting up.

The State Department puts the total number dead from the war at around 60,000. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the apostolic nuncio to Ethiopia, reported a slightly more conservative death toll, but shared similar figures as the State Department for the number of wounded at around 80,000.

Neither set of estimates accounts for losses incurred in June's devastating clash.

By comparison, the 400,000 combined number of combatants in the war dwarfs the 30,000 Serb regulars and 2,000 ethnic Albanian guerrillas who are at odds in Kosovo.

On Capitol Hill, a small number of congressmen have followed the war in Ethiopia with great interest. “The outbreak of hostilities last May caught many off guard,” said House Subcommittee on African Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, D-Ohio, in a meeting May 25. “To compound this tragedy, these are two of the poorest countries in the world. Hopes for economic progress that were fostered over the last several years have been snuffed out.”

In a statement he gave before Royce's subcommittee, Adotei Akwei, African advocacy director at Amnesty International, described the war as, “mystifying, depressing, and, I would personally argue, a tragic waste. Border disputes should not be allowed to displace over 600,000 people.”

Prime Minister Zenawi Meles has headed the government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia since 1995 when he stepped in to replace a transitional government put in place after a grueling 30-year civil war which resulted in the overthrow of the ruling Marxist regime. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki has led his country's ruling party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice, since Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

Paradoxically, the two leaders, now engaged in brutal conflict, were brothers in arms during Ethiopia's civil war.

Freedom House, an international human rights monitoring organization based in New York, reports that mediation efforts by U.S. and African leaders have failed. Moreover, they fear that the current war between Ethiopia and Eritrea will exacerbate regional disputes with other countries.

In its soon to be released report on human rights violations in the Horn of Africa, Freedom House reports that, “the clashes with Ethiopia, added to Eritrea's near state of war with neighboring Sudan, may reinforce [the Eritrean govern-ment's] already authoritarian tendencies.”

Papal Pleas

Pope John Paul II has repeatedly expressed his sorrow over conflict in the Horn of Africa. In an May 11 address given at the Vatican to the bishops of the region, the Pope said, “God has blessed his children with an intelligence and creativity which can resolve tensions and conflict, and which can succeed in building a society whose cornerstone is respect for the inalienable dignity of every human person.”

“The Pope has been practically the only one to consistently call attention to these forgotten wars of Africa,” Archbishop Tomasi, the papal nuncio since 1996, said in response to the Holy Father's encouragement.

Archbishop Tomasi contrasted the Pope's comments with what he called a Western tendency to concentrate on “first world” problems.

“The risk,” he said, “is that humanitarian agencies end up, “channeling resources to one part of the world and forgetting the other.”

In May, when Archbishop Tomasi was asked for his assessment of the war, he said, “We are in a very delicate moment where pessimism seems to be the rule.”

He added that although Ethiopian and Eritrean authorities have rejected proposals for a resolution to the war by the Organization on African Unity, the U.S. State Department, and an interfaith gathering of religious leaders for both countries, there is “a will to keep the talks alive in order to avoid violence.”

A senior State Department official told the Register that U.S. expectations for peace and prosperity in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and for warm U.S. relations with both were “extraordinarily high,” before the war erupted in the border town of Badme last May. Both countries were perceived by the United States as paving the way toward democratization in the long troubled Horn of Africa, the official said.

It came as no less of a shock to the leaders of Eritrea and Ethiopia, who shared the United State's grand expectations for the region, where the civil war within Ethiopia had only recently yielded to peace, economic reform and democratization.

Roughly half of Ethiopia's 61 million people are Orthodox Christians, while the other half are Muslims. The million or so Catholic Ethiopians form what Archbishop Tomasi called a “lively” community. He said the one substantive disagreement between the Catholic minority and the Ethiopian Orthodox is the supremacy of the pope. “We are perfectly the same in doctrine, discipline, the sacraments, monastic traditions and other ways,” added Archbishop Tomasi.

Though food shortages remain a persistent problem in Ethiopia, they do not approach the scale of the famines of the mid-1980s, which, observers say, did not result entirely from natural causes.

According to Archbishop Tomasi, “If the country's resources, including its abundant water supply, were better managed, it could not only feed itself but feed half of Africa.”

The origins of the current conflict are equally frustrating. Referring to the border dispute that triggered the conflict, the State Department official said, “the thing that will make this sticky was that this was a provincial boundary. Because the two leaders thought they were like brothers there had never been any effort to demarcate it.”

Brian McGuire writes from Washington, D.C.