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new internationalist
issue 317 - October 1999

Spice is nice,
but war’s a bore

Christopher Shewen knows why a war in Africa, fought
between cousins, is ignored by the mainstream media.

Open-air grave on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

ON the same day in May 1998 two things happened. Gerri Halliwell quit the Spice Girls and war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea. One story got full front-page coverage in Britain, the other a few meagre words buried in the deadground of a couple of broadsheets. The career change of a transient pop star cuts more media ice than half-a-million troops squaring up for the biggest current land war, between two of the poorest countries on earth. This is called the ‘cuddliness factor’ – spice is cuddly, a major war in Africa is not.

The mystery does not lie in the origins of this war – basically a common-or-garden border dispute – but in why it is almost unreported by the mainstream media. This is not a blink-and-you-miss-it, low-intensity guerrilla war. This is the full-on, 16-month-old, 600-kilometre-battlefront, 70,000-dead, corpse-strewn variety of war, featuring ethnic cleansing, mass deportations and six-digit refugee figures. As thousands died weekly during the heaviest fighting, the lead media stories in Britain were the royal wedding, Wimbledon tennis and – to be fair – Kosovo. There is a perception that war in Africa is like kids getting flu: annoying, inconvenient, messy, unavoidable... it happens, y’know. The same feelings seem to pervade the half-hearted international peace-brokering attempts, which generally have more political flavour than diplomatic effort and are seemingly driven only by the small potential kudos of success.

There might have been more interest all round if this war had produced charismatic and sexy personalities. Visualize: ‘World Exclusive With Mysterious Commander X!’ Cut to handsome Ché lookalike, chinbeard, red bandana, ‘fighting for the people!’ This is editorial dream material. Seventy thousand Africans dead in bloody trench warfare is not. An editorial eyebrow almost twitched when it emerged that a third of Eritrean combat troops are women. Perhaps there could be a feminist angle, or maybe a romance-in-the-trenches story. But it was all too far from home, and ‘where the hell is Eritrea anyway?’

Many of the 268,000 refugees live under blue tarpaulins pathetically smeared with mud for camouflage, and they have been attacked by MIG fighters with 50-rounds-per-second fire capability, while suffering from malnutrition, disease and flooding.

Eritrea and Ethiopia share a common ethnicity with much cultural crossover, but there is no jingoism, only bitter disillusion, as both sides describe the conflict in fratricidal terms. In a war driven by a tiny handful of politicians, soldiers on both sides feel like murderers. The Ethiopian Army used its dissenting-minority tribespeople in their thousands as human mine-sweepers. Among the sun-dried death-grins on the battlefield corpses one can sometimes see the immature white teeth of boys as young as 14.

In the final analysis it’s not a sexy story, there is no oil, no known minerals and no strategic value. Oh yes, and also they’re Africans. After all, one million people have died in the continuing Sudan war, full in the face of world indifference.

Christopher Shewen is a freelance photographer based in Somerset, England.

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