MASSAWA, ERITREA Massawa is a broken city.
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Half of its once busy port is rubble and the surviving buildings struggle to stand up. Iron rods and barbed wire prod out of their crumbling Ottoman facades, as if to warn visitors “come no further.” But few visit anyway.
The streets are empty, the 44 degrees Celsius heat too oppressive for anyone to come out. It is silent, save for the caw of crows and the soft purr of a café’s electricity generator. Even the Red Sea doesn’t make a sound.
This is Africa’s secret Aleppo, and like that infamous Syrian city, it was devastated by the indiscriminate weapon which most of the world’s countries have had the good sense to ban: cluster bombs.
Today, few outside of Eritrea remember the massacre at Massawa, where 50,000 people still live, but in this abandoned port, the bombed-out Ottoman buildings and their residents bear witness to what happened with such clarity, it is difficult to forget.
The bombardment in 1990 was a last-ditch attempt by Ethiopia to demoralize the Eritrean guerrilla movement, which had liberated Massawa and stood on the cusp of winning independence after one of the longest-running guerilla wars in history.
Warplanes circulated around the bay for days, relentlessly bombing civilian areas. Napalm instantly incinerated buildings – and their inhabitants – at temperatures of 1,000 degrees Celsius. Cluster bombs landed and sent lethal ‘sub-explosives’ propelling in random directions, killing children and blowing off their parents’ limbs.
“Mengistu [Haile Mariam] has decided to burn us like wood,” a resident said of Ethiopia’s Marxist dictator at the time. Massawa was indeed some bonfire: Unpublished pictures from the massacre show a confused child whose back has been turned into raw flesh, a survivor whose face has been burnt off, and bodies lying face-down on the blood-stained streets.
Who armed the murderous Ethiopian warlord Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu, now convicted of killing half a million of his own citizens during his regime’s death throes?
It wasn’t Washington. It wasn’t the Kremlin. As memos, foreign press reports and the person who brokered the deal have since revealed, it was the Israeli Knesset.
Israel would not confirm the allegations levelled against it at the time. Ruth Yaron, its spokesperson in Washington, told an LA Times reporter in 1990: “We don’t sell cluster bombs to Ethiopia, and we don’t give them either.” Probed on whether Israel had sent them in the past, she replied, “I wouldn’t be able to answer that.” This was little surprise, as Israel had historically declined to say whether it was sending arms and military advisors to Ethiopia.
But a confidential Congressional document leaked to Washington’s Jewish press, as well as foreign reports by newspapers and human rights organizations provided details about the alleged events. And the historical literature written since – including the memoirs of Herman Cohen – has examined them in depth.
By 1989, the Ethiopian communist regime was in terminal decline, embattled by coordinated Eritrean and Tigray ethnic uprisings and practically bankrupt: The government was spending over half of its revenue on arms, and servicing its debt took $530,500,000 per year.
Now it had also lost its superpower sugar daddy, the Soviets, who themselves stood on the brink of financial collapse and would not bankroll their communist client state as it tried to repel these secessionist movements. Their 15- year-long alliance abruptly ended.
The Americans wouldn’t become Ethiopia’s superpower patron again either, even as Mengitsu came to them cap in hand begging for weapons, citing humanitarian concerns about arming his military and, as Herman Cohen writes, privately believing the “countdown to regime collapse” was well and truly underway.
Running out of luck and out of friends, Mengitsu, Israel and America arranged a quid pro quo, which, according to foreign reports, went as follows: Israel would covertly arm his government and in return the Israel Defense Forces could airlift the Ethiopian Jews, directly out of Ethiopia to Israel. America would give a “wink and a nudge,” Cohen wrote in his memoirs, and in return Israel would not supply any “lethal” weapons.
Israel responded by furnishing the Ethiopian military with 150,000 bolt-action rifles, according to foreign reports. The IDF in turn received permission to enter the country and begin airlifts on a scale and scope previously impossible – in 1991 the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs reported that 1,000 Ethiopian Jews were leaving per month, up from 250 on average across the previous year.
Israel then ignored Washington’s explicit warnings about destructive weapons, “the ones which really worried us,” writes Cohen, and handed the Ethiopians a big, ribbon-wrapped present: a hundred or so cluster bombs.
America sternly reminded Israel of its original commitments. According to former Harvard fellow and Africa researcher Alex de Waal, the White House even commissioned one of its former presidents to help. “You don’t need to sell Mengistu fragmentation bombs in order to persuade him to let your people go,” Jimmy Carter is quoted as saying to MK Dedi Zuker.
But by then it was too late. Mengistu had developed his “scorched earth” policy and would soon begin indiscriminately bombing civilian areas in Massawa.
While brutal, the bombings did not deter the Eritreans, whose guerilla forces advanced up the coast and defeated the mutinous Ethiopian army at Asmara weeks later. Independence was inevitable: Mengistu fled to a farm in Zimbabwe, where he received political asylum from his old friend Robert Mugabe, and Ethiopia’s interim government agreed to hold a referendum on Eritrean statehood – later won by a 99.8-percent landslide.
Twenty five years after declaring independence, Eritrea is one of the most isolated countries in the world. The result of its policy of so-called “self-sufficiency” is that it is doubly forgotten: by time and the international community.
Even in this context, Massawa is especially imprisoned by its past. Walking through the port you see several suited men with one trouser leg neatly rolled up and stapled closed, the fabric flapping in the wind – their legs blown off by either cluster bombs or mines.
Most of the buildings are also unable to stand on their own, so structurally unsound they have been abandoned. Those which still stand tend to be homes – although many of the city’s residents have left – or cafes whose customers are Eritreans from the capital or seamen passing through the port on cargo ships heading up the Gulf of Aden.
“Where are you from? Have you come from the ships?” Tesfay, an excited English teacher still living in the city, asks. “No one else comes here, only a few cargo ships.” People like him live the reality of this ghost town every day. They are its ghosts.
The exact motive behind Israel’s decision to reportedly supply such lethal weapons remains unclear. Wrong, the foreign correspondent specializing in Africa, says Israel was “excited” by the surge in Ethiopian arrivals and wanted to up the number of airlifts at any cost.
Similarly, de Waal says Israel was motivated by a desire to remove Jews from Ethiopia as rapidly as possible because the country’s communist regime was so unstable and when it fell, there could be anti-Semitic reprisals by the new government.
Yet 10,000 Ethiopian Jews still remain in the transit camps of Addis Ababa and Gondar waiting to travel to Israel, and none of the allegedly feared reprisals took place against those people. It was only this year, over two decades on, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally pledged to bring them all to Israel.
Many see the Ethiopian Jews’ movement to Israel as one of the most triumphant events in Jewish history. But the way it reportedly took place was arguably one of the least flattering. Congressional aide Steve Morrison asked at the time, “How many Ethiopian lives can be justified for the sake of an Ethiopian Jew having the opportunity to reunify with his family in Israel?”
In the port of Massawa, Eritreans sit in crumbling Ottoman buildings and sip on Italian coffee. They drive rusting East German cars, eat Ethiopian flatbread and watch English soccer. There are endless external influences in this hermetically sealed country.
But the imprint of war is what’s not here – no electricity, no running water, still no people on the streets. In this sense, in a city invisible to the world, the massacre of Massawa is there for anyone to see.