By Cheryl Hatch
Eritrea is a tiny piece of land the size of Pennsylvania in the Horn of Africa with a population of 3.5 million. It is one of Africa's poorest countries, with a population evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. The country had been colonized by Britain and Italy before the United Nations declared it a self-governed region mandated to its southern neighbor, Ethiopia, in 1952. For 30 years and with little international support, Eritrea waged a war for independence from Ethiopia, which had a population of 60 million and military support of the Soviet Union.
In 1991 Eritrea won autonomy and in 1993 the people elected Isaias Afwerki, the man who led them to victory, as president. In 1998, war erupted again in what some consider the world's bloodiest conflict: a border war that both sides say they don't want and neither can explain.
All the able-bodied men and women aged 18 to 35 are at the front, watching along 620 miles of hand-dug trenches on the Ethiopian border. In less than two years, an estimated 50,000 Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers have lost their lives in sporadic, epic battles reminiscent of World War I tactics, with waves of Ethiopian soldiers throwing themselves on the Eritrean defenses.
More than 150,000 people have been internally displaced from the border areas and now live in refugee camps. There are 250,000 to 268,000 war-displaced refugees. An additional 70,000 Eritreans have been deported from Ethiopia, forced to flee with nothing but the clothes on their backs, crossing the frontline on foot or in buses. Many have found family members and work in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, but about 10,000 are living in makeshift shelters in the desert lowlands near Barentu.