The border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea dominated international media coverage at the end of the 1990s, with come referring to it as the “last First World War of the 20th century.” Savage trench warfare raged. An estimated 100,000 Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers lost their lives. The infrastructure in both countries was devastated. As many as 500,000 residents of the disputed border area were displaced. The United Nations installed a peacekeeping presence there after a Cessation of Hostilities agreement was signed between the two countries in Algeria on June 18, 2000, under the auspices of the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union).
In September of that year, the UN Security Council authorized a full-scale peacekeeping operation, and on Dec. 12, the two countries signed a comprehensive peace agreement. Since then, peace has prevailed, with a long-negotiated border demarcation process about to begin in upcoming months.
The United Nations Mission for Ethiopia and Eritrea, or UNMEE, as the peacekeeping mission is known, has dual headquarters, in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and in Asmara. The mission is made up of more than 4,000 international troops, civilian staff and military observers. The peacekeeping troop contingents hail from India, Jordan, and Kenya, along with more than 200 Irish peacekeepers of the Irish Defense Forces, who arrived in the mission area in December 2001.
Ireland has been active in international peacekeeping for many years now, since soon after it joined the United Nations. As early as 1960, Irish soldiers served in the Congo as part of the ONUC effort. Eighteen years later, they began an ongoing mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL), where a revolving contingent of 600 soldiers completed an estimated 35,000 tours of duty through the years. In 1993, they served in Somalia, followed by stints in Kosovo and former Yugoslavia, where some still serve as part of the stabilization force.
In November 2001, after 23 years in Lebanon, the last of the peacekeeping soldiers returned home to much fanfare after finishing their longstanding service to the UN Mission there. But it wasn’t long before they set off again, this time to serve in Eritrea, which makes their third time as peacekeepers on the African continent.
“This is a very interesting and sensitive mission,” said Noel O’Grady of the UNMEE Public Information Office. “Both Ethiopia and Eritrea have endured much suffering because of the war, but tribute should be paid to both countries for their achievement in keeping the peace.
“There has been no violation of the peace accord, signed in 2000, making UNMEE a success story to date.”
The Irish contingents in UNMEE serve 6-month tours of duty, and there have been three rotations. Each has been made up both of experienced peacekeeping soldiers, such as the current commander, Lt. Col. Ray King, from Claremorris, Co. Mayo, who has been on five different tours of peacekeeping duty, and first-timers to the field, who are interested in the chance to serve as peacekeepers.
For Private Breeda Craig, from Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, it was a tremendous learning experience.
“It’s so wonderful to have the opportunity as a soldier, not only to work as a peacekeeper, but to experience a whole different culture, and meet people who have a whole different way of life,” she said. “That’s what has made the trip worthwhile for me.”
The Irish are mainly located in the Eritrean capital, where they carry out operations such as guard duties at the UNMEE headquarters and Force Headquarters, and logistics responsibilities. But assignments often take them farther afield, such as to provide military escort duties or accompany supply cordons navigate the difficult terrain.
Father Declan Foley, the last contingent’s chaplain, described traveling in the rural areas of the mission as “an eye opener — especially because of the whole famine connection, and what that means for Irish people.”
Said Foley: “It’s a very fragile part of the world, where they are dependent on the rains to survive. Some of the Irish NGOs [non-governmental organizations] are doing great work, and it’s impressive to see the countries getting back on their feet again after such a terrible conflict.”
Foley, who served two tours of Lebanon, also described what he calls some of the Irish contingent’s “greatest work” in humanitarian areas.
“This mission has a different pace from the one in Lebanon,” said Foley, “and so when the lads have downtime from their UN duties, it’s often spent helping out with local orphanages and schools, and doing fundraising work.”
So far, the peacekeepers’ efforts have included the refurbishing of schools and orphanages, the building of a playground and extensive fundraising ventures.
“Some of the most popular fundraising events include racing nights,” said Commandant Declan Lalor, a Corkman. “Soldiers, UN staff and members of the local community can come to bet on mock races run by homemade, colorfully painted wooden racehorses, which is great fun and all the proceeds go to selected charity projects. We have also had quiz nights and fundraising socials.”
Said Craig: “Serving with the Irish contingent, I think I can say that for many of us, the humanitarian aspect is seen to be almost as important as the role of peacekeepers.”
On behalf of the contingent, Lt. Col. King recently donated the Eritrean National Association for the Blind with equipment to the value of $2,200. It included a Braille typewriter, Braille copying paper, Braille watches, and walking canes. The association, in expressing its gratitude, noted that many of the 5,000 blind people in Eritrea sustained their injuries during the war, and many of them are children.
One Defense Forces group even went so far as to get sponsorship for a trip to Tanzania, where they climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, thereby achieving some life-long ambitions and raising thousands of dollars of humanitarian contributions.
Last Saint Patrick’s Day offered a new occasion for celebration in Eritrea, and was a welcome focus point not only for the Defense Forces, but also for Eritrea’s Irish community. The latter, made up of UN staff members, Irish aid workers and businessmen, were delighted to attend the ceremonies, which included a medal parade and a reception.
The events were presided over by the Irish minister for defense, Michael Smith, who traveled to the Horn of Africa to be with the troops. There was a special moment when 85-year-old Anne Joyce, the Galway-born mother-in-law of the U.S. ambassador to Eritrea, Donald McConnell, was presented with a gift from the Defense Forces as “Asmara’s Most Distinguished Irish Lady.”
This St. Patrick’s Day promises to be just as lively. To honor the occasion, the Irish chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Colm E. Mangan, will be traveling to the mission. No stranger to the peacekeeping life, he has served in Cyprus and in the Middle East. He will be presenting special medals to all 218 members of the contingent, in recognition of their service to UNMEE, and will be guest of honor at a full Irish Defense Forces Military Parade.
The day will start with the traditional blessing of the shamrock, and wind down later with an open-air barbecue, where traditionally the singers, musicians and pipers from the contingent will play into the wee hours for their fellow soldiers, joined by international community members and diplomats.
Sadly, however, this second St. Patrick’s Day celebration will be last one for the Irish in Eritrea. Peacekeepers in the final contingent return home in June 2003 and will be replaced by a Finnish contingent.
“The Irish will be missed in the mission,” said Rosamond Bakari, editor of UNMEE News. “They are most professional, and have a lovely sense of humor.”