Profiling Our Martyrs
A Statistical Report of Eritrea's Casualties in the Eritrea-Ethiopia Border War (1998-2000)
By The Awate Team - January 16, 2005
number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear," – Rudy
Guiliani, Mayor of New York, 9/11/2001
When the mayor of
New York City uttered these words on September 11, 2001, he was not addressing
the residents of his city (population: 8 million) or his state (population: 19
million) but his country (population: 290 million.)
Three years later, we know the precise number of American casualties on
9/11, which is 2,992. Although this
accounts for one thousandth of one percent of US population, because life
is precious in the US, we know their names, their gender, their ethnicity, their
nationality, their religion, their occupation, their age.
We know how many died in which airline, how many died in the towers, how
many at the Pentagon. We know how
many were firefighters, how many were police officers and how many were ordinary
civilians. We know the impact of
their death: a series of hearings, a restructuring of the US government,
a total change in US foreign policy and US way of life.
To Americans, the deaths—however miniscule percentage wise—were,
indeed, “more than any of us can bear.”
Between 1998-2000, we Eritreans lost, according to the government, 19,000 lives. That is almost one half of one percent of Eritrea’s population. Yet, we don’t know who these children of Eritrea were: neither their names, nor their ages, nor their gender, nor how they died. We don’t know what kind of impact, if any, their death is to have on the lives of the living Eritreans or on the policies of their government. In fact, given the government’s habitual politicizing of everything and its tendency to view every subject from the standpoint of “will this information benefit our enemies”, we didn’t even know if the 19,000 that was officially cited on June 20, 2003 was an accurate number.
When we said that the martyrs do not belong to the Eritrean government, we were reminded that they don’t belong to Awate, either. This rejoinder came from two groups of Eritreans: those who felt that we, without a clear mandate, had no right to publish any of the information, as well as from Eritreans who felt we had no right to censor any of the information. Our objective remains the same: to provide as full accounting as possible, to provide information so we can demand accountability from those responsible for the policies that resulted in this tragedy and, finally, to promote a culture of peace. In the process, we do not want to disclose information that we deem is sensitive, either because it endangers national security or violates social norms or promotes disharmony. We understand that many of our readers consider our parameters arbitrary but we are sticking by our decision and we will let history judge whether our decision is right or wrong.
Source & Methodology
The database includes scores of fields that can be reproduced either in statistical form, a narrative or a simple list. When producing the Martyr’s Album, we decided to include only information we believed would suffice to identify the individual. For cultural and privacy considerations, we chose not to disclose mother’s name and maternal grandfathers, place of origin, etc.
A similar restraint is shown on the fields that can be produced in statistical format. Below is a list of the fields we have selected for this report, a list we have either deferred or totally abstained from and our explanation for each decision:
|Item||Decision||Reason for exclusion|
|Adi||No||Too numerous to be reproduced in statistical study.|
|Region and Sub region||Yes||But with context. To some Eritreans the new system of "Zobas" provides no information; to others, the old provincial system is not relatable. We will provide an identification that both sides can relate to (the sub region) along with a map that references the area.|
|Ethnicity and religion||No||There is no context because we cannot find any information that tells us the ethnic and religious breakdown of Eritrea.|
|Military unit||No||National security. We have heard from Eritreans who believe our decision is ill-informed: due to frequency of rotation, identifying a martyr’s unit does not reveal any information. But we are erring on the side of caution.|
|Date of martyrdom||No||Same argument as above|
|Place of martyrdom||No||Same argument as above|
|Cause of death||Yes||N/A (information grouped in broad categories)|
|Level of education||Yes||N/A|
We will also provide data to enlighten you on the true meaning of “relative peace”—because people die, in large numbers, during “relative peace.”
With each report, we will begin by providing an explanation of the terminologies used and, wherever possible, additional information to give the statistics report some context.
& The Number of Eritrean Martyrs
Various cultures give various names for those whom they want to honor for
having paid the ultimate price for their nation. In the Eritrean context, the
word is “martyr.” The word has
no religious or spiritual connotation: it is a hold-over from the Revolutionary
War of Independence, and it applies to any Eritrean who died while in the
service of the Revolutionary War or enlistment with the Eritrean Defense Forces
(EDF) or, in some cases, after a long service in the Revolutionary War or
the EDF. In the Eritrean
context, an individual does not have to die in the battlefront to earn the title
Excluding the lives of civilians, the War of Independence is reported
to have claimed the lives of 65,000 Eritrean combatants.
The number of Eritreans who were martyred between 1991-1997, unannounced
thus far, is provided by the same database: it is 466.
The frequency—and the intensity—of the following question surprised us: how many died in the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war of 1998-2000? We were surprised that many thought that the number is significantly higher than 19,000. Reflecting on the matter, we understand why. While both Eritrea and Ethiopia refused to disclose the number of their dead, the Western media had been speculating that those killed in the war that was described as a “World War I” type of confrontation, or "trench war" or an “infantry war” between two well-armed, well-trained and experienced sides to number between 70,000 – 120,000. Similarly, after each conflict, both governments, while describing their losses as miraculously low, had painted a grim picture of the loss of the other. If one were to believe both reports, one would conclude that a quarter of a million people perished in the Eritrea-Ethiopia wars.
Given the size of our population, we think the loss of 1,000 would be heartbreaking; 5,000 would be catastrophic; 10,000 would be stunning and anything more would be unspeakably tragic. How many were martyred? That is a hard question to answer because people are still dying. In an environment of war, people just don’t die in the frontlines; they die from wounds sustained, they die from illness, they die from accidents, they die from self-inflicted wounds. It is worth noting that in January 2004, long after the government announced “the number”, there were still Eritreans dying.
Many of our correspondents remain unconvinced by our decision to refrain from disclosing the actual date of martyrdom. When we probed, we found that their insistence for disclosing the dates was based on their need to determine how the martyrdoms align with the various opportunities for peace that were missed. We think this is a valid criticism and we have devised a way to inform without disclosing the actual dates of martyrdom.
The following is the number of martyrs, as of a specific milestone:
|US-Rwanda Peace Proposal||May 31, 1998||81|
|OAU High Level Delegation Peace Proposal||Nov 18, 1998||852|
|OAU Framework Agreement||Dec 17, 1998||924|
|Modalities for Implementing Framework Agreement||July 14, 1999||6464|
|OAU Technical Arrangement for Implementing the Framework Agreement and Its Modalities||Aug 10, 1999||6618|
|Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities||June 18, 2000||15,021|
|Algiers Agreement||Dec 12, 2000||15,913|
|Official Announcement of Martyrdom||June 20, 2003||16,221|
|As of December 31, 2003||Dec 31, 2003||16,559|
So where did the “19,000” come from? Apparently, it includes all those who have been documented as martyred and all those that the government expects to be martyred—either because they are missing in action (MIAs) or because it has calculated that they won’t recover from their war wounds. Experts in warfare generally accept a rule of thumb that there are four wounded for every death.
Another possibility (actually probability) is that the database is incomplete. The numbers we produce here are a faithful report of the database that we obtained; we have done so even when there may have been cases of duplicate entries or data entry errors. In the Martyr’s Album section, we provided minimal information because the purpose was to honor our martyrs—and not analyze or study them. We sorted it—not by name, not by “Adi”—but by year and “zuria” because we wanted you to see the whole, while looking for an individual loved one.
By Place of Origin
There are three columns that identify a martyr’s place of origin.
“Adi” (village); “nu’us zoba” (sub-zone, or county) and “Zoba”
(Zone or administrative region or province.) The villages are too numerous
to present in statistical form and will not be included. As per the
government proclamation, now Eritrea has six administrative regions (“Zoba”)
and fifty-one sub-zones ("nu’us zoba".) The zub-zone and zonal
information will be presented, with appropriate context.
Context: Most published data of Eritrea, from the 19th century forward, shows Eritrea with eight traditional “provinces.” In 1996, the eight provinces were re-structured into six administrative zones. The restructuring was supposed to coincide with the implementation of the anticipated ratification of the constitution, which happened in May 1997. The new zones are named for their geographical distinction: location in geographic map of Eritrea (Center, South), or relationship to the Red Sea (Northern, Southern) or a major river (Anseba, Gash-Barka). Most of the sub-zones retain their traditional names; some, however, only have proximity names. Here’s a brief summary of the changes from the restructuring:
Names of provinces (Historical Map)
Names of regions (Proclamation Map)
|Regions (since proclamation of 1997)||Historical Provinces|
|Southern Red Sea||Most of Denkalia less part of its northern region|
|Center||The center of Hamassen (Asmera and environs)|
|Northern Red Sea||Semhar, most of Sahel and a portions of Senhit, Denkalia and Akele- Guzai.|
|Anseba||Senhit and parts of Sahel, Hamassen and Gash-Barka.|
|Gash-Barka||All of Barka and Gash and parts of Seraye|
|South (Debub)||Most of Seraye and Akele-Guzai|
(c) The Statistics for 1998-2003:
|Ref.||Southern Red Sea Sub Regions||No of Martyrs||
|Ref||Central Sub Regions||No of Martyrs||
|Ref.||Northern Red Sea Sub Regions||No of Martyrs||
|Ref.||Anseba Sub Regions||No of Martyrs||
|Ref.||Gash Barka Sub Regions||No of Martyrs||
|Ref.||South Sub Regions||No of Martyrs||
|Zones not given||301|
|Unknown numbers for zones||1659|
III. Martyrdom By Gender
(a) Definition: Of the entire database, the fields that deal with gender are the most consistent and reliable. Not surprising, because the only two possible entries are “male” or “female.” There are a negligible number of names for whom there was no entry but, in each case, it was possible to determine the gender from the name.
(b) Context: There is no comprehensive national census report that expresses the number of Eritrean females as a percentage of the total population. There are international reports—including the CIA World Factbook—that present the ratio of female to male in Eritrea as 1:1. In terms of the history of women in the military, it is widely claimed that during Eritrea’s War of Independence, females made up 30% of the total armed population.
(c) The Statistics for 1998-2003:
Martyrdom By Gender
|Gender||Value||Percentage of Total|
(d) Discharge & Demobilization
The Tigrigna word used by the government of Eritrea for “discharged” is “ztefanewu” and for “demobilized” is “zteTayesu.” The database used as a source for the statistics refers to those who were released from military service as “ztefanewu”—or discharged.
7,584 combatants were discharged; of whom 3,190 (42%) were female and 4,394 (58%) were male. About a dozen explanations are offered to justify a discharge, with four reasons accounting for 80%-90% of the rationale provided:
DISCHARGED Combatants (Reason of discharge) 3/1997 to 10/2003
Status (“BeAlti Hadar”
DISCHARGED Combatants (By month and year of discharge)
|No date given||1,263|
IV. Martyrdom By Age
(b) Context: In Eritrea, the celebration of birthdays is not cross-cultural; thus, in some instances, precise dates are given, in some cases only the year and in some instances none was provided (in the Martyr’s Album, if an age is not provided, it is most likely because the “Date of Birth” field was left blank.) Again, there is no published census in Eritrea to provide context to the data we are publishing, but there are a few national profile reports published by outside agencies that can provide additional context.
The Stats for 1998-2003:
By Age Group (n = 16,559)
|Less Than 18||1%||1%|
|18 - 20||11%||12%|
|21 - 23||25%||37%|
|24 - 26||22%||59%|
|27 - 29||16%||75%|
|30 - 32||9%||84%|
|33 - 35||4%||88%|
|36 - 38||3%||91%|
|39 - 41||2%||93%|
|More Than 41||3%||96%|
The median age of martyrdom is 26. For females, the median was 24.
V. Martyrdom By Level of Education
(a) Definition: The categories reported here are broad. They are Elementary, Junior Secondary, Senior Secondary, Post secondary (any type of post high school education such as college or university) and no formal education, which is self-explanatory.
(b) Context: There are several government-issued and international papers that provide context on the general population’s educational level—at least from the perspective of literacy.
The Stats for 1998-2003:
By Level of Education (n = 16,559)
|No Formal Education||43%||43%|
VI. Martyrdom By Military Rounds
(a) Definition: Following Eritrea’s independence, most of the combatants were demobilized with an undisclosed number (estimated at about 60,000) retained. In 1995, the government issued a proclamation (82/1995) making military service compulsory on all Eritreans between the ages of 18 and 40. That marked the beginning of “rounds” or “zuria,” with each year producing two rounds. Veterans who were retained/enlisted after independence but before the implementation of the "round" system are classified as “post-independence” or “D.Ne”, in Tigrigna acronym.
(b) Context: The proclamation states that no Eritrean—except those who are disabled or advancing age—are exempted from the military service. In actual fact, until the outbreak of the war in 1998, the proclamation was not universally and rigidly enforced and non-compliance and avoidance was not uncommon. In addition, only Eritreans whose Referendum cards were issued in Eritrea (or only those who lived in Eritrea) were required to do military service while Eritreans living abroad were exempted. The service was designed for an 18-month duration--6 month of military training followed by 12 months of civil service. The evidence suggests that, at least in the earlier rounds, urban centers were disproportionately impacted.
The Stats for 1998-2003
By Round (n = 16,559)
VII. Martyrdom By Military Rank
There are two fields in the database that
indicate status: Rank (“Ma’ereg”) and Responsibility (“Halafnet.”)
The fields are not always consistently filled and the statistics provided
reflects it. In Tigrigna, the rank
for a junior enlisted soldier is “tera,” whose nearest translation, in the
military context, is “regular” or "private."
Context: During the armed struggle, there was no distinction in rank and all combatants, including those functioning in the capacity of officers, were addressed as Fighter (“Tegadalai” in Tigrigna, acronym Te.Ga or “Munadel” in Arabic, acronym M.) Ranks, and American uniforms donated from the Gulf War, were introduced to Eritrea in 1994-1995 when the Eritrean army was restructured. (For more context, read an interview that the now-banned Tsigennay newspaper held on May 21, 2001 with the now-exiled Mesfin Hagos, who was the Defense Minister when the changes were implemented.)
By Military Rank
VIII. Martyrdom By Cause of Martyrdom
(a) Definition: The database identifies two methods to classify “mknyat meswaeti”—cause of martyrdom. One is a definition table which creates a numeric code for the various causes:
|101||War with enemy||402||Manslaughter|
|102||Calm Period (by equipments)||500||Executed|
|200||Illness||501||Tried treason - to enemy|
|202||HIV/AIDS||502||Tried treason -Across Border|
|203||Asthma||503||Martyr/Wounded/who left property|
|204||Malaria||504||Collaborated with enemy|
|300||Accident||505||Theft and swindling|
|301||Vehicle||506||Campaigned against leaders|
|302||Snakebite||507||Deserted with equipment (Shefitu)|
|307||Lake (drowning)||604||Murder and attempted murder|
|700||On training and education|
The other has no reference to a code; it simply lists the cause, which corresponds to each martyr. The database we are using is based on the latter; the codes cited in the definition table do not appear anywhere in the database.
(b) Context: Many of the questions we have received following the publication of the Martyr’s Album are a paraphrasing of “the war has been over since December 2000. Yet you list people in 2001, 2002, 2003. Are you sure you have not made a mistake?” As military historians have noted, war results in combat- combat-related and non-combat deaths. It is not just battles that kill: militarization and the ensuing accidents, illnesses, and many others that will be listed below are the causes of death.
'(C) The Stats for 1998-2003
Martyrdom By Cause (n=16,559)
|War With Ethiopia||81%||81%|
|No Reason Given||4%||93%|
|Other (includes friendly fire, manslaughter, heat stroke, war with Sudan, war with Jihad)||2%||100%|
Illness accounts for 8% of the total, or about 1,324 martyrs. Here is a breakdown of the illnesses:
From Illness Detailed (n = 1, 324)
|No Detail Given/Unknown||32%||32%|
|Internal (“wshTawi Hmam)||27%||59%|
|Other (includes: heart, blood pressure, mental, lung, asthma, pneumonia, cancer, measles, diabetes, kidney failure, yellow fever.)||14%||100%|
IX. Martyrdom In Times Of “Relative Peace”
(a) Definition: The period between the ceasefire agreement (June 18, 2000) and the present, has been referred to as a period of “relative peace” or “no-war, no-peace.”
(b) Context: Despite the accusations and counter-accusations of the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments, the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) has consistently reported that the ceasefire holds.
Since the ceasefire agreement, the average Eritrean martyrdom has been 48 per month. The worst month was August 2000 (at 94) and the “lowest” March 2003 (at 24.) Between July 2000 (the first full month after the ceasefire agreement) and December 2003 (the last full-month for which data is available), the average number of days per month when no Eritrean has been martyred is only 8 days/month. In other words, since the ceasefire agreement, in 22 days/month, an Eritrean was being registered as having been martyred.
Days/Month (July 1, 2000 – December 31, 2003)
|Jan = 7 days||Jan = 10 days||Jan = 10 days|
|Feb = 6 days||Feb = 6 days||Feb = 12 days|
|Mar = 3 days||Mar = 2 days||Mar = 7 days|
|Apr = 7 days||Apr = 8 days||Apr = 14 days|
|May = 6 days||May = 12 days||May = 8 days|
|June = Official end of the war||Jun = 4 days||Jun =10 days||Jun = 6 days|
|Jul = 3 days||Jul = 10 days||Jul =10 days||Jul = 7 days|
|Aug = 5 days||Aug = 10 days||Aug = 8 days||Aug = 6 days|
|Sep = 2 days||Sep = 8 days||Sep = 13 days||Sep = 7 days|
|Oct = 6 days||Oct = 6 days||Oct = 6 days||Oct = 13 days|
|Nov = 4 days||Nov = 11 days||Nov = 6 days||Nov = 9 days|
|Dec = 9 days||Dec = 10 days||Dec = 10 days||Dec = 13 days|
introduction to this piece, we said that some cultures consider life precious;
we believe that a big portion of the Eritrean culture glorifies warriors.
However, at the same time, the Eritrean culture considers life very precious.
One indicator is the grieving process in Eritrea. In some traditions, the
dead are mourned for forty days and forty nights. Even people of very
modest means spare no resources to pay their respects. There has been a
great deal of criticism of the “excess” of this tradition; now, however, we
have reverted to an opposite extreme where we are supposed to “ululate” and
celebrate the dead—but not mourn them. Each hero listed in
the Martyr’s Album, each number represented in the statistics represents a
loss of Eritrea—a loss that should be mourned and grieved by all of us.
Finally, A Point To Consider
Many people have questioned the wisdom of releasing the information we are providing. Some objected on the grounds of timing: that it is too early. We want them to consider the following: the earliest data we have is for January 1993, and the last one we have is January 2004. In the twelve Januaries, an Eritrean was martyred on January 1 (New Year’s Day) in nine out of the twelve years: 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004. Of the remaining three years, in one case (1999) an Eritrean was martyred on January 2.
The ratio of dead and wounded soldiers in a
trench warfare similar to the Eritrean Ethiopian border war is 4-1. To date,
there are tens of thousands of soldiers suffering from wounds they sustained
during the war that started in 1998 and many continue to die from their wounds
and from causes directly related to the war. This report may be updated when the
self-imposed restrictions (lack of context, national security concerns, etc) for
the data we chose not to disclose are lifted. For example, if we receive
information that provides relatively recent and reliable information on the
ethnic and religious make-up of Eritrea in general and the army in particular,
this report will be updated to include martyrdom by ethnicity and religion. We
encourage our readers to share any information, including anecdotal information,
so we can combine it with ours and provide a thorough, complete and accurate
data on our martyrs. We believe that the full magnitude of the effects of the
war from the social, economical and political spheres has yet to be
We hope we have put this on the spotlight for further studies.
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