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

"The 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
Gender Yes N/A
Rank Yes N/A
Round (“Zuria”) Yes N/A
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
Birthdate Yes N/A
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.

I. Martyrdom & The Number of Eritrean Martyrs   

Definition:   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 of martyr.   

Context:  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:

Milestones Date Martyred To-date
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.

II-Martyrdom By Place of Origin

Definition:  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

101 Are'eta 104
102 Central Denkalya 42
103 Southern Denkalya 210
Not given 1
Sub Total 357
Ref Central  Sub Regions No of  Martyrs

201 Serejaka 394
202 Berikh 307
203 Ghala Nefhi 446
204 North Eastern 787
205 South Eastern 348
206 South Western 374
  Not given 12
Sub Total 2668
Ref. Northern Red Sea Sub Regions No of  Martyrs

301 Ghelalo 114
302 Foro 123
303 Dahlak 18
304 Massawa 186
305 Ghinda'e 336
306 She'eb 120
307 Af'abet 277
308 Nakfa 199
309 Karura 150
  Not given 22
Sub Total 1527
Ref. Anseba Sub Regions No of  Martyrs

401 Adi Teklezan 156
402 Elabered 355
403 Geleb 186
404 Keren City 405
405 Hagaz 348
406 Halhal 455
407 Habero 214
408 Asmat 270
409 Kerkebet 23
410 Sela 13
  Not Given 7
Sub Total 2432
Ref. Gash Barka Sub Regions No of  Martyrs

501 Logo Anseba 338
502 Mensura 219
503 Akurdet City 194
504 Dghe 138
505 Mogolo 138
506 Shambuko 386
507 Barentu City 156
508 Gogne 157
509 Forto 179
510 Haykota 110
511 Upper Gash 272
512 Omhajer (Guluj) 180
513 Tesseney 144
  Not given 4
Sub Total 2742
Ref. South Sub Regions No of  Martyrs

601 Dbarwa 679
602 Areza 517
603 Mendefera 184
604 Dekemhare 429
605 Segeneiti 266
606 Adi Keih 254
607 Sen'afe 541
608 Tserona 385
609 Adi Khwala 605
610 Kudo Be'ur 385
611 Mai-Mne 557
  Not given 8
Sub Total 4810
Unidentified Sub-zones 34  
Zones not given 301
Unknown numbers for zones 1659
Sub Total 1994
Addis Ababa 6
Tigrai 1
Nazereth 2
Asela 1
Awasa 1
Aksum 3
Gonder 2
Ethiopia 4
Sub Total 20
Sudan 2
Kessela 6
Nigeria 1
Sub Total 9

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
Female 293 2%
Male 16,266 98%
Total 16,559 100%

(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 

Pregnancy   40%   For Education   68%  
Marital Status (“BeAlti Hadar” 20%   Health   23%  
Illness   13%   Disability   3%  
Education   11%   No reason stated   3%  

DISCHARGED Combatants (By month and year of discharge)


1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 Total
January 11 73 77 96 128 57 442
February 12 89 71 110 54 65 401
March 11 11 105 136 59 69 55 446
April 39 64 13 68 11 83 278
May 17 125 5 24 12 52 235
June 20 138 11 49 15 42 275
July 1 42 128 7 55 114 43 390
August 1 57 158 10 83 102 37 448
September 74 192 72 96 269 703
October 1 296 127 133 531 272 1 1,361
November 2 310 136 60 97 124 729
December 2 273 104 101 45 88 613
No date given 1,263
Total 18 1162 1439 696 1313 1258 435 7,584

IV. Martyrdom By Age

(a)  Definition: This is a calculated value derived from a simple interaction of two values: Date of Birth and Date of Martyrdom.  An erroneous data entry in either case would affect the calculated field.  In some cases, there is clear evidence that there was a data entry error (for example, date of martyrdom would show the year 2012).  In other cases, we suspect there is a data entry error resulting in entering the date of birth—resulting in ages significantly below 18.

(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. 

(c)  The Stats for 1998-2003:  

Martyrdom By Age Group (n = 16,559)  

Age Group Percentage Cumulative
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%
Unknown 4% 100%

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. 

(c)  The Stats for 1998-2003:  

Martyrdom By Level of Education (n = 16,559)  

Level of Education   Percentage   Cumulative  
No Formal Education 43% 43%
Elementary 32% 75%
Junior Secondary 9% 84%
Senior Secondary 14% 98%
Post Secondary 2% 100%

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. 

(c)  The Stats for 1998-2003  

Martyrdom By Round (n = 16,559)  

Military Round   Year of Enlistment   Percentage of total  
Post-independence 1991-1994 4.1%
1st. 1995 5.2%
2nd 1995 13.3%
3rd. 1996 13.2%
4th. 1996 6.2%
5th. 1997 12.2%
6th. 1997 10.4%
7th. 1998 9.5%
8th. 1998 7.7%
9th. 1999 5.7%
10th. 1999 5.4%
11th. 2000 3.4%
12th. 2000 1.5%
13th. 2001 0.9%
14th. 2001 0.3%
15th. 2002 0.0%
16th. 2002 0.3%
17th. 2003 0.0%

VII. Martyrdom By Military Rank   

Definition:  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.)

Martyrdom By Military Rank  

Military Rank  Percentage
Private/Tera 81.2%
Unknown 6.4%
Merah Gugle 4.3%
Merah Mesr'e 2.9%
Corporal  2.0%
D/Corporal 1.9%
Others 1.3%
Total 100%

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:


Reason Code Reason
0 Unknown 401 Murder
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)
303 Storm (Whj) 600 Suicide
304 Electric shock 601 Anxiety
305 Lightning 602 Quarreling
306 Smashed (BmSqat) 603 Vandalism
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)  

Cause   Percentage Cumulative
War With Ethiopia 81% 81%
Illness 8% 89%
No Reason Given 4% 93%
Accidents 3% 96%
Suicide 2% 98%
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:

Death From Illness Detailed (n = 1, 324)  

Cause   Percentage   Cumulative  
No Detail Given/Unknown 32% 32%
Internal (“wshTawi Hmam) 27% 59%
HIV/AIDS 15% 74%
Heat Stroke/Dehydration 6% 80%
TB 3% 83%
Malaria 3% 86%
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.

Martyrdom-Free Days/Month (July 1, 2000 – December 31, 2003)  

2000 2001 2002 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

Culture of Life  

In the 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 studied properly.  

We hope we have put this on the spotlight for further studies.

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