"You became a frontline fighter?"
He smiled. "In the early days we didn't ' have much division of labor.... As the movement evolved...I moved out of the frontline troops and into organization work."
I was intrigued by the tenacity it must have taken to fight from 1974 till 1991. "Was there a time when you despaired?" I asked.
He nodded. "There were difficult moments. And one is never sure that one will live to see the outcome of that struggle. It is not really critical who takes the baton in the final dash; it is the fact that this baton has crossed the line. And so far as crossing the line is concerned, there was never a time that I doubted. As to whether I would be among those who carry the baton in the final 100 yards, I had considerable doubts."
I hesitated to ask about Issaias Afewerki. Every Western press report made much of the fact that the two had been comrades in arms, and this was clearly a sensitive area. Nevertheless, I asked whether he thought that if he and Issaias were in a closed room together they would be able to reconcile their differences. "
There's a myth that has been created about the personal relationship between me and Issaias," he replied. "I would say that our personal relationship was not a relationship that led us to act together on personal issues. The political issues were what brought us together. And when the political issues set us apart, there was no independent personal relationship we could fall back on to retain a semblance of under- standing one might have had in the past."
I asked if he regretted lobbying for Eritrea's statehood, and thus ceding Assab, which had been Ethiopia's main connection to the sea. "Absolutely not," he replied. "I believe that the Eritrean people have, like any other people, certain inherent rights. It is not up to me to give or take their rights.... One can recognize or fail to recognize but one cannot take or give away these rights. It is not about territory, it is about people's rights. Land makes sense only because people are in it. You cannot separate land from people. And when [the Eritrean] people decided that they wanted to separate, we said, 'Have it your way. Good luck. And let's work together.' Even if I had known this [war] was coming, there would be no way I would have done anything different."
Meles was at pains to make sure I understood the roots of the current conflict: "The problem here is really the problem of Eritrea trying to find a place in the sun that is commensurate with its potential and its limitations. This has resulted in their attacking Yemen, occupying an island, and finally losing when the matter went to international arbitration.... There is the genuine desire for self-determination being transformed into a virulent nationalism that is rocking the boat. The crisis that we have now is manifested in the form of a border dispute and aggression by Eritrea."
The economic crisis, he felt, had led to frustration on Eritrea's part and to the notion that the country could blackmail Ethiopia by attacking some border area. "They had some reason to think they might pull it off. They know we inherited an army of half a million, which we immediately demobilized. We were almost exclusively focused on economic growth and development, and we...felt it would be wise to spend every cent we had on economic growth and not on a big army.... I don't believe the Eritrean people have this innate desire to provoke everyone around them and cause chaos and war. I believe they are tired of war and have the simple desire to have a peaceful life...like everyone else. I think the sickness is in the leadership, not in the population. "
I brought up the battle at Badme, curious as to how he saw it. "In terms of scale, I think it was com- parable to the battles of World War II. The losses were quite heavy, and the amount of armor involved I think was comparable if not higher than the biggest battles in North Africa.... It should have been beyond the means of these two countries. But both sides inherited lots of hardware. And the issues involved are so involved with sovereignty that people are prepared to put up with a lot of hardship."
After Badme the Eritreans quickly agreed to the same peace proposal Ethiopia had agreed to earlier. But now Ethiopia seemed to be hesitating. Why?
"When Eritrea rejected the peace proposal initially, the international community was surprisingly silent. They began to tell us, 'These guys...are an extreme lot, stubborn. So why don't you give them additional concessions? ' We said, 'What concessions? Concessions from our sovereignty? That has never been done by any government in Ethiopia in 3,000 years.'... That is the only thing of great value that we have inherited from our past, our unflinching determination to keep our...country independent even if we are dying of hunger.
"As soon as we kicked them out of the key area in Badme, the Eritreans said, 'Okay...we accept the peace package. But the OAU requires us to move out from the territory that you pushed us out of militarily - the rest of the territory that we occupied we don't have to move out from.' In other words, they were saying that the OAU package meant that their forced rout in Badme would be sanctioned in the form of a peace package and nothing more! So we decided we will assign a team of lawyers to find any loopholes...and we will not sign till all these loopholes are cleared."
Toward the end, I asked him about his own heroes. His tone became almost sad. "I learned the most from the peasants who fought with me, many of whom died along the way. I had the misfortune, for example, to ask for volunteers to clear a minefield so that others could pass. And I knew personally some of those individuals who volunteered. I try to measure up to them. I try to remember them when I make a decision. I try to make sure their trust in me and in the movement was well worth it. That the battle that they paid for is still moving forward."
TO BE WITH MELES was inspiring. To witness one man's faith in an ideal is to have hope for the nation as a whole. And yet, I suspect I would find his counterpart in Eritrea just as charismatic - and his arguments possibly as convincing. But if the two men are truly visionary, they must resolve the present conflict. Once again, these leaders need to defy the conventional wisdom that says that out of stubbornness such a conflict in Africa will go on and on.
I went back to Ethiopia filled with a strange longing. I wanted, I think, to feel a sense of vindication, a justification for the memories I had clung to. But as much as the country seduced me on this visit, it also eluded me. My journey brought me back full circle to the place I had prayed to escape from; it gave me hope and yet left me disturbed; it reminded me, despite the welcome, that I had been forced to make my home elsewhere. It showed me, as they say, that you can't step into the same river twice.
I have changed. The country has changed. Whatever I thought I had, whatever I tried to take away, was as ephemeral as the mist that slipped down the slopes of the Entoto mountains, shrouding the city of Addis Ababa by nightfall and burning away by day.
Abraham Verghese is a Talk contributing writer
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