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COLUMN ONE

In the '90s, Ex-Soldiers Don't Just Fade Away

As legions of former fighters create unsettled societies amid worldwide demobilization, Africa's tiny Eritrea shows how to turn warriors into workers.

April 27, 1998|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ASMARA, Eritrea — Qudusam Sile was only 15 when she fired an AK-47 assault rifle for the first time. The tiny, ponytailed Eritrean was not much older when she killed the first of a dozen Ethiopian troops. During Africa's longest war of independence, Sile in turn took bullets in the back, leg and hand.

"I was willing to do anything, to kill and even to die, to free Eritrea," she said with neither bravado nor guilt.

Yet when the three-decade conflict against Africa's largest army finally ended in 1991, Sile was among thousands of guerrillas who suddenly had a country--but no future.

"I should have been celebrating, but peace scared me more than war," she said. "My skills were all about fighting."

The war-ravaged economy in Africa's newest state, where the per capita annual income was $149, offered few alternatives.

Then an innovative scheme helped Sile help herself.

By creating employment options for disabled troops, female vets, unskilled men and youths with little education, the government project has in turn fostered the birth of a nation.

Now 31 and a mother of two, Sile sells homemade "I Love Eritrea" T-shirts and colorful baby clothes with animal motifs at a shop she and 11 other female fighters opened in 1994. Each takes home about $430 a year, with the remaining revenue going back into the business.

As the program converts warriors into workers, it also addresses a major global challenge of the 1990s: With the end of the Cold War and several little hot conflicts, oversized, big-budget armies are being downsized or demobilized. And governments from Maputo to Moscow are scrambling to figure out what to do with the soldiers.

Little Eritrea, about the size of Pennsylvania and with 3.6 million people, has proved to be a model--especially compared with highly publicized efforts in Cambodia and Angola, where the United Nations spent millions to restore peace and sent thousands of troops to keep it. Both efforts eventually imploded.

With the biggest troop cutback in history still underway, the challenge is global. Over the past decade, military manpower worldwide has been slashed about 25%--from a Cold War high of 30 million to 22 million, Pentagon officials say.

China, Iraq and Russia have each cut about a million troops, according to the Bonn International Center for Conversion, which monitors military reforms. U.S. defense cutbacks have totaled 694,000 positions. Bulgaria, Cuba, Mozambique, Nicaragua and Vietnam are among 15 countries that have halved their armies.

Africa Home to Major Conflicts in the '90s

But nowhere is the issue more critical than in Africa, home to a third of the 40 major conflicts that have occurred in the 1990s.

Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Congo (formerly Zaire) and the Republic of Congo almost disintegrated under the weight of internal strife.

Yet these countries, with the weakest economies, do not have the resources of wealthier nations to integrate troops into civilian jobs--a problem posing the greatest danger to lasting peace, according to Nat Colletta of the World Bank.

"When a war is over, you can't expect soldiers to be dropped off at a bus stop and survive," he said.

Conflict almost bankrupted many countries.

Angola, Ethiopia and Somalia spent twice as much on defense as on health and education combined, the World Bank reported. When the Cold War ended, Angola ranked among the world's 20 poorest states--and its 14 top arms importers. To pay for arms imports, the country's oil and diamond income has been mortgaged for years to come.

Finding formulas to successfully downsize armies is now a top U.N. and U.S. priority.

"Re-integrating combatants into the normal life of society is critical in translating peace from theory into reality," said J. Brian Atwood, chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Since 1994, AID has helped re-integrate combatants in Eritrea, Guatemala, Haiti, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Philippines. The U.N. Development Program trains former fighters in projects worldwide. And the World Bank has "post-conflict" projects in 11 African countries, with 10 others under consideration.

New Government Fends for Itself

Eritrea's success is all the more striking because the new government fended for itself for the most part--and succeeded.

Last year, it completed the phased demobilization of about 60,000 of 95,000 troops. The only outside funding came for retraining--and then only in small amounts.

"The Eritreans bring a lot of positive things to the nation-building experience, including a strong sense of self-reliance," said Gregory Craig, a senior U.S. State Department official.

The odds were against success on many fronts:

* Ethnically, Eritrea has nine groups roughly split between Christian and Muslim--a formula for disaster from Africa to Eastern Europe, the Middle East to South Asia.

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