The War between Eritrea and Ethiopia: Badme, 1999
Breathrough at Gemehalo
Breakthrough at Gemehalo was the key critical battle between Eritrean and Ethiopian forces on February 23, 1999. The overall offensive, Operation Sunset, as named by Ethiopian forces, covered a front some 100 km. It occurred on the Badme Plains in the disputed triangle of Ethiopia. It was in this area that Eritrea had invaded and taken over earlier, claiming that this portion was actually part of Eritrea. The infamous and elusive town of Badme took on an importance that to an outsider seems incredible: a town of a few thousand farmers and a few buildings. This border dispute was equally incredible and to an outsider, humorous. Humorous because the border was based on old 1901 and 1930’s descriptions that are vague and open to interpretation, just as Eritrea and Ethiopia still do. Adding to the confusion is Badme.
To the outside world, there are the Badme Plains (a region), the actual town of Badme, near the border, and Yirga, which is known locally as Badme and is further from the border! Adding additional confusion, the spellings of this town vary greatly, many maps do not include them. When the UN entered to resolve the dispute, their mammoth 1000 page report only mentioned the town twice and none of the maps included in the report show Badme!
With Badme as the symbol, Ethiopian forces faced off with Eritreans. Both spent millions in purchasing ex-Soviet era equipment including modern aircraft like Su-27s and Mig 29s (nearly all piloted by Russians).
While Badme was a key objective, the Eritrean fortress of Gemehalo (aka Gomohalo, Gemhalo, Gehalo) south of the town, proved to be the real thrust of the attack. While the battle near Badme took the headlines, the breakthrough and destruction of the Eritrean defenses began at Gemehalo.
Gemehalo is 1306 ft, Gual Gemehalo is much smaller. Located near the border close to Gomohalo, they protrude from the flat terrain like huge pimples. The Eritrean defenses were incredible: thousands of mines, trenches, pillboxes, wire, dug in tanks, all made this seem impregnable. Why here? One of the few dirt roads moves through nearby toward Barentu and the hills allowed the Eritreans a great artillery platfrom to which to barrage towns 20 km away.
The Eritreans held the Gemehalo area with some of the 161st Corps, 1st division, 1st Brigade. Everyone, including women, were in the trenches. Many of the Eritreans were teenagers and had never even heard of the area or of Badme. A division had 6000 soldiers. All armed with AK-47s, grenades, some RPGs. The soldiers in the front lines had not been told that there was also a minefield behind them to prevent desertions. Thus, they were trapped. Perched on the hills were artillery and rocket batteries (all Russian) and 20 or so T-55 tanks dug in.
Some 700 yards away were the Ethiopians in their trenches. Their first wave would consist of cannon fodder, recruits with little training and armed with a rifle. They were not expected to reach the Eritrean side but used to clear a path across the minefield, sacrificing themselves to do so. Once avenues were cleared, the real troops would be sent across. However, before this occurred, a massive artillery and air barrage would befall the Eritreans, similar to WW1 in scale. It was WW1 all over again in 1999.
The battle itself was bloody and horrific, even by Western standards, yet few countries outside of Africa even noticed it. Waves of Ethiopians walked into
relentless Eritrean machine-gun, mortar and tank fire. An estimated 10,000 Ethiopians were killed,57 of their tanks destroyed and another 20 captured. Dozens of Ethiopian tanks and tens of thousands of men advanced crossed towards the Eritrean trenches, where they met a barrage of artillery, mortar and machinegun fire. The Eritreans left their trenches to try to surround the attackers in a pincer movement but were themselves caught in the open by a second Ethiopian wave. After their initial attacks were repulsed, the Ethiopians launched a barrage of air strikes from bombers, fighters and helicopter gunships, a result of spending $300 million on Russian weapons (Russia
supplied Ethiopia with eight Sukhoi Su-27 fighter-bombers, and supplied Eritrea with ten MiG-29s, 20 Russian flight instructors to Eritrea and 100 foreign instructors to Ethiopia, 100 to 210 T-55 tanks, and armed the 320,000 man Ethiopian army).
They then threw division after division at the Eritrean frontline. Eventually, the line buckled and the Eritreans were driven out of the Badme area. Ethiopia then claimed victory. The Eritreans were forced back 12 miles. By now, the war may have claimed as many as 50,000 dead.
The Eritrean Army consisted of 200,000 of which 30,000 women and most were manning the front line trenches. The battle lasted eight hours and the Ethiopians had crushed the vaunted Eritrean defenses and continued to move northwards causing Eritrea's capitol, Asama, into a wild panic.
As of 2009, there remains an uneasy peace between both countries. The UN troops were withdrawn but skirmishs continue to flare.