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Ethiopian women return to fight a new war

Belaynesh Adugna was 12 years old when she fled her husband's home to fight with guerillas in the northern province of Tigray. Now she has to adapt to civilian life.

Belaynesh Adugna was 12 when she joined Tigrayan guerillas to escape a child marriage.

Pledged to her husband at the age of seven, Adugna's wedding took place in a small town in Tigray, the northern Ethiopian province that was the theatre of a fierce 17-year-conflict between government soldiers loyal to the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam and the rebel Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). "During my stay with his family, I did not know who my husband was for three whole years – until a friend of mine pointed him out," says Adugna, who today, at 35, can't even remember his name.

When she fled her husband's home, she says, "I did not know where to go. Some people found me in the mountains, and suggested I go to the guerillas who would give me food and clothing." Adugna was not only fed and clothed, she was also found a place in the rebel-run school where she studied until grade five before being ordered into the TPLF medical corps at age 17 to "dress wounds, stitch cuts and perform minor surgeries."

Women like Adugna were key fighters in the Ethiopian civil war, comprising as much as a third of TPLF forces compared to 3-4 per cent of government forces. The TPLF finally swept the capital Addis Ababa in 1991, drove Mengistu into exile and installed rebel leader Meles Zenawi in power. One of the first challenges before Zenawi, who continues to be Prime Minister, was to decide what to do with the thousands of armed men and women who had placed him in the seat of power.

Although many of the TPLF soldiers were drafted into a new national army formed in 1991, Zenawi released some 20,000 mainly-Tigrayan soldiers between 1991 and 1995 and demobilised another 148,000, including 4,000 women, after the 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrean war. All demobilised soldiers were given a one-time grant of 4,000-8,000 birr (about US$450-900) each. But for many of them the war of the jungle was soon to be replaced by a war at home.

Ex-combatants say much of the money they were given was soon spent. Back in civilian life after nearly two decades in the bush, but unable to adapt to city life without jobs or training, many spent the money on drink.

Female soldiers faced other problems – many had joined the TPLF as children and spent their formative years fighting and being educated in liberation politics based on rigorous concepts of gender and class equality. But they were now returning as adults into a society riven with inequalities.

It was hard to find a man who would take an uncompromising ex-fighter as a wife. And some had children from relationships that had developed in the jungle – so-called 'bush marriages'.

Some turned to commercial sex work to survive, women ex-fighters say. But, equally, some others were able to rebuild their lives. Belaynesh Adugna, for instance, has tried to make the best of her new life in Mekele town, the capital of Tigray province, where she makes a living selling cooking utensils and grain.

She and her husband – one-time neighbour, later fellow-combatant and now lorry driver – have three young children. But Alemseged Hailu has had a harder time settling into domestic life. Without enough money to launch into a new life, he has become a heavy drinker.

A study conducted by researcher Mulugeta Debalkie of Addis Ababa University shows that 60 per cent of bush marriages end in divorce. But Adugna has kept her fragile marriage going. "The TPLF taught me to be tolerant and hopeful – otherwise my husband is a very difficult person to deal with," says Adugna.

"In the efforts of post-war reconstruction women are generally more successful than men in many places of Ethiopia," says Getachew Kassa, associate professor of anthropology at Addis Ababa University. He says that many women have been able to procure seed capital and start profitable small-scale businesses.

Assan Bah of the Crises Management Division of the African Union (AU) says that doling out money to ex-combatants rarely brings the desired results – "rather, providing them with training, psychological support and education will guarantee the sustainability of post-war reconstruction efforts."

But such guarantees become less certain when women have the double responsibility of training for their careers and looking after their families. Esetu Woldu, 38, rose to the rank of Major in the TPLF army, but life in the city rarely matched those heights.

"I was given a lot of hopes of jobs and education before demobilisation," says Woldu. "So I got demobilised to pursue my education with a view to getting a government job. But although I have now completed my twelfth grade at school, I am yet to get a job."

Although the ex-combatants were offered training in video editing, farming, radio and telephone operations, setting up small scale businesses and other technical and vocational subjects, many women in Mekele say they were unable to complete their course because they had children to look after at home and weren't being paid during the training.

Woldu, however, has started a small business, offering a room in her house as a café with a billiards table, which fetches her a profit of around 15 birr (US$2) per day. "I joined the fight because the TPLF was fighting for the equality of women and during the armed struggle we were equal with men. We women said, 'They kill, we kill too', but now we haven't got what we expected," she says. "Even though we have won the armed struggle we are now in another Cold War – we are fighting inequality. I think this Cold War will need more time and expertise as you can't spot your enemies easily."

Ex-fighter Abrehet Gomera, 38, who has been demobilised but is still working in the TPLF party office as a civil servant, claims she knows of women ex-soldiers who are "starving to death" because they are jobless.

"It is undeniable that many of the demobilised female soldiers are in a very serious situation," admits Abebe Gebremedihin, a federal government expert in emergency demobilisation and reintegration under the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. His view is that reintegration has failed because of the poor educational levels of female ex-fighters. "Besides, reintegration is a continuous process and it takes time to see tangible results," he adds.

For many female ex-fighters the wait for results is proving to be too long. One of them, Gebre Kidan, stares hard at the floor when asked about the fate of her former female colleagues. "In fact, you feel sorry deep inside when you are thrown out like an old utensil," she says, trying to control her emotions. "It is really a shame to see the heroines and heroes of Ethiopia begging on the streets and selling their bodies."

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