Veteran combatants do not fade away: a comparative study on two demobilization and reintegration exercises in Eritrea

Release date: 2002-08

After 30 years of armed struggle for independence, Eritrea enjoyed only seven years of peace before war with neighboring Ethiopia broke out again and still is under way. In the short peaceful interval, tremendous efforts were deployed not only to rebuild the country’s material infrastructure, which was to a great extent destroyed, but also to rehabilitate the social tissue which had suffered severe wounds. The cessation of hostilities does not mean a return to “normalcy”. In the aftermath of conflict, depending on the nature of devastation, people’s livelihoods, the country’s infrastructure and facilities, its social, economic and political institutions have all to be restored—a process that can take several years, and even decades. One of the most significant efforts consisted in reintegrating those parts of the population which had fled abroad, most of them to neighboring Sudan, but also to destinations as different as Europe, the Middle East, the United States and Australia. Included were those who had been displaced within Eritrea. Another urgent task was to demobilize those of the EPLF freedom fighters who were not integrated into the new national army, and to assist their return to a civilian society. Taking into account the manifold constraints it had to face, the overall reintegration process in
Eritrea can be considered as rather successful. Unfortunately, with the return to an outright war situation, these achievements have been to a large extent annihilated. The demobilization and reintegration of demobilized combatants has suffered in particular: most of them have been remobilized, and currently more than 300 000 soldiers are under arms. At the end of the present armed conflict, the country and its government will be back to square one: the majority of the Eritrean armed forces will have, once more, to be demobilized and reintegrated into civilian society. Therefore it seems useful to thoroughly study the past experience, to compare it to other experiences in Africa and elsewhere, and to draw necessary lessons from this exercise. The present situation in Eritrea offers the rare opportunity to examine two demobilization and reintegration exercises occurring with only one decade, in the same country and in very different circumstances. The main aim of this study is to compare the two Eritrean exercises, to present them in their specific contexts, and to give policy recommendations.