RAY SUAREZ: It's the largest war on earth-- hundreds of thousands of troops facing each other across a long, desolate border in the horn of Africa. Once parts of the same country, two nations-- Ethiopia and Eritrea-- have lost tens of thousands of dead in nearly two years of sporadic fighting around the village of Badme. The two sides disagree over where the border separating them should be, disagree over who started the fighting, and disagree over who's kept it going. Isaias Afwerki is the president of Eritrea and he recently was in Washington.
PRESIDENT ISAIAS AFWERKI, Eritrea: Unfortunately, the rejection of the Ethiopian government of the technical arrangements has stalled the peace process, and the tension remains to be as it was since about one year now.
RAY SUAREZ: As I'm sure you know, Ethiopia has blamed the lack of progress on your country, saying that it's not their fault.
PRESIDENT ISAIAS AFWERKI: They can't possibly say that. They can't do it, because no one can possibly point a finger at Eritrea when everything is evident as far as the peace process is concerned.
RAY SUAREZ: Berhane Gebre-Christos is Ethiopia's ambassador to the United States.
BERHANE GEBRE-CHRISTOS, Ambassador, Ethiopia: Eritrea is still on Ethiopian soil, and we have been looking towards resolving this problem in a peaceful way. And that's what we have been doing, because this is not the best interest of the peoples of Ethiopia and the peoples of Eritrea. This is an absolute madness on behalf of the leadership of Eritrea. This is not to anybody's interest, really.
RAY SUAREZ: The Eritreans say that they are not on your soil, that they are on their own soil, and that the fact that the war has continued is not the fault of their country, but yours.
BERHANE GEBRE-CHRISTOS: That's not the case. The parties that have been involved, and the world at large knows it. The Organization of African Unity has sent a committee to investigate as to who has invaded who, and they have come up clearly defining that Eritrea has occupied Ethiopian territories.
RAY SUAREZ: The story of the border is an old one, over a century old, and a murky one. In the late 1800's Italy colonized Eritrea. Later, under Benito Mussolini, it seized all of Ethiopia. After the Second World War, what had been the Italian colony was put under Ethiopian management by the United Nations, then Annexed by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie in 1960. In the years since, President Isaias and much of the Eritrean leadership joined the rebel military, fighting first against the monarchy, then against a Marxist Junta to free Eritrea in 1993. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice insists there's plenty of blame to go around for the slow march toward a settlement, and also says it's clear how the war started.
SUSAN RICE, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs: Back in early May of 1998, there was a skirmish on the border. What happened soon thereafter within a few days were that Eritrean troops and forces crossed over into territory and occupied territory that had been administered by Ethiopia. Now the antecedents of this incident are long and complicated. It's clear that the relationship between the two countries, which had been at one time quite friendly, had grown more complicated and contentious. There were political and economic differences, and according to both sides, some degree of tension or jostling along the border area. This was a border that had never formally been demarcated after Eritrean independence.
RAY SUAREZ: Four years ago, an independent commission failed to resolve the border issue. That two combatants in a war can't agree on who is at fault is not new; that neither side is willing to back down is also common to wars around the world; but these two countries form a particularly tragic pair of adversaries. They began their new lives as nations devastated, among the poorest countries on earth, and now run up an enormous human and financial toll in deadly struggle over rocks and scrub known as the Yirga Triangle.
RAY SUAREZ: Your country is exhausted after many years of war. Has it been worth it to fight this battle?
PRESIDENT ISAIAS AFWERKI: It's not a matter of whether it's worth it or not. The question is why do we have to spend human lives for a conflict...about a conflict that could have been resolved by peaceful means? Was there any necessity of resorting to force?
BERTHANE GEBRE-CHRISTOS: Definitely there has been loss of life, but I would say a loss on both sides is meaningless, and was meaningless. It was not necessary. If Eritrea had put... as the Organization of African Unity proposal, a serious proposal... If Eritrea had pulled out of this territory, and if it has claims, if it had done if through due process of law rather than the law of the jungle, it will be solvable. And it is solvable.
SUSAN RICE: One of the tragedies of this conflict is that they've agreed from virtually day one on how to end the conflict. They have agreed that the end state for peace is a final and permanent demarcation of the border. But there have been various disagreements on how to get there.
RAY SUAREZ: Just a few short years ago, Eritrea was the toast of the West-- a recovering economy, a strong bootstrap mentality, little foreign debt, and a commitment to elected government. Today, as in Ethiopia, money that might be spent on development is going to war.
PRESIDENT ISAIAS AFWERKI: It's costing lives in the first place. It's costing on opportunity. But again, I think it's a world that is imposed upon us. We fought for 30 years. That was not our choice. This conflict has not come as a choice for us. It's been deposited on us. It's a costly war, but what we have tried to make this avoidable has not succeeded. We will continue to exert as much effort as we could to avoid the losses, human and otherwise, and I am sure we will succeed in doing that.
RAY SUAREZ: Now that the war has been running almost two years, Assistant Secretary Rice says ending it will mean more than simply fixing the border.
SUSAN RICE: This is about a comprehensive peace agreement that's got to involve the redeployment of forces, the return of the civilians that have been... Left their land by force, and it will involve some international monitoring of the agreement. It will involve human rights protections, and then it will create in a context of a ceasefire the necessary instrumentalities to then go about demarcating the border. The two sides do agree that once they get to that point, that the determination of where that final border is will be binding and permanent. The difficult part is putting in place all of the implementation details that will lead to that end state.
RAY SUAREZ: For Ethiopia, there's an added distraction. While it keeps a large army in the field, it must also deal with a new famine. In the Southeast of the country, the rains have failed for three straight years. Eight million people, one of every seven Ethiopians, faces severe hunger and the threat of starvation.
BERHANE GEBRE-CHRISTOS: For three years there has been drought, and we have been fighting to save the lives of our people for three years continuously. It is after three years of consecutive drought that has come to... You know, to this magnitude, and we are asking the international community to help us to overcome the problem.
RAY SUAREZ: Assistant Secretary Rice says large American food shipments are already on their way, and European donors are now starting to mobilize. The twin burdens of war and drought has made this part of Africa a very tough neighborhood just when things were supposed to be looking up.