ON THE DJIBOUTIAN-ERITREAN BORDER — The distance between the rival armies is shorter than the barrel of a gun. Hundreds of opposing troops are lined up on the border, staring each other down, from just inches away.
On one side are the Djiboutians, a relatively well-equipped African military with combat boots, CamelBak strap-on water bottles and the occasional buttery croissant in the field.
On the other side are skinny Eritrean soldiers, covered in dust and wearing plastic sandals, camped out in thatch-roofed huts that look like fortified tropical bungalows.
There is no buffer zone between the soldiers, as there usually is along a contested frontier. Instead, the heavily armed fighters, who are becoming increasingly tense and irritable, are squeezed together on a sweltering hilltop, watching each others’ every move.
“It’s a very confusing situation,” said Maj. Youssouf Abdallah, of the Djiboutian Army.
A David versus David battle is shaping up here, with two of Africa’s tiniest nations squaring off over a few piles of uninhabited sand.
The problem is, that sand happens to lie in a very strategic spot, at the mouth of the Red Sea. A war here could imperil some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and alter the precarious balance of power in the Horn of Africa, a conflict-prone, drought-prone region that already is on the cusp of famine.
Djibouti, a country of about 700,000 people, is backed up by France and the United States, both of which have big military bases here. Eritrea, which has a population of five million, is already in a border standoff with Ethiopia and is accused of fueling chaos in Somalia.
The Djiboutians say the Eritreans invaded in January and point to Eritrea’s history of friction with just about all of its neighbors. They suggest that the country either thrives on war or has gone a little border crazy.
The Eritreans have not said much. Their few statements deny any wrongdoing, with Eritrean state media calling the standoff “a wild invention.”
But there is no doubt about it. The Eritrean soldiers are here, hundreds of them, squinting in the sun with their rifles and head wraps. Recently, the soldiers shooed away a team of journalists who came up to the disputed area for a look.
“No pictures, no pictures,” one Eritrean soldier yelled. When asked what he and his men were doing here, he just shook his head, “No English.”
The disputed zone includes a hill called Gabla, or Ras Doumeira, and a small island called Doumeira, deserted except for the occasional fishermen who use it as a pit stop. It is all sand out here — miles of it, trimming a Windex-colored sea. The wind regularly whips the grit into your face, and temperatures routinely soar past 110 degrees.
Despite the fact that these two countries barely register on the map, it is the map itself that is part of the problem. Scholars say that the border area was never properly demarcated, and that the best guidance as to who owns what goes back to a vague communiqué between France and Italy more than 100 years ago. They were the colonial powers at the time, with France occupying what is now Djibouti and Italy controlling what is now Eritrea.
According to John Donaldson, a research associate at the International Boundaries Research Unit, a British institute that studies border disputes, France and Italy agreed in 1901 that no third country could rule the Doumeira area, and that specific border issues would be dealt with later.
“It’s very complicated,” he said. “But the question was basically left up in the air.”
Djiboutian officials said the Eritreans made a play for this area in the mid-1990s, producing old documents and saying that the territory was theirs. But Djiboutian officials said that their trump card is an 1897 treaty between Ethiopia and France that clearly states that the Doumeira area was French.
According to the Djiboutian government, the Eritreans asked in January if they could cross the border to get some sand to build a road. Instead, they occupied a hilltop and started digging trenches.
“In one word, they cheated,” said Col. Ali Soubaneh Chirdon, who commands the Djiboutian soldiers lined up on the border.
The move seemed to be part of Eritrea’s less-than-neighborly relations with just about all of its neighbors. In the 1990s, Eritrea clashed with Yemen over the Hanish Islands in the Red Sea; battled Sudan-backed rebels on its western frontier; and fought Ethiopia, the second most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa, over a little border town called Badme. That conflict killed 100,000 people and is still not resolved.
Some diplomats fear that Doumeira could prove to be Eritrea’s undoing. By taking on Djibouti, Eritrea is also taking on France, which has a defense agreement with Djibouti, and the United States, which uses Djibouti as hub for its Africa operations and has already threatened to list Eritrea as a state sponsor of terrorism. Actually, many countries have an interest here because fighting at the narrow mouth of the Red Sea could threaten oil supplies from the Persian Gulf to much of the industrialized world.
“This is a suicide mission for Eritrea,” said Mahmoud Ali Youssouf, Djibouti’s foreign minister, who said on Thursday that the Eritreans had given the Djiboutians an ultimatum to leave the border area.
So why is Eritrea pushing the matter?
One Eritrean opposition member named George, who said he could not reveal his last name because he feared for his life, called it a ploy to distract Eritreans from growing internal problems, which include food rationing and the formation of an anti-government alliance.
“People are worried and hate this new adventure,” he said.
Others wonder if all this has something to do with Eritrean resentment toward Djibouti for prospering from its cozy relationships with Ethiopia, which uses Djibouti as its main port, and with the United States. Eritreans are angry that the United States has not put more pressure on Ethiopia to honor a United Nations backed boundary commission that awarded Badme to Eritrea.
Dan Connell, who has written several books on Eritrea and teaches journalism at Simmons College in Boston, said the answer may be much simpler.
“Eritrea is a small, sensitive and ferociously proud new nation for which every inch of land counts, however worthless it may appear to an outsider,” he said. “Eritrea shed massive amounts of blood for it.”
Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, after a long and celebrated liberation war, and its soldiers are known as some of the toughest in Africa.
The Djiboutians have asked the United Nations, the African Union and the Arab League to help resolve the dispute. No shots have been fired, but Djiboutians say it is just a matter of time. The two armies have moved so close that they have dug foxholes right next to each other.
“I don’t understand what’s really going on,” said Omar Yusuf, a Djiboutian private. “But the enemy is right in front of me, and we have to watch them.”
The Eritrean soldiers were not very approachable. When asked for their insights, they shook their heads viciously.
One Eritrean soldier let loose a tirade in Tigrinya, his language. He then threw down a bag of steamed rice that the Djiboutians had given him — in a rare act of camaraderie, or mercy, out here — and stomped away.