From 4 to 7 June 2018, on the initiative of the French Embassy in Addis Ababa, an unusual remembrance activity took place in the political capital of Africa. With support from the French Ministry of the Armed Forces Heritage and Remembrance Delegation, Le Souvenir Français and a large number of French and Ethiopian companies, the 65th anniversary of the Korean Armistice was commemorated in Addis Ababa in a quite unique way. Soon after the end of the Second World War, as the world entered a new phase of decolonisations and Cold War, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia decided to send his elite troops to fight in the Far East under the flag of the UN. The involvement of this large African country in the first peacekeeping operation was of symbolic importance: it symbolised Africa’s early commitment to stand alongside the other continents to defend peace and freedom. So a delegation of 12 members of the National Association of Veterans and Friends of the French Forces of the UN (ANAAFF ONU), including four war veterans, went to Addis Ababa to meet their Ethiopian comrades-in-arms.
On the trail of a long, shared history
Received outside the old Franco-Ethiopian railway station by 22 of the Emperor’s veterans, the delegation was able to see with its own eyes the precious support given by France to facilitate Ethiopia’s participation in that first ever peacekeeping mission. As early as 1951, it was the French who organised the dispatch of the Ethiopian forces from this very station to the port of Djibouti, where a ship awaited to take them to Korea. In a nod to history, sixty-five years on, with Ethiopia now the world’s leading contributor of troops to the UN, a French military officer still acts as adviser to the commander of the department of peacekeeping operations of the Ethiopian National Defence Force.
The exchange programme between the two veterans’ associations was structured around three big themed days.
A tribute to the first peacekeepers
The first, devoted to remembrance, gathered the diplomatic representations of the Allied countries at the Ethiopian memorial to the Korean War, for a particularly moving ceremony of tributes. As Ethiopia and France come one after the other alphabetically, the two forces succeeded one another in the theatre of operations on a number of occasions, most notably after the terrible Battle of Heartbreak Ridge, in 1951. Engaged just a few miles apart in 1952, they fought not far from each other in the sadly famous Iron Triangle, where so many French and Ethiopian soldiers lost their lives. This reunion between veterans from two continents, so distant yet so close, was an important time for communion between generations and brotherhood between soldiers.
Passing the baton between generations of soldiers
The second day, devoted to peacekeeping operations, was held at the Peace Support Training Centre (PSTC) in Addis Ababa, and brought together former and current Blue Helmets for a particularly fruitful exchange between generations. After a themed round table heard a series of first-hand accounts about the planning and conduct of operations, a large-scale military ceremony was held, with the international community defence attachés accredited to Addis Ababa in attendance. At the ceremony, Korean veterans symbolically handed over UN flags to the young troops preparing to be deployed by Ethiopia on peacekeeping missions. Like a symbolic ‘passing of the baton’, this ceremonial parade was a very poignant moment that underscored the exemplary continuity of Ethiopia and France in defending peace and freedom around the world.
Looking to the future
The third and final day was devoted to planning for the future and young people. In a session organised by the Addis Ababa University Institute of Ethiopian Studies, French and Ethiopian veterans gave first-hand accounts of their experiences. This provided material for students and researchers working on the issues of peace and security in the administrative capital of the African Union. By arousing renewed interest in this somewhat forgotten conflict, these accounts ought to stimulate university research into Franco-Ethiopian military cooperation and peacekeeping operations. Later that day, to show their solidarity with their Ethiopian comrades-in-arms, the French veterans handed over a large cheque to support the school in the district of Addis Ababa where Emperor Haile Selassie housed Korean War veterans at the close of the conflict. Currently, there are 51 pupils who are grandchildren or great-grandchildren of those who fought in that far-off conflict. They gave the Frenchmen a very special welcome. What could be a better sign of continuity of this wonderful story of brotherhood?
Colonel Stéphane Richou, defence attaché
Ethiopia Defence Mission