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As Eritrea writhes, Westerners say goodbye

With trucks loaded with Eritrea's soldiers roaring past, Barbara Heywood stood alongside the road in the inky blackness before dawn Sunday and said her last goodbye.

"Don't worry. We'll be all right," said her friend, an Eritrean air force mechanic headed into battle with Ethiopian troops in a war between two of the world's most impoverished nations.

Heywood of Manchester, England, left the Eritrean capital of Asmara later Sunday. She was one of the scores of foreign teachers, aid workers and development experts who joined the U.S. evacuation of part of its embassy staff. Left behind were not only friends, but also a country reeling from poverty, drought, and now, renewed conflict.

"It's sad to know that when we come back, some of our students will be dead," the 50-year-old English instructor said, tears spilling down her checks, before boarding a chartered DC-10 to Frankfurt, Germany.

The United States ordered the partial evacuation in the face of Ethiopia's 9-day-old offensive, launched to try to force an end to its two-year border war with its smaller neighbor. The 206 evacuees included 14 embassy workers and dependents.

Their departure follows a week during which Ethiopian forces seized the key western town of Barentu in a lightning advance and claimed to have taken control of territory just 60 miles from Asmara. The fighting has uprooted an estimated 550,000 Eritreans, chasing 20,000 into Sudan, the U.N. refugee agency said Sunday.

Ethiopia reported a lull in the fighting Sunday after days of bombarding military sites to the south and west of Asmara. Eritrea's government has had little to say on an offensive that the armed forces are desperately trying to stop.

There were no indications that Ethiopian forces intended to advance into the capital itself. Ethiopia said last week its goal was to "dismantle" the Eritrean army, secure territory around the two countries' disputed border and withdraw.

The pace of the Ethiopian offensive has stunned Eritreans, emptying classrooms, gutting development projects and draining the work force, the departing teachers and aid workers said Sunday. Schools have closed as young men and women alike have gone to the fronts, even lying about their age with the complicity of their teachers so they can carry out what they regard solemnly as their patriotic duty, said Tristan Julnes, a 30-year-old woodworking instructor from Vancouver, British Columbia.

In a war that has already cost the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians on both sides, the result is catastrophic, Julnes said: "Ethiopia is not only dismantling an army. They're destroying a generation of young people that are the future of the country."

Julnes and Heywood taught in Eritrea for $9 a day under the auspices of the Volunteer Service Overseas, a Canadian- and European-based aid organization. All but one of the group's 14 teachers in Eritrea left Sunday. Fifty-year-old Alex Hamilton of Oban, Scotland, stayed behind. The decision cost him his job.

"I didn't want to leave people who have been abandoned by everybody else," Hamilton explained, his voice choking.