'Peace Is Everything': Ethiopia And Eritrea Embrace Open Border After Long Conflict

Dec 4, 2018
Originally published on December 11, 2018 10:57 am

Almost everywhere you go in Zalambessa, a town on Ethiopia's border with Eritrea, there are reminders of war: buildings in rubble, walls riddled with bullet holes and a border still delineated by two rows of trenches.

But now, dramatic change is underway. Many of the troops have pulled out. A little cafe has popped up right on the border. Children are selling candies and drinks to travelers and, for the first time in two decades, people and goods are transiting the crossing between Zalambessa and the Eritrean town of Serha.

Tesfagabir, a man in his 40s, runs a horse-drawn cart taxi back and forth over the border. Like others interviewed in this story, he would give only his first name because he still fears the Ethiopian government. He says every time he crosses the border, it feels like a dream.

"Peace is everything," he says. This war never made sense to him. "We have children from them and they have children from us," he says. "We are connected by blood."

Ethiopia and Eritrea were once a single country. Eritrea gained independence amicably from Ethiopia in 1993, but a few years later, the countries went on to wage one of Africa's deadliest wars.

Then this past July, amid a whirlwind of political change in Ethiopia, the two countries declared an official end to the war. In September, the Serha-Zalambessa crossing was opened for the first time in almost 20 years.

Wheat from rubble

Once that happened, one of the first things that 47-year-old Mezgebo did was return to his family home. Until the opening in September, he could not have even stepped here because his family home was built right between the two trenches separating Serha and Zalambessa.

Unfortunately, when he got home, all he found was a pile of rocks. The house had probably been destroyed by a tank or a bomb.

He got to work anyway, winnowing his wheat right next to the rubble, within view of Eritrean soldiers, trying to bring the place back to life. When the war started, lots of villagers here disappeared — taken by an enemy army, Mezgebo says. He hasn't seen his brother in decades.

Since the violence ended and the border reopened, lots of people have returned, he says. But he doesn't expect to see his brother again.

"I don't feel hope that I will see him," he says. What he wants is for Ethiopia and Eritrea to have the courage to tell him what he knows in his heart — that his brother is dead.

"Things could potentially explode"

Ethiopia and Eritrea go way back. Ethiopia's emperor signed away the territory to the Italians at the end of the 19th century in exchange for financial assistance and military supplies.

After World War II, following the defeat of the Axis, Eritrea became part of Ethiopia again. In the 1990s, Eritrean separatists helped Ethiopian rebels topple the communist government and, in return, the party now governing Ethiopia allowed Eritreans to vote in an independence referendum. Voters chose overwhelmingly to secede.

But it wasn't long before brothers in arms turned on each other. Border skirmishes escalated into full-on war by 1998. An estimated 80,000 people were killed. An agreement in 2000 ended the heavy fighting, but border disputes continued for years, with the two countries acting like estranged siblings fighting a cold war.

This year, Ethiopia has gone through some earth-shattering changes. After almost three years of popular protests that paralyzed the country, the ruling party unexpectedly installed a reformist prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, in April. One of the first things Ahmed did was fly to the Eritrean capital of Asmara; he shook hands with President Isaias Afwerki, and peace began to blossom.

Cross-border phone calls and air routes, which were cut off during the conflict, are back on again. Borders that had been guarded by armed troops suddenly reopened. Families reunited and Eritrea agreed to allow landlocked Ethiopia to begin using and developing Eritrea's Red Sea ports.

Daniel Berhane, an Ethiopian political analyst, says the history between the countries runs too deep for changes like these to be made so quickly.

"When you go to the details [of this peace], they are poorly managed," he says. "They are not properly planned and designed, so most of them end up being messy."

For example, there are hardly any regulations around tariffs, border controls or currencies (Ethiopia uses the birr and Eritrea uses the nakfa). Truckloads of cargo and people are crossing the border by the thousands per day but few rules control them.

The last time these two countries fought, Berhane says, it was over these exact issues. Today, there are even stronger points of friction: Ethiopia is moving toward a more democratic system. But Eritrea, which is known as the hermit kingdom of Africa, seems immovable. What happens, Berhane muses, if Ethiopia's neighbors are inspired by its newfound freedoms and a popular protest movement swells in Eritrea too? Would Afwerki blame Ethiopia?

"All these things could potentially explode, we never know," he says. "We are in a crossroads."

Tired of war

One reason peace took hold quickly is that Ethiopia's new leader publicly accepted the 2000 deal to end hostilities. That included a key decision made by a United Nations boundary commission: Badme, a small town bitterly fought over by both sides during the war, would go to Eritrea. The concession seemingly put to rest one of the thorniest issues between the two countries.

But months after Abiy accepted the deal, little has changed in Badme, a dusty town almost 200 miles west of Zalambessa.

So far, Eritrea has not gained control over Badme, and many of the town's residents believe that Abiy did not mean what he said. They are convinced the town will in the future become a kind of borderless middle ground — definitely not under the rule of Eritrea.

Habtom Mesay, 26, sits at a bar in center of Badme, watching Ethiopian military trucks rumble by.

He was a young boy when the war started and he remembers watching authorities deport his Eritrean friends and accuse them of being the enemy. They were some of the tens of thousands of Eritreans expelled by Ethiopia near the start of the war.

"We have [known] each other for years. We have married; we have blood relations. We know each other better than anyone," he says.

In a lot of ways, he adds, this war was always driven by two governments, and if the governments just allowed the villagers to settle their own disputes, peace would prevail. Everyone knows what land belongs to whom, he says. The problem will come if the governments begin redrawing borders.

"If they start drawing lines, the war will return," he says.

In Badme, there are few resources or facilities that one might consider of value. Camels wander the brown land and goats feed off acacia trees. Recently, however, small prospectors discovered some gold, so hordes of young men come in and out of town to try their luck.

When the border war raged, hundreds of thousands of troops crowded this terrain, part of a conflict that was often described as one between two bald men fighting over a comb because so little was at stake.

But the war had very real effects. Shishay and Mihret, two siblings in their 30s, say they had not seen each other since the war started.

Mihret married an Eritrean man, and the last time she saw her brother, he was a little boy. Shishay stayed in Badme and Mihret moved to a tiny village just across the front lines into Eritrea.

A day earlier, she had traveled to Badme for the first time in about two decades. Eritrean authorities warned her not to travel because the road had not been cleared of land mines.

"But my heart led me here, anyway," she says.

Sometimes, during their 20 years of separation, Shishay says, he would walk to the edge of town, right before the militarized border, and stare at the open field, imagining the life his sister was having just a few miles away.

"We were missing each other very much," he says. "If missing could kill, we would be dead."

A neighbor they did not know invited them to sit in the shade and have coffee. The neighbor burned some incense, popped some corn and looked at them with maternal tenderness.

Others who had returned from Eritrea were not so lucky. They came home to locked doors, destroyed homes and news that the family they had missed for so long had perished.

"I never expected that I would find her alive," Shishay says. "She missed our father because he died."

But she's lucky, he says, pointing at a group of young cousins who had never met before this week, playing as if they'd known each other all their lives.

Hopefully, this peace will last, they all agreed, because everyone is tired of the fighting.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Historic changes have come to Ethiopia. Now that it's reached peace with its longtime enemy, Eritrea, phone lines that were once dead have come alive. Flights have resumed. And the border that was once a killing field just months ago is now suddenly open. NPR's Eyder Peralta visited that once-contentious territory.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Pretty much everywhere you go here in Zalambessa, there are reminders of war. Buildings and houses are in rubble. Walls are still riddled with bullet holes, and trenches still mark the border. But today, a young woman has set up a cafe here, and kids are selling drinks and candy to travelers.

TESFAGABIR: (Vocalizing).

PERALTA: Tesfagabir is just returning from Eritrea on a horse-drawn cart. He's been ferrying people and things back and forth. And every time he crosses, he says, it still feels like a dream.

TESFAGABIR: (Through interpreter) Peace is everything. And the first time I cross, I feel very happy but sad for those who sacrificed in the war.

PERALTA: Eritrea and Ethiopia were once a single country. Through a referendum, Eritrea amicably split from Ethiopia in 1993. But the countries disagreed on their borders, and that sparked one of the longest and bloodiest wars on the continent. As many as 100,000 people died, and hundreds of thousands were displaced. To Tesfagabir - who, like most people here, only gives his first name because he still fears the government - it was a war that never made sense.

TESFAGABIR: (Through interpreter) We have children from them, and we - they have children from us. We are connected with blood - deeply, not in the border only.

PERALTA: As he drives away, I step over the trenches. In the distance, Eritrean soldiers are still patrolling. This is a harsh land. It's mostly white rocks. It hardly rains. But here, I find Mezgebo winnowing wheat, making the air golden as his grains take flight. He points to what used to be his house. It's a pile of rocks. A week ago, he would have been shot for coming back here.

MEZGEBO: (Through interpreter) I don't feel hope that I will see them.

PERALTA: But the one thing he wants is closure, for the governments to confirm that his brother is dead. After years of popular protests in Ethiopia, a reformist prime minister was installed by the ruling party. And one of the first things Abiy Ahmed did was fly to Asmara. He shook hands with Isaias Afwerki, one of the world's most ruthless dictators, and a peace began to blossom.

DANIEL BERHANE: But when you go to the details, they are poorly managed. They are not properly planned and designed, so most of them end up being messy.

PERALTA: Daniel Berhane is a political analyst. He worries that the relations between these two countries have resumed too quickly, without any ground rules on taxes, or border controls or currencies. The last time these two countries fought, it was over these exact issues.

BERHANE: So all these could potentially explode. We never know. We are in a crossroads, anyway.

PERALTA: That unknown was clear the minute I arrive in Badme.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Tigrinya).

PERALTA: It's a tiny, dusty town that has been at the center of this conflict. Both countries fought bitterly to keep it within their borders. But when Ethiopia made peace, it promised to hand Badme back to Eritrea. So it was surprising to still see Ethiopian military vehicles rumbling through town.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES RUMBLING)

PERALTA: I stop at the final house before the Eritrean border. The owner tells us we shouldn't go any farther because the rest of the road is mine. But she invites me to sit to meet Shishay and Mihret, a brother and sister who have not seen each other in 20 years since the beginning of the war. The owner begins a coffee ceremony. She burns incense. She roasts some beans and then grinds them with care.

(SOUNDBITE OF POUNDING)

PERALTA: Shishay and Mihret just look at each other. She married an Eritrean man. And the last time she saw her brother, he was a little kid.

MIHRET: (Speaking Tigrinya).

PERALTA: She says authorities warned them not to visit Badme because they could be killed by a mine. But her heart told her to make the journey anyway.

SHISHAY: (Through interpreter) We were missing very much each other. If missing could kill, it would kill us.

PERALTA: Shishay says for years, the only news he got from her came through letters ferried by the Red Cross. And sometimes he would stand here in Ethiopia and stare across an open field, knowing that his sister was just a few miles away.

SHISHAY: (Through interpreter) We were in constant life thinking about each other. I was thinking about her. And I never expect that I would find her alive. She's lucky than the other families because she find me. She miss her - our father because he died. He died.

PERALTA: And just as we finish our coffee, the owner, who didn't know any of us, begins to pop some corn.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Screaming).

PERALTA: We watch cousins play as if they've known each other all their lives. I ask the adults if they think this peace will last. They hope so, they say, because everyone is tired of fighting. The soldiers, the people, the governments, everyone is tired of the fighting. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, along the Ethiopian-Eritrean border.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.