Tigrayans want end to border row – By Elizabeth Blunt, BBC News

December 20th, 2007 Print Print Email Email

The mountains of eastern Tigray in Ethiopia are bare and brown just three months after the end of the rains. (more…)

The mountains of eastern Tigray in Ethiopia are bare and brown just three months after the end of the rains.

The people in the region are skilled farmers and hard workers but even they struggle to support their families from their tiny patches of worn-out land.

The answer used to lie across the border in Eritrea – more developed and industrialised and with two good ports, Ethiopia’s outlets to the sea.

The older farmers remember the days when they used to work on their farms until the harvest was in and then go as seasonal migrant labour to Eritrea.

It was an easy journey to make. The people on the other side of the border were like themselves, Christian highlanders, speaking a similar language.

The Eritrean capital, Asmara, was far easier to get to and more familiar than the distant Ethiopia capital, Addis Ababa.

Families intermarried.

Even today, many Tigrayans have friends and family in Eritrea, relatives they no longer see, cannot phone and can write to only courtesy of the Red Cross.

Barrier of steel

In a continent of notoriously porous borders, an impenetrable barrier has come down between Ethiopia and Eritrea and nowhere is this felt more acutely than in Tigray.
Tigray region is Ethiopia’s front-line state.

Its history, its economy – everything in Tigray is intertwined with and affected by what lies on the other side of the border.

The last war with Eritrea hit the region hard.

Not only was the war fought on the edge of its territory but Tigrayans suffered heavy casualties.

Its regional militia was involved as a well as the national army and the authorities here reckon that a third of those killed and wounded in the fighting came from their region.

Economically the war was a disaster.

The overthrow of Ethiopia’s Marxist military government had brought peace to Tigray in the early 1990s after a long guerrilla war.

New businesses opened and new hotels were built, only to close their doors from lack of business as soon as the war broke out.

Trade barrier

Worse still, even after the war was over the border stayed closed.

The region’s Vice-President, Abadi Zemo, says this makes promoting economic development very difficult.

“Tigray is located up in the north. We have an advantage – we are located much closer to the sea than other towns.

“But having this situation between us and Eritrea, it has put us in a very odd situation,” he says.

“An investor, when he comes to Tigray, he sees there is no war and there is no peace – that investor prefers to invest in the south.

“Had it been normal, Tigray might have been the best region in Ethiopia for investment.”

“It’s hard”, he says, “to persuade investors to come in, when the border is still closed and there is always, hanging over Tigray, the threat of another war.”

Despite this, the regional capital, Mekelle, is a busy little town and its own businessmen have had the confidence to come together and begin building a massive new shopping and office complex.

Old fighter

From inside Mekelle it is almost possible to forget the military situation along the border.
A substantial part of Ethiopia’s very large standing army is stationed in Tigray but those camps are well away from the town.

The United Nations has a peacekeeping force here too – but that is up on the border.

In Mekelle itself there is just a small liaison office, a few white-painted UN vehicles in the streets, occasionally a white-painted helicopter circling overhead.

The fact that the UN peacekeepers are still in place – at least until their mandate is next reviewed at the end of January – makes Tigrayans feel a little safer.

But still they worry about the future.

Abadi Zemo was a fighter himself once, before the government in Addis Ababa was overthrown and he became Tigray’s vice-president.

He knows the range of an AK-47 down to the nearest metre.

And he knows that on some parts of the border the two armies are so close that one slipped safety-catch, one stray bullet, one single soldier, could spark a new conflict.

“Imagine – 500m,” he says.

“Just, you know a Kalashnikov, and a soldier, a simple soldier. The range of a Kalashnikov? That would be 900m, perhaps 1,000m.”

The vice-president laughs at having given himself away as an old fighter, but he knows that one slipped safety catch, one stray bullet, and that simple soldier could start a new conflict.

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