Amid winds of a new war, Eritreans face a dilemma
SENAFE, Eritrea -- Villagers in this parched region of southern Eritrea struggle to point out the border as it snakes around the Ethiopian town of Zalambessa, dips into a valley, S-turns around trees, then cuts across a pasture among mud-brick houses about a football field apart.
Thousands of Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers died in a two-year war to define the border. Some of the bloodiest clashes occurred near Zalambessa, which both countries have claimed.
While the war officially ended in 2000, there is still unease among tens of thousands of people who live along the 620-mile boundary between the two Horn of Africa nations.
Ethiopian and Eritrean officials remain deadlocked over their claims to large swaths of the same territory. This has left those along the border trapped between wanting to rebuild their villages and seeing a possible need to pull up stakes to escape renewed fighting.
"We don't know what's going to happen to us tomorrow," said Kidane Tella, 53, who lives with his wife and three children in Senafe, at one of the camps for the more than 60,000 Eritreans displaced by the war.
"The people here have nothing to do with the border -- that is for governments to decide. Most of us have family on both sides," he said recently, opening a flap on the canvas tent as his wife served salted injera, a spongy bread cooked over a bucket of charcoal.
Tella has spent most of his life fleeing wars between Eritrea and Ethiopia. He escaped to Sudan during Eritrea's 30-year struggle for independence and returned to Eritrea only to have the border war erupt in 1998. With the specter of another flare-up, he voiced worries that he and his family might have to flee again.
Eritrean authorities say it's too dangerous for such people to return home after Ethiopia reneged last year on its vow to abide by a UN-backed ruling by a boundary commission in 2002.
The ruling was to have been the final step in a peace process that ended the two-year conflict that killed about 80,000 fighters. Installing cement pillars to mark off the border is the last unfinished business of the war.
But Ethiopia balked, saying the ruling gives Eritrea sections of disputed territory, including Badme, a dusty one-street town. Both countries are stubborn in their belief that whoever wins Badme wins the war.
Eritrea has called for the United Nations to impose sanctions against Ethiopia because, it said, it had flouted international law.
"There's no doubt that Eritreans have the moral and legal high ground," said a Western analyst in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of antagonizing either nation. "But Ethiopia is much bigger and has deeper and wider international commitments, and there is no appetite at the UN to apply sanctions."
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has tried to break the impasse through mediation, sending a special envoy, Lloyd Axworthy, to negotiate a settlement. Eritrean officials refused to meet with him. They also rejected an offer by Nigerian mediators.
Last week, a European delegation led by Ireland's foreign minister, Brian Cowen, went to Asmara to urge Eritrea to meet with Axworthy. Again, Eritrea declined.
"This is the most frustrating period in the process," said Legwaila Joseph Legwaila, director the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea, which has about 4,000 peacekeepers in the region. "We're just sitting here waiting for the boundary commission to get on with their job."
Eritrea tightened restrictions on UN troops patrolling the security zone, raising speculation that the two countries were drifting toward another war.
Ethiopians have been conducting live-fire exercises on the Ethiopian side of the border, near the terraced mountains southwest of Senafe,UN observers say.
Conflict has shaped the culture of Eritrea, a former Italian colony that was awarded to Ethiopia after World War II. Eritreans, known as tenacious guerrilla fighters, overcame forces from Ethiopia, a country more than 10 times its size that has one of largest and best-equipped armies in Africa.
Even with a population of about 4 million -- tiny compared with that of its neighbors -- Eritrea has not backed down from occasional quarrels with Sudan and even Yemen, which contested Eritrea's territorial claim to some islands in the Red Sea.
While many younger Eritreans grumbled last year when the government extended compulsory military duty from 18 months to three years or more, most older Eritreans support President Isaias Afwerki's efforts to keep the country mobilized.
For now, they hope the international community will force Ethiopia to accept the boundary commission's ruling.
"The boundary commission's ruling was final and binding, and Ethiopia's violation sets a grave precedent," said Yemane Gebremeskel, Afwerki's spokesman.
Assertions of being on the correct side of international law are no solace for Letay Dira, a 50-year-old Eritrean woman who has spent three years at the Senafe camp, which has swelled to about 4,000 people. Thousands of brown tents, some shredded by wind, cling to the steep slope of a butte.
Dira and her 15-year-old son set up a kiosk at the camp's edge that sells cigarettes, tea, and spices, extravagances in a place where most people have little or no income. Farmers sometimes hire people in the camps as day laborers, but the pay is often less than $1 a day. International aid groups provide most of the food, medicine, and shelter.
"None of us thought we would be here this long," Dira said."All we want is to go home. We can't."