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Project Ethiopia/Eritrea: Peace in the Horn of Africa

Border war changes lives

by Barbra Lukunka

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Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is now the
home to many Ethiopians deported from Eritrea.

All of Africa's corners have experienced armed conflict. Southern Africa has faced conflict due to apartheid and freedom fighting; Central Africa is synonymous with ethnic cleansing. West Africa is constantly breeding new coup d'etat, and the Horn of Africa has had its share of border disputes. Africa is a rich continent with an abundance of resources, diverse cultures, exotic people and exciting traditions, yet it seems as though it is perpetually facing armed conflict. Wars in Africa have destabilized the economy, politics, social life and much more. In order to understand the true nature of the conflicts in Africa, we must look at the history of some of these countries because many of the conflicts have their roots in the colonial era. Many people praise the colonial era; however, in my opinion, it brought more harm than good in many regions. Some examples of the harm caused include the ethnic cleansing in the Great Lakes region, Southern Africa's apartheid, Nigeria and Cameroon's border dispute, Nigeria's civil war.

The history behind the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea goes back as far as the beginning of the last century. The primary thing that is important to take note of is Ethiopia and Eritrea were once part of the Ethiopian Empire. Ethiopia was once a great empire that stretched as far as Yemen. While many Western European countries were fully engaged in colonialism at the beginning of the 20th Century, Italy decided it did not want to miss out on gaining land in Africa. The Italians were encouraged by the British, who were threatened by French imperialism, to conquer and colonize the great Ethiopian Empire. The Italians were defeated by the Ethiopians; however, after negotiations they were able to control what is now Eritrea. In 1908, the Italians drew up a border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, henceforth controlling Eritrea for nearly half of a century until 1941.

The Italians colonized Ethiopia but were defeated in the famous battle of Adwa, which brought an end to their six-year control of the country. This battle is well known because an army of indigenous Ethiopians equipped with mere spears and few firearms were able to defeat the sophisticated army of Italians. In 1952, Ethiopia and Eritrea were combined into a federation under the United Nations. The Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie annexed Eritrea, stripping away its autonomy. This triggered a three-decade war between the two countries. Even though Eritrea tried to seek help from the international community to implement the U.N. ruling in regards to the federation that was created, the international community chose to be oblivious to its pleas. Emperor Haile Selassie was taken out of power in 1974 by the communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. During his regime, Mariam was a very brutal dictator and both Ethiopians and Eritreans suffered under his military rule.

In 1975, the Tigray People's Liberation Front was formed. This group was formed with the ambition to take Mariam out of power. Tigray is a region north of Ethiopia. It has a distinctive tribal group called the Tigrays. This region borders Eritrea; in addition, one of the major tribal groups in Ethiopia and Eritrea are Tigray. Therefore, Ethiopia and Eritrea share a common language, Tigrinya, as well as a tribal group. Tigrays in the north of Ethiopia and Eritreans suffered the most during Mengistu's rule. With the support of other tribal groups, the TPLF grew and became the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front. This group sought the help of the Eritreans to overthrow Mengistu in exchange for Eritrea's independence. In 1993, Eritrea received its independence from Ethiopia and the leader of the EPRDF, a Tigray by the name of Meles Zenawi, became the President of Ethiopia. His cousin Isaias Afwerki became the ruler of Eritrea. Even though Eritrea had gained its independence, the border between the two countries was an issue of disagreement.

In 1998, fighting broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea over the border and a small, dry peace of land called Badme, which is located at the border.

One of the main goals for this research was to talk to people who were affected by the border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The main objective was to talk to people whose lives had changed due to the 1998 border dispute. While discussing my research with some Ethiopian friends, they told me to go to an area in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, called Kirkos. Apparently this was a place where many of the Ethiopians who once lived in Eritrea reside. In 1998, both countries were involved in deporting each other's nationals. Force was used by both sides to deport the people.

I went to Kirkos and found a young man that was willing to tell me his story. He had been affected by the conflict in 1991.

His name is Tekie Kidane, and he is a Tigray. He lived in Eritrea for seven years and came back to Ethiopia in 1991 when the war started. He was a student in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, and he said life was wonderful in Eritrea. When the war started, inevitably everything changed for many people.

"The Mengistu military leaders forced us out of Eritrea," Kidane said.

He said he had many friends and family members in Eritrea; however, he does not know where most of them are.

"I had a good friend who fled to Sudan," Kidane said. "I have not heard from him for a long time now, maybe he is dead."

Many of the people who fled the belligerence during this time left their homes to go to neighboring countries, such as Sudan, to live as refugees. Now Kidane lives in Addis Ababa and works as a postman.

"I don't care about what happens between Ethiopia and Eritrea," he said. "I have a small salary, and I lead a simple life ... My life was better in Eritrea."

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