AFRICA: Waiting for War (Another Crisis looms)

Waiting for War

As Ethiopia and Eritrea edge toward another conflict, refugees in a border camp are watching with trepidation. An on-scene report from Shimelba.

Jason McLure
Shimelba camp, home to more than 15,000 Eritrean refugees
By Jason McLure | Newsweek Web Exclusive  


When Fitsum Berihu fled into Ethiopia, he risked death by hyenas, snipers and land mines. Two years later the 35-year-old Eritrean vividly recalls the fear he felt as he made his way through a U.N.-patrolled buffer zone and across the trenches and artillery lines of some of the tens of thousands of soldiers dug in on both sides of the divide. Even worse than all that, though, was leaving behind his 72-year-old mother and two siblings. "I never told my family I was crossing the border," he says. "I never said goodbye."

Berihu still doesn’t know what happened to his family after he defected from the Eritrean Army. There are no phone or mail links between the neighbors, and he has had no way of keeping in touch. So today he waits and hopes, one of more than 15,000 Eritreans stuck behind barbed wire and chain-link fencing at the Shimelba refugee camp in a remote corner of northern Ethiopia. It’s a part of the world that is growing increasingly tense as the two countries seem to be gearing up to fight their second war in less than a decade. On Nov. 27 an international commission set up to resolve the long-running border dispute between the two nations is set to dissolve. The commission, which made its findings five years ago, has warned Ethiopia and Eritrea that if they fail to demarcate the border themselves then it would be drawn based on predetermined coordinates.

Neither country seems willing to accept that decision. Both sides say publicly they want peace and accuse the enemy of warmongering. But last month Ethiopia’s foreign minister warned that Eritrea’s army had occupied the U.N. Temporary Security Zone along the border and that the two armies were less than 75 yards apart in some places. Earlier this month an Eritrean opposition group said the government was sending 25,000 reinforcements to the border. Ethiopia has also sent more reinforcements, say residents near the frontier, and has jammed Eritrean broadcasts and Web sites. One Western diplomat puts the chances of war within the next few months at 50 percent. An Ethiopian official who spoke to NEWSWEEK said some elements of the government are calculating that Ethiopia has four to five weeks to topple the Eritrean government before international pressure—particularly from the United States—forces a ceasefire. Landlocked Ethiopia might also try to grab the Eritrean port of Assab.

As the situation escalates, more Eritreans are making their way to Shimelba. In October alone some 700 made the journey—more than double the figure from the same month last year. Most have little to do but wait—either for the outbreak of conflict or, in cases like Berihu, in the hope of a refugee visa from the United States or Canada that may never come. "You just vegetate here doing nothing," he says.

Like Berihu, most of the Eritreans at Shimelba fled to escape mandatory service in Eritrea’s military. Others left because they’re Protestants or members of other religious groups facing persecution from Eritrea’s Coptic Orthodox government. About a quarter belong to the Kunama tribe, a minority group that sided with Ethiopia during the 1998-2000 border war between the two countries. After the war many of the Kunama still left in Eritrea were stripped of their grazing lands. Some of the refugees at the camp have been there for five years or more and have settled into an almost permanent life of waiting. Many have mud-brick houses with metal roofs. The main dirt track through the camp is lined with dirt-floor tea shops, small restaurants, and ramshackle theaters blaring American movies.

There are ping-pong tables and grass-thatched pool halls and satellite television. A few refugees make money from scratching ramshackle plots of sorghum from the pebbly soil near the camp. The United Nations provides each refugee with just over a pound of wheat a day, a bit of cooking oil, and a few other foodstuffs. That makes life in the camp generally better than in Eritrea, say refugees, where President Isaias Afwerki’s authoritarian government has destroyed the economy and conscripted most of his country’s young people in an effort to match the military might of Ethiopia, a country 15 times as populous. "We saved our lives [by leaving]," says Daniel Abraham, a 29-year-old refugee who spent four days hiding in the scrubland along the border before making it to Ethiopia.



Member Comments
  • Posted By: efly @ 10/31/2007 9:44:54 PM

    Comment: Is it me or does the United Nations seem to becoming less and less powerful. I remember watching this conflict on the news and thought they had come to a conclusion in 2002. Now 5 years later and nothing has changed. There is a simple solution to end this before it becomes a war again and that would be for the USA to pressure Ethiopia to accept the border implementation. We all know that Ethiopia is a pawn of the united states and with the flick of a wrist USA can force these two countries to end this dispute. -Edward


  • Posted By: MarineMajor @ 10/31/2007 9:40:04 PM

    Comment: I am an Active Duty Marine that had the opportunity to serve as a United Nations Observer monitoring the border dispute between these two countries for more than 6 months. It was the best overseas tour I have had the opportunity to experience. The people of both Ethiopia and Eritrea are extremely kind and thoughtful, even more so further away from the larger cities. The poverty is powerfully sad on both sides of the border and I was amazed by the numerous families I met torn apart by this border dispute. Wars have a unique impact on economies, they drive them. I believe that both of these countries support their own struggling economies by continuing to push dollars into their limited military forces. The military of both sides of this dispute do alot to support their economies. I would go back for a second tour with UNMEE in an instant. Being involved with the variety of issues you experience with their day to day lives in Ethiopia and Eritrea really make you appreciate our fortune here in the United States. Semper Fidelis

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