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Wednesday, 25 April, 2001, 16:58 GMT 17:58 UK
Tough return for Eritreans
UN drive through Senafe (UN picture)
Towns on the border suffered during the war (UNMEE photo Jorge Aramburu)
By Alex Last in Serha, Eritrea

On an open plateau, with canyons plunging away to the sides, stands what is left of the Eritrean town of New Serha.


On one school the only remnant were painted maps of the world which decorated the skeleton of the building.

Virtually every building in the town had been systematically destroyed. A United Nations assessment of the town said that 85% of the houses were beyond repair.

This town was home to thousands of Eritreans who fled the fighting and who now reside in makeshift displacement camps. There is nothing left for them to return to.

The destruction of the town, while under Ethiopian occupation, was perhaps revenge for the destruction in 1999 of the disputed town of Zalambessa by the Eritrean army.

Zalambessa lies just a few hundred metres from Serha.

The two-and-a-half year conflict between Ethiopian and Eritrea formally ended at the end of last year with the signing of a peace treaty.

Since then the United Nations has been attempting to implement the treaty.

Earlier this month the UN managed to set up a buffer zone, or as it is known the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ), between the two countries.

Destruction

But Serha was not the only place to be damaged.

In the larger town of Senafe to the north, Ethiopian forces had blown up government buildings, the telecommunications centre, the hospital, and a hotel that was favoured by the Eritrean army and journalists for its cold beer and roasted goat.

Displaced persons camp (UN picture)
Thousands of Eritreans ended up in displaced persons camps (UNMEE photo Jorge Aramburu)
Most civilian homes in Senafe were not destroyed. But several clinics and schools in other villages in the area were totally stripped.

On one school all that was left were painted maps of the world which decorated the skeleton of the building.

In the small stone village of Emba Bidehan, some of the population had remained. The majority had fled north when the main displacement camp in the area was caught in the fighting last year.

Left behind

A few like Nigisti Berhe and her six children could not make it, so she returned to her village.

"The women would keep together so we wouldn't get raped, we had heard there was rape, so we were scared. We had no food, so we sent our children to beg food from the Ethiopian army."

She told of the role of Eritrean opposition groups who came into the area on the back of the Ethiopian advance.

"The Sagan (the nickname for Eritrean opposition groups based in Ethiopia) set up a clinic to help us, they said they were our brothers.

"They also gave us some food and held political meetings."

The opposition group left when the Ethiopian army pulled out in late February. A reminder of their presence were anti-government slogans daubed on buildings throughout the town of Senafe.

However, looting by the Ethiopian army was a problem throughout the area.

Villagers complained at the loss of their possessions, roofs, doors, cooking utensils but most importantly livestock. Oxen are critical for ploughing in advance of the rainy season that is expected in the next two months

Mass movement

Time is now crucial to get some of the 300,000 displaced Eritreans to return to their homes inside the TSZ.

The UN in conjunction with the Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission has been conducting a rapid village assessment, to determine what humanitarian assistance is most urgent.

Zalambessa
Zalambessa also suffered during the war
Leading one of the assessment teams, Christopher Hurd of the Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said: "The pressure is on to get people back to these areas so they can get back to agriculture, so they can become independent.

"We need to get a significant percentage of the people home in roughly eight weeks, which is a very tall order knowing the co-operative nature of international humanitarian relief."

There is a catch. A swift unorganised return for the civilians is potentially disastrous.

In areas closer to the former front line the deadly threat is clear.

In the last three weeks, six children have been injured and one 10-year-old killed while playing around the former "no mans land" near Senafe. De-mining is just getting underway, but the task is enormous.

All parties recognise that there has to be a balance between getting people home fast, but not so fast that the displaced are exposed to unnecessary danger.

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See also:

17 Apr 01 | Africa
Eritrea pulls out of buffer zone
07 Apr 01 | Africa
Ethiopia and Eritrea meet
24 Feb 01 | Africa
Ethiopia says pull-out complete
18 Feb 01 | Africa
Eritrea's pull-back begins
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