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Wednesday, 6 February, 2002, 23:01 GMT
Ethiopians await border results
The town of Zalembessa on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea
Anxiety is rising in towns that bore the brunt of the war
Marcus George Nita Bhalla

People in the war-ravaged town of Zalambessa, on the Ethiopian border with Eritrea, are growing anxious about where the boundary between the two countries will finally be drawn.

A commission in The Hague is to demarcate the disputed border between Ethiopia and Eritrea - which went to war over the issue.

At the end of this month, the Boundary Commission will say whether Zalambessa and two other towns - Irob and Badme - belong to Ethiopia or Eritrea.

The commission was established following a December 2000 peace agreement between the two countries.


The towns were devastated during the war and people fled from the homes.

Border claims

Both Ethiopia and Eritrea lay claim to Zalambessa.

As I entered the town, Tigrean folk music blared from a transistor radio in one of the few habitable buildings - a drinking den for Zalambessa's old men, despite the partially collapsed walls, lack of electricity and blue plastic sheeting where the roof once was.

Tadesse Ekobazgi, 66, sat with his friends, drinking from a large plastic cup filled with "tala", the local brew.

Mr Tadesse has lived in Zalambessa all his life, but when Eritrean troops occupied the town in June 1998, he fled with his wife and five children.

Drinking den in Zalembessa
Rebuilding may start after the commission's report

It was only when Ethiopia recaptured the town and signed a peace agreement with Eritrea over one year ago, ending their two- and-a-half year conflict, that Tadesse returned with his family.

But he said there was little to come back to. "I found nothing of the home that had taken me 30 years to build. I broke down and wept when I saw what was left of my life in Zalambessa," he said.

As I walked through the ruined town, I saw the rubble of what used to be his home.

"I now live in a tent with my wife and five children. We rely on handouts from aid agencies," Tadesse told me - tears streaming down his wrinkled face.

Looting

His story is not exceptional.

The inhabitants say the occupying Eritrean forces destroyed and plundered the town before Ethiopian forces retook it in May 2000.

Tadesse Ekobazgi
Many in Zalambessa say they are prepared to fight for their town

Since then, more than 5,000 of its original 15,000 inhabitants have returned.

But like Mr Ekobazgi, they are angry and disappointed.

Wolde Rufael Alemu, the deputy chief administrator for the area, said Ethiopia would need international assistance to rebuild areas destroyed in the war.

Zalambessa was a trading town before the war - so few people here know how to grow crops to sustain them.

Many feel that the area has been marginalised and cannot understand why the Ethiopian government has not started to rebuild the town.

But it would be difficult to embark on reconstruction before the border commission releases its report.

Ethiopian confidence

The Ethiopian Government has expressed confidence that the commission will rule in its favour.

Many Ethiopians say they will reject the findings if the town goes to Eritrea.

Ethiopian returnee building a home
Residents need help to rebuild

"We didn't send our boys to fight and die for our sovereignty for nothing," said Alem Gebre Selassie, 72, who lived in Zalambessa throughout the Eritrean occupation.

Opposition parties in Ethiopia and in the diaspora are trying to turn it into a political issue.

The Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) plan to demonstrate in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa this weekend.

Colonial treaties

The Boundary Commission is considering a number of factors - including colonial treaties signed by Ethiopia and Italy.

But the party argues that the treaties are invalid because Ethiopia, it says, was forced to sign the deal.

UN peacekeeping force in Zalembessa
The UN wants Ethiopia and Eritrea to accept the commission's decision
The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), currently deployed along the border, claim that they have already set up contingency plans in the event of tension.

The UN Security Council plans to send a team to visit the region just before the commission's decision is announced.

The team will ask both sides to accept the commission's verdict.

See also:

14 Dec 01 | Africa
All quiet on Eritrea's frontline
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