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Thursday, 21 February, 2002, 17:57 GMT
The agony of divided Horn families
Ethiopian Fireweni Hailu holds a picture of her two-year-old son
Thousands of families have been forcefully separated
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By Nita Bhalla
BBC reporter in Addis Ababa
Although Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace agreement over a year ago, ending their bitter two-and-half year border conflict, the war still continues for thousands of Ethiopians and Eritreans on both sides of the border.

I have a two-year-old son but they said that I couldn't take him because his father is Eritrean and the child was born in Eritrea

Fireweni Hailu, Ethiopian refugee
During the conflict, tens of thousands of Eritreans living in Ethiopia and Ethiopians living in Eritrea were forcefully deported back to their respective countries, accused by both governments of being "a threat to national security."

As a result, thousands of families were torn apart - parents separated from their children, husbands from their wives.

And so, while the one year of peace may have rendered the guns silent, these families still anxiously await their moment of reunification.

Pain and agony

Fireweni Hailu tries to sustain a meagre living, by serving coffee at a sparsely furnished and dilapidated hotel in Adigrat, which lies 30 km from the disputed border with Eritrea.

This separation has caused enormous suffering. It's a very traumatic experience to have to leave their loved ones behind

Elio Tamburi, UNMEEE official

She looks tired and much older than her 23 years. She says the pain and agony that she has endured over the past two years have made her weary and despondent.

Living in Asmara for nine years, she was deported back to Ethiopia during the conflict, for the simple fact that she was an Ethiopian and therefore considered to be an enemy of the state.

"They came to hotel where I was working and asked to see my ID card. When they saw it was a yellow Ethiopian ID card, they told me that I would have to go back to my motherland," Fireweni says.

Eritrean refugees
Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes during the war

"After two weeks in prison and in a detention camp, they deported me back by bus across the border to Ethiopia".

But it was not just her livelihood that she was forced to leave behind, she was also forced to leave her son, Yonathan.

"I have a two-year-old son but they said that I couldn't take him because his father is Eritrean and the child was born in Eritrea," she says.

Since her return to Ethiopia over a year ago, she has had little contact with her son and knows almost nothing about his condition.

As tears stream down her face, Fireweni says there is nothing she can do to be with her son.

'Threat to national security'

But Fireweni's story is not exceptional. There are hundreds of people with similar tales to tell in Adigrat

It is estimated that more than 50,000 Ethiopians living in Eritrea and approximately 75,000 Eritreans living in Ethiopia were deported or voluntarily repatriated during the bitter war.

Both governments claim that these people were "a threat to national security" as they were in some way affiliated with their governments.

"We have found many cases on both sides of the border of people who were forced to leave their spouses or children behind, because they have the nationality of the other side", United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) Human Rights officer Elio Tamburi says.

"This separation has caused enormous suffering because in some cases they were born in the country that they were forced to leave and they have all their friends and family there. It's a very traumatic experience to have to leave their loved ones behind," he adds.


The two East African neighbours signed a peace agreement ending the conflict in December 2000, and a UN peacekeeping mission is currently deployed along the disputed border to ensure that both armies respect the ceasefire.

Ethiopian returnee building a home
Little rebuilding is going on until the border decision is made

But while the guns may have fallen silent on the frontline, these families claim their war still continues.

A Boundary Commission based in The Hague is expected to give its decision on the disputed 900 km border next month and anxiety over the results is mounting in both countries.

But even if this is peacefully accepted, suspicion and mistrust still dominate the political agendas of both governments.

Low priority

Tensions remain high and the reunification of families remains a low priority for both Addis Ababa and Asmara.

UN peacekeeping force
The UN wants Ethiopia and Eritrea to accept the commission's decision

Dr Kinfe Abraham, President of the Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development (EIIPD), believes normal ties have to be re-established before both Ethiopians and Eritreans can see their loved ones again.

"It all depends on how quickly normalisation between the two countries can take place. The resumption of normal services such as trade, telecommunications and transport first have to be reinstated and this will assist the process of family reunification," says Dr Kinfe.

"If eventually people are cleared of security and they don't have suspicious backgrounds maybe they will be allowed to come back, but this could take a very long time," he warns.

See also:

15 Feb 02 | Africa
Horn border ruling delayed
06 Feb 02 | Africa
Ethiopians await border results
14 Dec 01 | Africa
All quiet on Eritrea's frontline
02 Nov 01 | Africa
Eritrea critic denies conspiracy
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