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Thursday, 4 November, 1999, 17:18 GMT
Plight of the stranded Eritreans
Eritrean men and boy
The older Eritreans have been in Addis Ababa for decades
In the second of three reports from Ethiopia, BBC News Online's Justin Pearce speaks to the Eritreans living in a country which has suddenly become an enemy.

The police came to Maryam's house before dawn to take away her husband, nine months ago.

Battle in the horn
The couple are Eritreans who had lived in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, for 25 years.

"First they take the husband, to starve the wife," says Maryam, 47, who had been a housewife all her adult life until her husband was detained and then sent to Eritrea without warning.

Since then, she has gone out onto the streets each morning with a basket of sweets, peanuts and cigarettes which she sells to try and scrape together enough to pay the 200-birr ($25) monthly rent on the single room in which she now lives.

With all communications links cut between Ethiopia and Eritrea, news of her husband has to come via relatives in Saudi Arabia.

All Maryam hopes for now is the chance to join her husband in the land which has not been her home for more than half her life.

"Even if you want to go, there is no transport," she says.

'My second home'

Woman and child
Families have been split by men returning to Eritrea
Twice a week, hundreds of Eritreans gather in an open field in the Gofa Gebrel suburb of Addis Ababa. There a committee drawn from the Eritrean community goes through applications for safe passage to Eritrea - a process in which the International Committee of the Red Cross is trying to assist them.

"We have friends and relations who are Ethiopian," says Tewdoros, a lorry driver. "This is my second home."

"But we want to go to Eritrea if there is not a solution - if we cannot work here."

Tewdoros worked for a transport company owned by a fellow Eritrean in Addis Ababa. Then his boss was sent to Eritrea, and the company folded.

Others in the crowd tell similar stories


"You are deprived of your job and salary for no reason," said a grey-haired schoolteacher, who said he had worked in Ethiopia for his entire 30-year career until being dismissed six months ago.

During the 40 years when Eritrea was part of Ethiopia, many Eritreans found that work opportunities were better in the capital and established themselves there.

Even after Eritrean independence in 1993, those who gained Eritrean citizenship had no difficulties continuing to live and work in Ethiopia - until the war broke out.

"Some of them didn't even know they were Eritrean," one diplomat says.

Ethiopian Government spokesperson Selome Tadesse insists that nothing has changed since the start of the war.

Identity cards

Identity book
Identity documents grant temporary residence
"Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have been issued with identity cards," she says. "They are living as though they were Ethiopians."

But with the yellow documents requiring renewal every six months, Eritreans fear they could be deported as and when the government wishes. At least 50,000 Eritreans have been already been involuntarily removed from Ethiopia, according to diplomatic and humanitarian sources.

"They can live here as long as they don't participate in actions sponsored by the Eritrean Government that put our nation at risk," Selome Tadesse says.

"In the early months of the war Eritreans were fundraising in Addis Ababa for the war effort."

She says that Eritrea, for its part, has expelled 150,000 Ethiopian citizens since the war began.

But several independent observers have questioned the Ethiopian Government's assertion that it has deported only those people who were involved in subversive activity.

Hotel in Addis Ababa
An Eritrean-owned hotel in Addis Ababa stands empty
Senior aid officials say that it may well have been political activists who were initially targeted - but that later victims were people with only tenuous political links, or none at all.

One aid official believes it was the wealthier Eritreans who were the first targets for deportation. Eritreans formed a substantial part of Addis Ababa's business community.

Some had to leave without the chance to sell property. In certain neighbourhoods of Addis Ababa, shuttered shops, restaurants and hotels bear witness to the hole which the departures have left in the city's economy.

Voluntary departures

Woman with umbrella
Waiting in the sun for news
Either way, if there was a strategy of deportations it is becoming increasingly redundant, as unemployment or the departure of relatives encourage Eritreans to leave of their own free will.

So far 4,500 people have registered to return to Eritrea, a committee member says.

But the process has already run into difficulty.

In October, when plans were being made to take the first group of Eritreans to Eritrea via the border near Bure in the north-east, the Eritrean Government said it could not guarantee the security of people travelling on that route.

The ICRC started to plan an airlift. But the Ethiopian government accused the Eritrean government of refusing to accept its own citizens, and the ICRC of giving into Eritrean propaganda.

The Ethiopian authorities went ahead with bussing the Eritreans to the border - a move which the ICRC said contravened the Geneva Conventions.

After an arduous journey, 1,700 people arrived in Eritrea. But thousands more are waiting to follow, and even then their problems will not be over.

As Maryam points out: "Eritrea is a very small country. It is very hard for 50,000 people to get a job."

Click here to read the first report in this series, in which we visit the Ethiopian front line.

The final report in this series, about Ethiopian refugees who fled the war, will appear on Monday 8 November.

See also:

27 Oct 99 | Africa
29 Oct 99 | Africa
03 Nov 99 | Africa
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