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Uncertainty Haunts Refugees as Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Tensions Rise

Rising tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea have led to an increasing flow of refugees across their common frontier. A border war between the Horn of Africa neighbors from 1998 to 2000 cost an estimated 70,000 lives, and the simmering dispute over the location of the boundary is heating up again. VOA's Peter Heinlein has just returned from a refugee camp in northern Ethiopia where 16,000 people sit, and wait, for resolution of a quarrel that has put their lives, and their dreams on hold, in some cases, for years.

The red dirt streets of Shimelba refugee camp are as wide as a four lane-highway. But under the cloudless blue sky of this late October afternoon, not a car can be seen. Here and there, children play, veiled women trudge along, bent under the weight of twin buckets of water dangling from a branch balanced on their shoulders. Inside walled gardens, groups of men sit, whiling away the hours, the months, the years, playing cards.

Shimelba is a tidy place. Residents generally live in single-family homes. A host of organizations, from the International Rescue Committee to the U.N. refugee agency and the Ethiopian government, provide food and medical services. There are schools and churches. Some tradespeople and entrepreneurs operate thriving businesses.

Still, there is a palpable undercurrent of anxiety. One of the two main elements of Shimelba's population is essentially a community of Eritrean draft dodgers. Many are university-educated men who fled to Ethiopia to avoid serving in Eritrea's armed forces.

Now they sit in virtual isolation, their lives in limbo, nervously watching the clouds of war gathering a short distance away, along the disputed border.

Solomon, who asked that his last name not be used, has been at Shimelba for more than four years. He and his wife were married there. Meeting a visiting reporter in the street, he speaks in guarded tones about what he might do if war does break out. But in the privacy of his immaculate two-room mud-brick home, the pent up frustrations, borne of years of uncertainty, bubble to the surface.

"I don't know what I'd do. I'm not in my homeland under a secure situation," said Solomon. "So I don't know what happens, because I'm not leading my life, my life is being led. I'm not an individual free, so I can't tell you what happens tomorrow to me."

Not far from Shimelba, Eritrean and Ethiopan forces are said to be making preparations for war. Each accuses the other of violating the Algiers accord that stopped the fighting seven years ago. With the decision of an independent boundary commission set to take permanent effect at the end of November, tensions are peaking.

Solomon says the threat of war hanging over them is nothing compared to the agony of years of sitting in limbo, waiting, with little or no hope.

"Eritreans tell me, this is a kind of prison, no one knows that threat," said Solomon. "And this time, people are asking about something, these people are here for sake of resettlement, to go to abroad, something America or Canada or something. So there are here, not concerned about politics. It's being hard. It's making the people so crazy."

He says inmates at Shimelba live in constant fear that if war breaks out, they could be targeted, not only by Eritrean forces, but also by hostile residents of nearby villages who view them as competitors for scarce firewood and other resources.

"We here in Africa are narrow minded, maybe I say, you don't trust anybody because if something happens, he may kill you," said Solomon. "So if something happens in Eritrea, something may happen to us, by Eritreans, or Ethiopians, or by the community, no one trusts each other. Because of the ideology inside of us."

For Sbimelba's community of Eritrean draft dodgers and military deserters, one long day of waiting blends into the next. Inside the camp's confines, there is only a vague awareness of the military activity going on at the frontier. Sitting in his garden on the edge of the camp, Solomon and a few friends discuss which is worse, the certain horrors that would accompany a resumption of war, or sitting in Shimelba's limbo of uncertainty, waiting for the unknown.