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Residents of Ethiopia's Adigrat Hope Peace Will Bring Improved Economy, Better Life


Ethiopia and Eritrea appear to be making progress in their long-standing border dispute - both reportedly pledging at a meeting in London last week to abide by an earlier border ruling. And, the mandate of the United Nations' mission to ensure the stability of the border expires Wednesday. Prospects for peace discussed at a high level may take awhile to filter down to the ground. Cathy Majtenyi visited an Ethiopian town near the border, last month and files a report for VOA on the townspeople's perceptions about the longstanding dispute.

Another day dawns in Adigrat - a dusty Ethiopian town some 40 kilometers south of the Eritrean border.

Casting a shadow over this idyllic place is the ever-present fear that tensions between Ethiopia and its neighbor concerning their disputed border could spill over.

Relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea have been rocky ever since they went to war, from 1998 to 2000. Some 70,000 people were killed.

In Adigrat, many are haunted by memories of the war, which hit the town hard.

Businessman Kassahun Welde Giorgis is chairman of Adigrat's Chamber of Commerce. He says he fears a repeat of the conflict.

"These people might hurt us tomorrow, because they always try to hurt us," he said. "In the last war, we have seen them - they were just firing at towns. Adigrat was beaten two or three or four times by air bombs. We have only one medicine factory here and they tried to destroy that. Well, we were lucky enough - the bomb didn't hit that."

Eritrea was initially colonized by the Italians in the late 1800's. In 1952, a United Nations resolution federated Eritrea with Ethiopia.

Some three decades of an independence struggle followed. In 1991, the then-transitional government agreed to allow Eritrean to hold a referendum on independence, which was achieved in 1993.

But tensions remained over the control of several locations along the border, most notably an area called Badme. The strife was the cause of the 1998 to 2000 war.

Under a peace agreement signed in 2000, the independent Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission was created to mark the 1,000-kilometer border. Several thousand U.N. peacekeepers were dispatched to ensure the stability of the border.

Until last week, Ethiopia rejected the boundary commission's ruling that Badme belongs to Eritrea, keeping the exact determination of the border in limbo.

Late last year, Eritrea imposed a number of restrictions in the border area that still remain. More than 100 foreign United Nations workers were expelled.

The chief of staff for the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea, Colonel Mohammed Iqbal, explains the restrictions and how it affects the peacekeepers' work.

"We have limitations on helicopter flights. We have limitations on vehicle patrolling in many areas. We have limitations on night movement in some areas, and the monitoring capability is reduced to 40 percent now," he explained. " Earlier, we used to say it (the border) is potentially volatile and tense (because of the troop movements). And, after we have reviewed this situation now, still we have to keep it tense because of the factors which I have told you."

The previous border war left economic as well as psychological scars on the people of Adigrat.

A businessman who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity says his shop has not grown in the past 10 years.

He says, before the war, Adigrat's economy was very good. Now it is dead, especially compared to other towns in Tigray.

Several townspeople interviewed say they believe the basis of the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia is an economic one. They accuse Eritrea of trying to strangle the economy of Adigrat and other areas of Ethiopia, and possibly take over parts of Ethiopia to boost its own ailing economy.

Retired judge and businessman Haleka Berhe notes that Adigrat used to be one of the leading towns in the Tigray Region of northern Ethiopia, about a decade ago - largely because the region had access to the port of Massawa in Eritrea.

He and other businessmen interviewed think a lack of access to the port and a hesitation by investors to put their money into Adigrat, because of a potential looming border conflict, have all but killed the area's economy.

The people of Adigrat stress that they crave peace. They say no one wants to see a repeat of the violence of the last conflict.

But, retired judge Haleka says Adigrat will defend itself, if need be.

Haleka says that there is nothing good about a war. He claims to want peace. However, he says, if there is any kind of aggression or attack, Ethiopians will stand up to protect their country.

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