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Bittersweet Homecoming for Thousands of Eritrean Refugees - 2004-04-04

More than 100,000 Eritreans have returned home from Sudan, where they fled during Eritrea's 30-year struggle for independence from Ethiopia.

For decades, their dreams of returning to Eritrea were thwarted by wars with Ethiopia, the struggle for independence and the border war that followed. Now, they are finally returning. Most are coming from Sudan, but many are filtering in from other parts of the continent, including Ethiopia. Their homecoming is bittersweet.

This is what most foreigners, especially tourists, experience when they come to Asmara, the sound of chrome-plated espresso machines and the aroma of machiattos coffee and fresh-baked bread.

This is one of hundreds of cafes in one of Africa's cleanest, safest and most picturesque cities. It's a city bathed in sun, with excellent Italian food and cinemas as opulent as opera houses.

Under the leadership of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, who took power in 1991, the country has not experienced the corruption and grinding poverty that has dogged so many other African nations.

And so, Eritrean refugees, some of whom left a generation ago, are coming back.

About 100,000 Eritreans have returned in recent years. This year, another 35,000 returnees from Sudan are expected in Eritrea, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Many of them flock to cities like Asmara, but most are going to farming regions, such as Gash Barka in southwestern Eritrea, aid groups say.

Mohammed Dualeh, a field officer for the U.N. refugee agency, which is helping the Eritrean government resettle the returnees, explains why. "Why they are choosing Gash Barka? That is the farming land of Eritrea," he said. "And these returnees were 20 or 30 years in Sudan, and that is all they know - farming and agriculture."

But the conditions for farmers in Eritrea are not ideal under the best of circumstances, and they have been far from ideal in recent years. Eritrea is in the midst of a four-year drought, and about 1.9 million people, nearly half the population, face severe food shortages, international aid groups say.

Some of the returnees have come to Keren, a town surrounded by terraced mountains, about 90 kilometers west of Asmara. The people here speak mainly Arabic, which is why Intesar Yabris, a nine-year-old girl whose family recently returned from eastern Sudan, goes to school here.

Her parents are from Senafe, a town in southern Eritrea where most people speak Tigrinye, Eritrea's dominant language. But, growing up in Sudan, Intesar never learned Tigrinye. So her parents sent her to Keren to continue her schooling in Arabic.

Like many returning Eritreans, Intesar has mixed feelings about coming to a country she's only heard about through her parents. It is representative of a generational divide among the returnees, the parents who felt exiled and longed for home, and their children who were born and raised in Sudan, felt more at home and absorbed the local Sudanese culture as their own.

But Intesar is learning to embrace her new country. In school, she's learning the Eritrean national anthem. It took only a little encouragement for her to sing it.

Most returnees are eager to start rebuilding their lives in a place they can call home. The years spent in exile might have sweetened their memories of home. But they are returning to a country that is still struggling.

And drought is not the only problem Eritrea faces. The border war that ended four years ago and claimed the lives of nearly 80,000 soldiers is showing signs of another flare up.

The process of marking the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea was to be completed last fall, but it was suspended after a dispute over a small territory. Some Western observers and the Ethiopian government say President Afwerki is mobilizing his forces in preparation for another Ethiopian invasion.

Semere Russom, the mayor of Asmara where many of the returnees have settled, says the threat of war is stretching the government's meager resources. The former Eritrean ambassador to the United States says funds that should pay for community services now go to the military.

"Simply because of the lack of decision of the international community on the border issue, we are in a situation of what you can call a no war, no peace situation," said Mr. Russom. "On one side, there is all the efforts to work for the development of the country. And on the other side, there is, of course, there is also the preparation to defend the country, if anything happens."

But, despite the drought and worries over security, Intesar and many of the returnees say what's important now is that they're back where they belong, and that they will have a hand in shaping Eritrea's future.