Ethiopia, Eritrea leaders celebrate peace and new year at border where war raged

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki visited their troops stationed at Bure. (File/AFP)
Updated 12 September 2018
0

Ethiopia, Eritrea leaders celebrate peace and new year at border where war raged

  • Eritrea reopened its embassy in Ethiopia in July, and Ethiopia reciprocated last week
  • Eritrea has agreed to open up its ports to its landlocked neighbor and last week announced plans to upgrade a road between them

NAIROBI: Two land border crossings between Ethiopia and Eritrea were reopened Tuesday for the first time in 20 years, crowning a rapid reconciliation between the former bitter enemies.
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki attended ceremonies at the eastern and western ends of the border, Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebre Meskel said on Twitter.
Fitsum Arega, Abiy's chief of staff, said: "Road links between Ethiopia and Eritrea will be operational, opening the gate for cross border movement of people and goods."
On Tuesday -- a national holiday to mark the Ethiopian New Year -- Abiy and Isaias, dressed in military fatigues, paid a joint visit to the disputed eastern border zone that both countries have claimed.
Soldiers lined the red-carpeted road to mark its reopening and crowds cheered and hugged each other.
The visit was "to celebrate the New Year with members of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Defence Forces following the full normalisation of the relations between the two countries," Abiy's chief of staff added.
The eastern border post between Bure in Ethiopia and Debay Sima in Eritrea, and the western border post between Zalambessa and Serha, were among those closed in 1998 as the neighbouring Horn of Africa nations cut diplomatic ties at the outbreak of a short but bloody two-year frontier battle.
An ensuing cold war stymied development and trade, and undermined regional security, but in a surprise move earlier this year, Abiy began peace overtures, which were welcomed by Eritrea.
Key to this was Abiy's acceptance in June of a UN-backed court ruling in 2002 demarcating the contested border and handing back some occupied territory to Eritrea, including the disputed town of Badme.
At Zalambessa, soldiers manning the crossing on a rough road that cuts through the shared no man's land together dismantled piles of sandbags while a red carpet was rolled over potholes and flags were raised for the border's ceremonial reopening.
A live broadcast on Ethiopian state television showed a large cheering crowd celebrating the reopening of the road with soldiers and civilians from both countries dancing together and greeting one another.
Neither leader spoke at the event, which was instead addressed by Debretsion Gebremichael, president of the Tigray region on the Ethiopian side of the border.
"By partnering in place of disintegration, by helping each other at the expense of sabotaging each other, we can move forward," he said.
"The bell for peace and development has rung waiting for us to be a model of peace, brotherhood and partnership in the coming years."
The once-bustling commercial town, on what was the main highway between Addis Ababa and Asmara, was all but levelled during the 1998-2000 border war that killed about 80,000 people. Despite being rebuilt, Zalambessa was rendered a ghost town by the closing of the border.
The reopening of crossings is about more than symbolism.
Booming but landlocked Ethiopia is eager to secure access to Eritrea's Red Sea coast for its imports and exports, while Eritrea's stunted economy will benefit from increasing regional commerce.
The route through Bure-Debay Sima leads to the port at Assab, while the road via Zalambessa-Serha reaches Massawa on the Red Sea coast.
Tuesday's ceremonies were just the latest steps in a rapid diplomatic thaw that has seen Ethiopia and Eritrea restore air links, telephone lines and trade routes, and re-establish diplomatic missions.
Once a province of Ethiopia, Eritrea fought a long independence war, eventually seceding in 1993, but five years later conflict broke out again.
Hardliners on both sides -- including Isaias, Eritrea's first and only president -- ensured that neither side backed down over the border dispute.
Each nation has supported the other's rebels and the long cold war periodically erupted in fighting.
Isaias used the threat of attacks by its much larger southern neighbour to institute a from of perpetual national service that the UN has compared to slavery.
Repression at home drove Eritreans to flee, many of them making the long and perilous journey to Europe.


Europe’s solutions to migration create humanitarian crises

Updated 19 September 2018
0

Europe’s solutions to migration create humanitarian crises

One of Europe’s main solutions to migration — Greece’s overcrowded, unsanitary Moria migrant camp — has suicidal children and conditions that a psychiatrist compared to “an old-fashioned mental asylum.”
In another heavily criticized solution to immigration, imprisoned men and women have been shuttled away from one gunbattle only to end up incarcerated on the front line of another, vulnerable to both trafficking and new abuse.
The jammed Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos and the dangerous migrant detention centers in Libya serve as a sober reminder to European leaders that their statistical success in curbing migration into the continent has spawned what the UN and others condemn as massive humanitarian failures. Deeply divided over how and where to control Europe’s borders, leaders are meeting Wednesday in a summit in Austria.
Migrant sea arrivals to Europe have plummeted this year, but each journey now carries increasing risks of death or indefinite detention in squalid conditions. More than 1,700 people have already died on Mediterranean crossings this year.
Abbas Elnaser, an Iraqi who arrived in Moria about three weeks ago, said his 8-year-old daughter’s health had always been frail and she was deteriorating quickly in the camp that was built for 3,100 but now houses over 9,000 people.
“She has problems breathing most of the time, she has problems in her lungs,” he said. “The tent is surrounded by garbage.”
In the central Mediterranean, Europe has effectively outsourced sea rescues of migrants to the Libyan coast guard, whose boats have returned 13,000 migrants to Libyan detention centers this year. In some of those centers around the Libyan capital of Tripoli, migrants ended up on the front lines of gunbattles as militias fought for control of the city.
At one point in the fighting, detainees abandoned by their jailers for days broke out of at least one center but ended up caught in gunbattle. A half-dozen people were shot, according to Ibrahim Younis, head of the Libya mission for the aid group Doctors without Borders.
As a Tripoli cease-fire brokered by the UN threatens to fracture, food for the detainees there is dwindling. Libyan officials complain that both they and the migrants have been largely abandoned by Europe. In the Janzour detention center, around 900 people were crammed into a space intended for half that many.
“We have difficulties in providing subsistence, difficulties in providing food, and difficulties in sheltering them,” said 1st Lt. Jamal Hussain. The government, which runs the facility, refused to allow an Associated Press journalist to speak to detainees.
The official number of asylum-seekers and refugees in detention in Libya is around 5,000, but thousands more are believed to be captive in warehouses and other buildings, where there have been widespread reports of slavery, sexual abuse and other atrocities.
This month the UN broke its silence over Europe’s policy of allowing the Libyan coast guard to intercept migrants, saying it was untenable and putting thousands of people at risk of being jailed indefinitely in inhumane conditions. Detailing allegations of torture, sexual abuse, violence and “nightmarish” conditions, the UN refugee agency said Libya doesn’t remotely meet the criteria “as a place of safety.”
In all, around 56,000 refugees and asylum-seekers are registered with the UN in Libya and neighboring Niger, which have accepted millions of euros in exchange for European promises to evaluate a portion for resettlement.
But, critics say, resettlement simply isn’t happening. A total of 657 people had left for resettlement in Europe as of last week, out of 3,886 slots promised over a year ago in 11 European countries and Canada.
Meanwhile, the Libyan and Greek detention centers continue to fill, with migrants and refugees waiting a year or more for a decision in their cases. That, however, suits many anti-immigrant populists in Europe just fine.
“Until the message is made abundantly clear that illegal economic migrants will not be processed, that boats will be turned back, thousands and thousands more sad and desperate lives will be lost in vain, all for your feelings of virtue,” said Nathan Gill, a British member of the European parliament, accusing fellow legislators last week of being soft on immigration. “You’re not really helping people.”
If migrants have made it to the Greek island of Lesbos, they’re already one step ahead of those trapped in Libya. But conditions are hardly better. Raw sewage flows out the main entrance in Moria, garbage piles up outside the containers where igrants sleep.
Luca Fontana, who works for Doctors without Borders in Lesbos, said a quarter of the minors there had either attempted suicide, had suicidal thoughts or were harming themselves.
“Only last week had to suture the wrists of a couple of unaccompanied minors, they tried to cut their veins inside Moria camp,” he said.
Psychiatrist Alessandro Barbero of Doctors without Borders said Moria was as grim as “an old-fashioned mental asylum, not seen in parts of Europe since the mid-twentieth century.”
Any hope of an easy solution to Europe’s immigration dilemma has faded.
Paolo Campana, who has studied the smuggling networks that lead through Libya, believes a solution is only possible if legal migration into Europe opens up at the same time as peace, stability and prosperity emerge in violence-plagued nations like Iraq, Syria, Ethiopia and Eritrea.
“We need to be humanitarian and to be pragmatic,” he said.
As of last week, 73,696 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea this year along with over 11,000 land arrivals, compared with 128,993 sea arrivals in 2017 and 298,663 in 2016.
European leaders in June proposed creating centers to process migrants in North Africa but those governments quickly rejected the idea. The EU now is pitching plans of an upgraded border force.
Last week, Austria and Italy’s right-wing interior ministers called for shipboard screenings of migrants on the Mediterranean, raising new questions about whose ships and where — given that Italy has blocked humanitarian groups from docking with migrants rescued at sea, favoring Libyan boats instead.
Trying to tackle the enormous problem at Moria, Greece on Tuesday agreed to transfer 2,000 asylum-seekers from the camp on Lesbos to the mainland this month. The move that can’t come soon enough for the migrants there. Ali Sajjad Faizy, a 19-year-old from Afghanistan, said conditions at Moria have steadily worsened and residents must stand in line “for four or five” hours just to get food.
“It’s completely full,” he said.