'We want to remain Ethiopian'

Groups of children giggling as they walk home from school in the shadow of Mount Asimba and the timeless stillness of Ethiopia’s north-eastern highland convey a deceptive sense of peace.

After living in this region for more than 700 years, the tiny Irob ethnic group is torn, in its heart, by the border with Eritrea and engaged in a futile struggle for recognition dwarfed by the regional conflict pitting the two rival nations.

A few kilometres from the front line, where tens of thousands of Ethiopian and Eritrean troops have been facing off for years, on the brink of war, children return from school on a dusty trail.

The mountainous region in north-eastern Ethiopia was ravaged by the border conflict that left about 80 000 dead between 1998 and 2000.

The border subsequently drawn by an international United Nations-backed commission in a bid to end the war left the bulk of the Irob territory on Eritrea’s side.

But so far the new demarcation has not been implemented. And Ethiopia, taking the example of Irob people, is asking for negotiation for every specific case.

“The Irob people reject the Eritrean government. We don’t accept anything about the demarcation of the border. We want to remain Ethiopian and we will never accept the Eritrean view on this issue,” said Ruphael Shiferaw, head of the local council.

“The Irob people have their own culture and language, it is a proper ethnic group inside the regional government of Tigray and by history this area has always been within Ethiopian boundaries,” he added.

The Irob speak the Kushitic Saho language and their spectacular ancestral land is dotted with Catholic and Orthodox churches perched on cliffs and nestled on hill flanks.

Very little is known about the exact origins of the Irob. “Some say the name Irob comes from the word Europe,” Ruphael said with a smile.

“But now, for sure, we are Ethiopians and want to remain so.”

“Not for one day or even one minute, Irob people have been under Eritrean governance. It is one community, one family. Separating our family was the decision of the UN, but we won’t accept it,” Ruphael said.

‘If possible we just want peace’
Since Eritrea acquired independence in 1993, Ethiopia has worked hard to retain the allegiance of the Irob, who number only 30 000 but are the masters of a crucial piece of estate flanking the disputed border.

Electricity was brought to the remote region, sanitation and water projects were carried out, the first asphalted road is due to be completed in two years and local officials said cellphone coverage is on its way.

The district’s administrative centre was moved from Alitena, the Irob people’s traditional capital, to Dohan, further away from the frontline.

Aware that fighting could resume at any time between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Irob are mobilised and show a united front.

“We don’t want to give up our land any more than we want to take theirs,” said Hagos Gidey, a 51-year-old farmer.

“If possible we just want peace: for them to be able to come here and us to go there peacefully, as it was before. But if they don’t want that and start the war again, we will do everything we can to stay in our country.”

Like most Irob tribesmen, he had to flee farther south during the war.

In 1998, when the conflict erupted over the border, the Irob militia were the last defence against the Eritrean advance in the absence of the Ethiopian army.

They held off the enemy for five days, residents recounted, but when the displaced eventually returned to their homes three years ago, they had lost everything.

In the shadow of Mount Asimba, which culminates at 3 250m above sea level, the Irob region now looks relatively prosperous, with well-fed cattle roaming the patchwork of lush green valleys and sprawling fields of teff, the local staple grain.

“I’m afraid that the war can start again. But I want to stay Ethiopian, it is my country and a great country,” said Zewde Yohannes, a 30-year-old mother of four.

“I don’t want to leave my land again. I left once in 1998 and I had nothing left, I lost everything. I don’t want a second war to start, we need peace,” she said.—Sapa-AFP



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