Every morning at dawn, groups of Ethiopian soldiers poke long metal-tipped poles into the soil on the dirt track linking Badme, a dusty border town, with civilization, looking for landmines.
Major Shale Taame says Eritreans sneak across the border to plant the landmines at night, and it falls to the border guards on the dawn shift to clear them up.
“It’s a real danger and it is our duty to ensure the safety of the citizens,” says the major.
Officials insist this is no idle fear-mongering, and point to the September 11th killing of three civilians, blown up when their jeep hit a landmine as Ethiopians celebrated their New Year.
But there are no landmines today, and the road can be opened to traffic, as it is every day at 7am, once the soldiers have made their checks.
Later, Badme dozes in the heat of the afternoon, the hot wind making a small whirlwind of the dust lifted by a herd of sheep picking at the dried brush.
An Ethiopian flag stretches above the village and its red earth main street, the sun beating down on the rows of corrugated iron rooftops.
This dust-blown settlement in Ethiopia’s far north is an unlikely cause celebre. Yet it remains a symbol of the country’s bitter border war with neighbouring Eritrea that cost a staggering 80 000 lives between 1998 and 2002, and of the continuing distrust between the two sides.
The international commission charged with tracing out a border handed Badme to Eritrea. Addis Ababa provisionally accepted the decision, on condition further negotiations would be opened to settle other disputed areas.
When Asmara protested, Ethiopia retained its grip on Badme, regardless of international decision.
“This place is an Ethiopian place since ancient times, so how could we give it to Eritrea?” asks Tilahun Gebremedhin, the local administrative leader.
“It is our land, and we’ll never give it to them and we are ready to fight for it, to keep it,” he adds.
The message is clear and because this zone is under close military surveillance, no one dares to say otherwise. Locals prefer to talk about the prevailing calm, but they also fear a reprise of the war that can only be prompted, goes the refrain, by Eritrea.
‘The blood is the same on both sides of the border’
“We are not very afraid now because we have our army here to protect us. We are settled peacefully in our place and are trying to leave a normal life,” says 45-year-old Letay Kidane, who runs a small shop in the main street.
It is the Eritrean government of Issaias Afeworki she distrusts, not the Eritrean people. “The blood is the same on both sides of the border,” she says.
The military presence is overpowering, with army sources saying 15 000 men are stationed here. The hills around Badme are heavily fortified, ringed with trenches. Surveillance posts loom up every few kilometres of the main road, as well as checkpoints where each vehicle is meticulously searched.
The UN mission for Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) withdrew from the buffer zone on the border when its mandate ended in July.
“In some places now, the positions are so close that we can see each other,” says Shale. “For example in Dida, since the blue helmets left, the Eritreans took over their position, but we don’t attack, and they don’t either. The Eritrean army doesn’t have the capacity to attack us anymore,” adds the major.
Before the war, the Badme district comprised 10 000 people, “but today, there are only 3 960”, said Tilahun, noting that some people left after the withdrawal of the UN peacekeepers.
“When UNMEE was around there was no problems, but after they moved there is more risk, even if so far nothing has happened,” he explains.
Former rebel and militia member Negussa Guebreselassie (65) admits to fearing “that it can all begin again”. He says that in 1998, his wife was hit in the head by a bullet. “Today the bullet is still in her body,” he said.
“It is my homeland, where else can I live,” said 55-year-old Mamite Guebresarkan, surrounded by her five children. The trauma of the war is still palpable for this farmer.
“I’m afraid because they came at that time by surprise. Anytime they can come again, and kill us. So yes I’m afraid and I don’t want the war to start again.
“At the time of the war I ran out. The Eritrean army came and destroyed the goods, killed the cattle, killed people, so many in this town, very dangerous times,” she said.
At the end of the afternoon, in the dying heat of the day, the soldiers flock into the little town. Generators are fired up, and multicoloured fairy lights flicker on in the half a dozen bars where for a few Ethiopian birr they can have a beer and choose their company for the night. — AFP