A group of academics and researchers crossed the border into Eritrea under protection. Now that there is officially peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the group wanted to see the current situation for the people. The following account, videos and pictures were recorded by Mirjam van Reisen (copyrights).
I Set Foot in Eritrea – In the footsteps of the Elders and Leaders of the People of the Mereb.
On 19 August 2018, a group of courageous #Eritrean women came down to the Mereb bridge to meet the #Mereb villagers living on the Tigray side of the Mereb river. The Mereb bridge is split right in the middle between the Ethiopian and the Eritrean part. The villagers from both sides celebrated and danced, the women brought food and sang of unity and of their sadness – having been divided for too long by a militarised border. The elders and religious leaders, the orthodox priests and sheikhs of the villages along the Mereb, vowed to devote their life to restore the broken link between the people. Flags were waved in unity of #Eritrea, #Ethiopia, #Tigray.
We – a group of international academics and researchers, wanted to understand the situation at the border, now that the two countries are officially in peace. We crossed over into Eritrea several days ago – under protection.
As we walked into the demilitarised zone, thunder roared ominously over our heads. Then … the clouds broke and made way for the sun. We smiled, we prayed, we cried. We were in Eritrea. After twenty years, we set foot again on its stolen land.
The Eritrean kids we met on the other side of the bridge showed us their plastic shoes – with thin worn soles, as their Eritrean I.D..
The Mereb is both a stream of hope and a river of tears.
Life under military occupation is hard. Many who try to escape from Eritrea find their dream of freedom stopped in the fast-streaming and unforgiving Mereb river, which is guarded by Eritrean military who will shoot those seeking protection outside their own country.
More than 40.000 refugees from Eritrea live in protection camps in Ethiopia at the border. We spoke with protection officers and were told that many people in Eritrea have not yet benefiting from the peace, and that life for many Eritreans is still dire. Currently on average over a hundred refugees from Eritrea daily cross the border with Ethiopia, seeking protection from prosecution and slavery.
Still today, Eritrean refugees attempt to cross over the border, despite the peace, and daring the rainy season, which makes the river wild and dangerous.
The protection officer in Axum explained to us that the largest groups arriving at this moment to seek protection are: (i) unaccompanied and separated children of 5-7 years of age – who cannot leave legally in a normal way and often seeking family reunification, (ii) youth still escaping military service and (iii) the elderly.
People are coming from further away, from Asmara and beyond, as the Southern part of Eritrea is increasingly depopulated. He observed that the refugees were desperate, demoralised, without hope and in fear of prosecution. He reported three incidents of shooting at the border in the last period. Five Eritrean women were reportedly killed by the Eritrean military stationed at the border.
The situation of many Eritrean refugees still needs international care and attention. There is need for an unwavering commitment to support all those seeking protection.
I was very fortunate to be able to set foot in Eritrea and I am so thankful for it. Today, as i am writing, I am still wearing the smelly shoes and treasured trousers which bear the dust and sand of Eritrean land. Change is now inevitable and it is only a matter of time until all of us will be able to meet in Eritrea. My daughter, Abrehet, will finally be able to see the tree planted for her when she was born twenty years ago, in Dekemhare. I can’t wait to bring her to her home.
The determination of the people in the villages at the border and of their leaders is unquestionable. “Our only goal now is to bring the people back together”, they told us, without any doubt in their voices.
While we need to continue to do everything in our powers to protect those suffering from fear for brutal crimes, we also need to prepare for the inevitable, that the land of Eritrea will be given back to its people.
In Mereb and Rama, road construction is on the way and the future of a road that has always connected Ethiopia and Eritrea is rebuilt. The prospect of an economic vibrant community, benefiting from freedom of movement across the border is no longer a dream, it is under construction.
I once had a dream. Of free people, who can share shiro with their relatives and friends across borders, in freedom and liberty. I now know that this dream will soon be a reality. The first steps were set last week by those who call the border their home.
We now only need to follow in the footsteps of courage of the elders and leaders of the Mereb.
A follow up with pictures of a border meeting between Ethiopian and Eritrean religious leaders, youth and elders can be found here.