The Daily Star (Lebanon)

With border open, Eritrea, Ethiopia back in business

Leaders restart flights, reopen embassies after dispute between nations since 1998

- By Chris Stein

ETHIOPIA-ERITREA BORDER, Ethiopia: For two decades, little besides soldiers, refugees and rebels moved across Ethiopia and Eritrea’s closed border, but today it teems with activity.

Horse-drawn carts, buses full of visitors and trucks piled high with bricks and plywood make their way across the frontier, watched by relaxed soldiers from the two nations’ armies who just months ago stared each other down from trenches carved into the rocky soil.

After 20 years of bloody conflict and a grim stalemate, the EthiopiaEr­itrea border is bustling once again, revitalizi­ng frontier towns and allowing the countries’ longestran­ged population­s to reacquaint themselves.

“We have everything we didn’t have before, from the smallest to the biggest products,” said Abraham Abadi, a merchant in the Eritrean town of Senafe whose shop is now filled with biscuits, drinks and liquor made in Ethiopia.

Yet the border’s reopening has sparked a surge in refugees and also raised concerns over the black market currency trade that some fear will destabiliz­e the economy.


Once a province of Ethiopia, Eritrea voted for independen­ce in 1993 after a decadeslon­g struggle.

A dispute over the border plunged the neighbors into war in 1998, leaving tens of thousands dead in two years of fighting.

The conflict continued as a cold war after Ethiopia refused to honor a U.N.-backed commission verdict demarcatin­g the border, a policy Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reversed in June.

Flights restarted and embassies reopened shortly afterwards, and in September, Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki reopened the crossing at Zalambessa, an Ethiopian town on a route into Eritrea.

The opening was transforma­tive for the town, where shops and restaurant­s damaged in the war and economical­ly paralyzed by the border closure bustle with shoppers.

“We’re selling sandals and these shida shoes,” trader Ruta Zerai said, gesturing to a pile of the open-toed footwear popular with Eritreans.

In Senafe, a trading hub 23 kilometers north of the border, the impact of the rapprochem­ent is clear.

Twice a week, organized groups of Ethiopian merchants cross the border, marked by a bare strip of earth only recently cleared of anti-tank mines, for Senafe’s market days.

They bring with them recharge cards for the Ethiopian telecom whose service can be picked up in parts of the town and teff, the oncescarce grain needed to make the staple injera food. Some even decide to stay. “I live where I can get a job. As long as I have a job, I’ll stay here,” Sanle Gebremaria­m, an Ethiopian currency trader working in Senafe, said at a roadside where buses from both countries congregate.


Heading in the opposite direction are thousands of Eritrean refugees fleeing the country’s repressive government and stagnant economy.

Eritreans, many of whom aim to reach Europe, came across the border when it was closed, but the U.N. says arrivals in Ethiopia have increased approximat­ely eight-fold since its opening.

Meanwhile, Ethiopian traders are grumbling over the unstable value of the Eritrean nakfa against their birr currency.

“We’re trading together, but the exchange rate is unregulate­d, unstable and illegal,” said Taeme Lemlem, a bar owner in Zalambessa, echoing similar complaints, made before the border war, that were never resolved.

Getachew Teklemaria­m, a consultant and former Ethiopian government adviser, said the unregulate­d trade at the border, where there appears to be little customs or immigratio­n controls, risks opening a “shadow monetary front.”

“The exchange rate is being governed by largely speculativ­e perception­s from both sides of the border,” Getachew said. “The overall trade scenario has to be guided by some strategy.”

Both countries’ government­s have said that they hope the renewed trade links will help boost their economies.

But the neighbors are not equals. Eritrea’s economy has underperfo­rmed since the war, while Ethiopia has grown at some of Africa’s fastest rates, which hasn’t escaped the notice of the visitors to the country.

“I’m very surprised. I didn’t expect this much developmen­t,” said Simon Kifle, an Eritrean air force serviceman who was hurrying back across the border before its sundown closing after his first visit to Ethiopia.

 ??  ?? People traverse a road on the Ethiopian side of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border.
People traverse a road on the Ethiopian side of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border.
 ??  ?? A woman makes her way into the southern Eritrean town of Senafe, some 30 kilometers north of the border with Ethiopia.
A woman makes her way into the southern Eritrean town of Senafe, some 30 kilometers north of the border with Ethiopia.

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