Eritrea, Ethiopia force people to leave homes

Kimfe Kidane (second from left) and his coworkers stand outside Kidane´s furniture shop where they have all started their new lives in Ethiopia after leaving Eritrea.

Barbra Lukunka

Kimfe Kidane (second from left) and his coworkers stand outside Kidane´s furniture shop where they have all started their new lives in Ethiopia after leaving Eritrea.

Barbra Lukunka

The people that have caused much concern in the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict are the deportees. Forty thousand Ethiopians left Eritrea, and 50,000 Eritreans left Ethiopia whether forcefully or voluntarily. The whole concept of deportation is bewildering. Deportation in the two countries started when the war broke out in 1998 because both countries were suspicious of each other and believed the other’s nationals were conducting acts of espionage.

Many people were rounded up, usually by force; they were told to leave all their belongings, and they were put on a bus heading to their “home countries.” This was horrendous because many people who were deported had built their entire lives in the country they were being forced to leave.

Addis Ababa has a few Ethiopian deportees in Eritrea; however, 90 percent of the deportees now live in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. The majority of them live in a town called Adigrat, but a growing number of them are going to the capital city of the Tigray region, Mekelle.

I traveled to Mekelle, a town of about 100,000 people and met with Birru Beyene, who works for U.N. Children’s Fund. Beyene took me to the local Kebele district government, where we asked for permission to interview some of the deportees. Mekelle has about 10,000 deportees who lived in Eritrea. Many of them left Eritrea by force, and others have crossed the border voluntarily. They are required to stop in the town of Adwa where they are screened and registered and given the liberty to go to their hometowns.

The day I went looking for deportees to interview was probably the most depressing day of my research work. That day I heard some very disturbing stories that can make one contemplate the horrors of war and how it brings more problems than it solves. Beyene took me to a furniture store where I encountered Kimfe Kidane. Kidane is a Tigray who experienced harsh treatment in Eritrea. He seemed so bitter and hurt from what had happened to him, and he was willing to give the names of all those that made his life literally a living hell. Kidane is a 40-year-old man that lived and worked in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea.

He said he had a wonderful life in Eritrea, but when the war started everything went wrong for him. The Tigrays from Ethiopia that lived in Eritrea became a major target. I assume this is because the government of Ethiopia is headed by Tigrays. Furthermore, the majority of Ethiopians in Eritrea were Tigray.

Kidane said four policemen went to his house and shouted for him to go back to Ethiopia. They came in, took all his belongings and terrorized him and his family. These four men were sent by a policewoman. She ordered the policemen to make the lives of all the Ethiopians in Eritrea miserable. Kidane decided to leave his house with his family and hide in the factory where he worked. His manager allowed him to stay there, but the conditions there were unbearable for them so they decided to go back home. He went to a few policemen he knew and gave them money so they could warn him if the other policemen were coming after him. The policemen came back to him after a week and told him the other policemen sent by the policewomen were coming to kill him. When he heard this, he moved to another neighborhood in Asmara where he lived with a close Eritrean friend.

Kidane lived with this friend for a long period of time. His friend advised him to go back to work so he could support his family. The manager at the factory allowed him to work. Even though having a job and living with a friend seemed to work for him, he was living in perpetual fear.

One day while working, a nail went into his eye and injured it. The manager quickly put him in a car and rushed him to the hospital. When he arrived at the hospital he was asked for an ID card. Since Ethiopians carried a particular ID card, the hospital worker was able to tell Kidane was not Eritrean. The hospital refused to treat his injured eye because of his nationality. His manager drove him to a pharmacy, where he was also denied medical treatment. His friend later brought him some painkillers, but Kidane is now blind in his left eye.

After a while, two policemen found Kidane and told him that they had come to kill him. They said he was a target because he was suspected of sabotaging an Eritrean fighter plane. The two policemen approached Kidane, made him open his mouth and placed a gun in it. Even though they had been ordered to kill him, they told him they were willing to spare his life if he gave them money. He gave them both 4,000 Birr, which is equivalent to approximately $500. They spared his life, but after that day they kept coming to him for money in exchange for his life.

Kidane and his wife made arrangements to leave Eritrea. They left with about $2,000 U.S. for Yemen. From Yemen, they were able to get a direct flight to Ethiopia. One of their sons was already in Ethiopia; however, three remained in Eritrea. One of his children is half Eritrean so she remained in Asmara with her mother. His son and daughter were arrested after he left and were only able to later join their family with the help of ICRC. In Addis Ababa, Kidane told the Ethiopian government about his experience. He was given about $200 U.S., and he also got a loan to start his furniture business in his birth town of Mekelle. He said life in Eritrea was much easier and much better than life in Ethiopia. Even though he feels this way, Kidane said he would never return to Eritrea.

“Whatever happens, I will never go back to Eritrea,” he said. “Instead, I would rather jump in the lake. I won’t even allow any of my grandchildren or their children to go to Eritrea.”

All the men who work with Kidane are deportees. They were all accused of political propaganda and conspiring against the Eritrean government. They left their entire lives in Eritrea in order to start life in their home country, a country they hardly know.