Ethiopia: together again

12-09-2008 Feature

The border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia that ended in 2000 after two years of bloody confrontation has left many scars among the civilian population. Eight years later, some families with mixed nationalities are still facing a particularly difficult situation. The ICRC’s Natalie Klein-Kelly and Patrick Mégevand report.

Etalem Gezahegn is an Ethiopian lady from Debre Markos. When she married an Eritrean national, who was working as a teacher in a government school in Ethiopia at the time, she had no idea what problems her husband's origin would bring in the future.

28.05.2008, Addis Ababa, Yeshewas Eshete. Etalem holding up pictures of her family.    

When the conflict broke out in 1998, Etalem's husband was detained because of his nationality. " When he was finally released after two years of detention, he could not get his previous job back or any other job, for that matter, so life was difficult, " said Etalem. " We then both decided to return to Eritrea together. But, in the end, I learned that Ethiopians could not go to Eritrea, so my husband left with our six children, without me. "

 Families separated, mothers left completely alone  


Etalem was left behind, alone, as she had no economic means to support her children without her husband. " As it was impossible for me to join my family via the Red Cross, I tried to cross into Eritrea through Sudan in 2004, a year later. Unfortunately, I was caught and imprisoned for one year. After that, I did not try again, " recalled Etalem.

She managed to keep contact with her family through Red Cross Messages. Thankfully, in early 2008, the authorities signaled that they would be willing to let Ethiopian wives transfer to Eritrea to re-join their loved ones. The ICRC immediately contacted Etalem, and all arrangements were made. She crossed the border under the auspices of the ICRC on 11 June 2008, and was reunited with her husband and children.

As for Merkeb Arega, he was only seven years old when the conflict started. His parents were of mixed nationality. Since his father was no longer alive, he was living in Ethiopia with his mother, of Eritrean origin, and his sister Roza.

 Went on holiday, was not allowed to return home  


In February 1998, he was on holiday in Eritrea, visiting his grandmother. " I was supposed to come back after two months. But after arriving there and meeting my uncle and relatives, I decided to stay a little longer. Suddenly, the war broke out, so I could not come back, as the border was sealed and too dangerous to cross, " said Merkeb. He then lost all contact with his mother and sister.

21.05.2008, Addis Ababa, Yeshewas Eshete. After being reunited by the ICRC, Merkeb sits with his sister Roza.    

Unfortunately, Merkeb's mother also died, in 2000, before contact could be re-established. Two years ago, his sister Roza finally succeeded in getting in touch with him. " It was only when I was in Khartoum in 2006 that I managed to get my grandmother's telephone number in Eritrea, " said Roza. " Then I heard from Eritreans in Ethiopia that the Red Cross was assisting people in re-establishing contact and possibly reuniting them. I immediately contacted my uncle in Eritrea to pursue this info and possibly make the request. "  

 Bittersweet reunion  

" The day of the repatriation was a bit scary for me because I did not really believe it would happen, " said Merkeb, with emotion. " I saw my sister on Friday, it was in the evening. We were not allowed to actually meet that evening but she managed to get someone to call me from the tent. I recognized her immediately because we had sent each other pictures. She did not say anything. We greeted each other. " The priority now for Merkeb is to learn Amharic quickly and register at school for the coming academic year.

Families who were separated in both Ethiopia and Eritrea after the conflict are able to reunite in either country via the ICRC repatriation program. The border crossing under the auspices of the ICRC is now benefiting not only people who want to return to their respective countries, but also mixed families who want to live in either country.