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Ethiopia / Eritrea : Helping people to return home

11-12-2003 News Release

There are many steps until Ethiopian and Eritrean repatriates can cross the Ethio-Eritrean border. The ICRC as a neutral intermediary helps them to return to their country of origin. Here is a personal story to illustrate these steps.


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  Ethiopians lining up to board the buses which take them to the border. 

When Senait (name changed) left her village near Mekelle (Ethiopia) 14 years ago heading to Adi Quala, she did not know that it would be a long way to return home. In an area which would later become the border between Ethiopia and the new state of Eritrea, Senait stepped on a mine which blew both legs and one arm off. She found refuge in a religious institute in Asmara. Although the nuns cared for her as much as they could, one desire of Senait remained unanswered over the years: to return to the region of her childhood.
Hundreds of kilometres south, in Addis Ababa, 20-year old Tseggai (name changed) has waited for years to get the chance to travel to Eritrea, his country of origin, in order to know the greater family of his father. Both Senait and Tseggai have requested the assistance of the ICRC to help them to cross a border that has been closed since the recent Ethiopian-Eritrean war. Both first have to request an exit visa from the authorities of the country where they currently live. But clearance for the border crossing has to occur on both sides. In the absence of diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the ICRC acts as a neutral intermediary and forwards the repatriation requests to the authorities of both states for a pproval.
The fortnight before crossing the border, Senait in Asmara and Tseggai in Addis are rechecking their belongings again and again, and it is difficult to find some sleep. What will await them in a country that is theirs, and yet has become distant over the years? How will their relatives and friends greet them? The choice is not easy, as they leave friends behind, and a land that is part of their biography. But when the crucial day breaks, both welcome their decision.

 Hoping for a new start in the home country  

  No border for humanity 

  Maria (name changed) is Ethiopian and lives in Asmara. Recently, her son was arrested in a petty theft case. To bail him out, his mother had to present an Eritrean citizen with a business license as the family’s guarantor. Maria’s Eritrean friends did not fulfill this criterion. One day, an Eritrean businessman spotted the desperate mother on her way to the prison and enquired about her problem. When Maria told him her story, the bypasser agreed to assist her, if one of her neighbors would testify Maria’s honesty. As this happened, the “guardian angel” went to the police to sign the bail. Then he disappeared. For Maria, a Tigrinyan proverb has become real: “If you cannot return your benefactor a favor, speak about him.” 
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  Ethiopians crossing the border over the Mereb river. 


The trip to the border is arduous for Tseggai, who has to travel several days in a bus, rented on the expenses of the ICRC. On the Eritrean side, the border is reached within four hours. After having passed the town of Adi Quala, the convoy descends an impressive winding road towards the border river Mereb, where the UNMEE has rebuilt a bridge used for the ICRC-monitored border crossings. Senait and Tseggai are not the only ones who have been listed for the border crossing. The group size comprises over hundred repatriates. Most of them want to go back to the country of origin to rejoin their family. Others hope to improve their economic situation in their country.

On the way, volunteers from the Ethiopian Red Cross Society and the Red Cross Society of Eritrea distribute biscuits and water to the passengers. They also have helped the travellers to load their belongings on trucks. At the Mereb bridge, ICRC delegates, jointly with the immigration authorities on both sides, recount and check the repatriates. Red Cross volunteers carry luggage and transfer freight from one truck to the other. Finally, Senait crosses the border in her wheelchair, among the other Ethiopians who go home to Ethiopia. “ Now I want to refresh my Amharic ”, Senait says and smiles. From the other direction, Tseggai and other Eritrean nationals make the first steps on Eritrean soil. “ I am looking forward to getting to know my cousins ”, says Tseggai.