Forced deportations threaten to turn the Ethiopian-Eritrean border conflict into ethnic war
June 1, 1999
Jun 1, 1999
21 Min read time
Forced deportations threaten to turn the Ethiopian-Eritrean border conflict into ethnic war.
Early on Thanksgiving morning, in the long shadows cast by the bombed out shell of Haile Selassie's one-time winter palace, the freighter "Salam" lumbers toward the port at Massawa, Eritrea. Standing on the deck of the Red Sea tanker, 1,500 people wave at the small crowd assembled on shore. The human cargo, former residents of Ethiopia expelled during a war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, are relieved to have arrived after 24 hours exposed at sea. Some wear Nike and Reebok t-shirts; others are wrapped in traditional gabis to protect them from the coming heat. When they are within earshot, the expelled burst into song, clapping and ululating for the soldiers and aid workers who rise to greet them on the pier.
By afternoon, the mood turns somber. Eritrean relief officials have relocated the deportees to a desert refugee camp 10 km outside of Massawa where the temperature rarely dips below 90 degrees. The boat people lie shaded in Norwegian tents waiting to be registered as refugees by Eritrean relief officials. In groups of sixty, they file through makeshift immigration offices to answer a once simple question: what is your citizenship?
Yemane Binega, a 41-year-old union federation president from Addis Ababa, replies "Ethiopian"—although he identifies his nationality as "Eritrean." Born in the former Ethiopian province of Eritrea, Yemane1 moved to Addis Ababa as a teenager. At 10:00 in the evening on November 9, 1998, armed Ethiopian security personnel knocked on his door and arrested him without charge. After 48 hours in an Ethiopian jail, he was forced onto a bus and driven for four days to Assab, a small town on the southern tip of Eritrea. Ten days later, Yemane boarded the "Salam" for the journey north up the coast to Massawa. On arrival, he says, "I always thought of myself as Ethiopian but since this journey began, I've started to feel more Eritrean."
According to an Amnesty International report issued in late January, Yemane is one of 52,000 Eritrean-Ethiopians who were arbitrarily expelled to Eritrea during an eight-month lull in the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. (The two countries resumed hostilities on February 6, 1999, with heavy fighting along two fronts.) Although the war has been overshadowed in the media by events in Kosovo, the international community has registered its alarm at the bloodshed and urged a negotiated settlement to the territorial dispute. The United Nations, the Organization of African Unity, and a US delegation headed by former National Security Council head Anthony Lake have all attempted to mediate the conflict without success.
But the voices calling for peace on the Eritrea-Ethiopia border have largely ignored persecution based on ethno- political classifications inside the two countries. Certainly the fate of those expelled from Ethiopia on the basis of a newly fashioned system of identification is less tragic than that of the many thousands killed—at least 40,000 combat casualties, according to reports2—since fighting resumed. Still, the deportations, and the state-sponsored assignment of identity used to mark people for expulsion, pose a grave threat to the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia. That threat is rooted in the divisive classification system used to distinguish "the other," a phenomenon that for want of a better term I refer to as ethnic identification. (Eritreans in Ethiopia constitute an ethnicity for Ethiopian government I.D. card purposes.)
In the social and economic cracks opened by mass expulsion on such bases, ultranationalist identities take root among perpetrators and victims alike. Generalized ethnic hatred is played out year-after-year, in endless cycles of recrimination. Indeed the ethnicization of a seemingly inconsequential border war explains the ferocity of the fighting and adds a totalizing dimension to the conflict. Where this phenomenon has occurred before, such as in the former Yugoslavia, territorial disputes are quickly subordinated to deep social antagonism.
In 1951, the United Nations joined the former Italian colony of Eritrea with Ethiopia under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian crown. For a decade, the province of Eritrea enjoyed broad autonomy within the state of Ethiopia. In 1962, however, Emperor Haile Selassie dissolved the federation and formally annexed Eritrea. Ethiopian rule in this arrangement repressed the cultural and political distinctiveness of Eritrea and sparked a popular rebellion. After a three-decade war of liberation, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and their Ethiopian allies drove Selassie's successors, Mengistu Haile Mariam's Soviet-backed Dirgue, from power. At war's end, in 1991, roughly 150,000 Eritreans had died in fighting or because of war-related famine. By the time Eritrea finally won its independence—in a peaceful 1993 referendum—perhaps a quarter of Eritrea's pre-war population lived abroad, in Sudanese refugee camps or in other parts of Ethiopia, many in Addis Ababa.
The revolution, which took a generation to accomplish, forged an unparalleled intimacy among highly mobilized Eritrean citizens. Today, ex-fighters gather at Italian cafes on Asmara's Independence Boulevard to drink cappuccino beneath faded blue and white posters of Eritrean revolutionaries planting the flag at Massawa—a taste of Iwo Jima in the desert and a constant reminder of the "martyrs" who died in the "struggle" for independence. The veterans embrace with the Sha'abia3 handshake, a hug, and three bumps of the right shoulder that signals inclusive camaraderie. To the unemployed deportees crowded into the homes of relatives and generous strangers, the strength of these bonds is difficult to comprehend, much less replicate, in civic life.
Moreover, the Eritrean revolution was achieved without substantial foreign assistance. Largely ignored by Cold War powers as socialist revolutionaries opposed to a Marxist government, Eritreans survived by raising money in the Eritrean diaspora, refurbishing abandoned Sudanese trucks, and engaging citizens in educational and cultural life. Many of the EPLF's weapon stocks were stolen from occupying Ethiopian troops or captured in battle. Instead of appealing to the West for military assistance, the EPLF joined forces with the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), of Northern Ethiopia, to defeat the Dirgue. As a result, Eritrea has developed into a powerfully independent society steeped in the romance of its own revolution. If Eritreans were divided about the need for independence at the time of federation, the results of the 1993 referendum, in which 98 percent of voters chose independence, suggest that the nation is gripped by powerful nationalist resolve.
In Ethiopia the TPLF, now reorganized as a political party known as the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has broken from the centralized autocracy of the imperial Amharic rule and its mutated relation, the Dirgue. The EPRDF now rules the fractious Ethiopian state with a federalist slant. Ethiopia is a national amalgam of heterogeneous people who self-identify on the basis of race, region, language, religion, and national origin. Since 1992, the Ethiopian Government has issued to all residents identity cards which provide an ethnic designation (although a close reading of Ethiopian ethnicity reveals that the term is used to encompass geographic and tribal affiliations, like Southern Peoples and the Oromo, as well as traditional ethnic groups). In 1993, the EPRDF convened a legal drafting process that ultimately rewrote the Ethiopian Constitution defining Ethiopia as an ethnic federation and including a controversial self-determination clause promising the right of independence to ethnic constituencies. The EPRDF acceded to Eritrea's separation over the objections of the former regime and those who refuse a vision of Ethiopia that does not include access to the Red Sea. Far from devolving power to other provinces, however, the EPRDF maintained centralized control of state instruments and relations between Tigrayans in authority and other ethnic groups—including the previously-dominant Amharic group—soured.4 (In that context, the expulsion of an ethnic minority is a message to disaffected Ethiopians, principally the Oromo liberation movement, that self-determination will not come cheaply.)
Significantly, the border between the EPRDF-led Ethiopia and the modern state of Eritrea was never clearly demarcated. In the euphoria of the post-revolutionary honeymoon, the former allies concentrated on reconstruction and development initiatives without establishing national boundaries. Compared to the anarchy of Somalia and the endless civil war of the Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia seemed to embody the concept of an African Renaissance advanced by South African Presidential hopeful Thabo Mbeki, and were quickly counted as American allies.
But in May 1998, an administrative dispute over a triangle of territory near Badme on the Ethiopia-Eritrea frontier escalated into a firefight between border patrols. Three Eritrean militiamen and an Eritrean officer were killed. Eritrea's President, Isaias Afwerki, responded by ordering three mechanized divisions to occupy Badme and surrounding areas. In the battle that followed, Eritrea's military pushed beyond their country's acknowledged boundaries and into the Northern Ethiopian province of Tigray, a strategic high-ground—and the home of Ethiopia's ruling party. The EPRDF responded to Eritrea's muscular offensive with feelings of shock, shame, and anger. By June, posters depicting Ethiopian schoolchildren killed in the bombing of Makelle appeared in Addis Ababa. Former allies of the EPLF, including Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, soon echoed the rhetoric of EPRDF hawks who called on Ethiopians to repel the Eritrean aggressors and march on Asmara. Like Eritrea, Ethiopia rearmed for further fighting by purchasing weapons from Bulgaria, Ukraine, and other former Eastern Bloc states. But by intentionally targeting ethnic minorities for expulsion, the EPRDF injected a human dimension into an already explosive contest of national egos.
• • •
On June 12, 1998, Ethiopian government officials began a program of identifying, concentrating, and expelling from Ethiopia persons classified as Eritrean. Ethiopia's Office of the Government Spokesperson announced that Ethiopia's security apparatus had uncovered lists of Eritreans living in Ethiopia "who were found engaged in spying and mobilizing financial and other resources to support the Eritrean aggression."5
In the early stages of the deportation program—as Ethiopia calls the policy of mass expulsion—Ethiopia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs offered both legal and political justifications for its treatment of Ethiopians of Eritrean origin. The Ministry first identified all "Eritreans," previously an ethnic designation used to identify persons from the former colony and province of Eritrea, as non-Ethiopian—and therefore non-citizens. By decree, people who had lived, worked, paid taxes, voted, intermarried, carried Ethiopian passports, and traveled internationally as Ethiopians became candidates for deportation on the basis of their birth in Eritrea, their parents' birth in Eritrea, or their participation in the Eritrean referendum on independence. Ethiopian Foreign Ministry publications invoked the Ethiopian Nationality Law of 1930 to argue that an Ethiopian citizen forfeits his or her citizenship if he or she assumes the nationality of another state.6 Though participation in the 1993 referendum did not automatically confer Eritrean nationality on its participants, nor were voters advised that by voting they jeopardized their Ethiopian nationality, Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry asserted that appearance on the referendum voting rolls constituted a renunciation of Ethiopian citizenship—irrespective of how one voted.
Next, broad categories of now alien Eritrean-Ethiopians were classified as war-time security risks. In particular, individuals holding office in the Ethiopian government or accused of affiliation with Eritrean community organizations were declared threats to the state of Ethiopia. The Foreign Ministry affirmed its right to expel "statutorily defined categories of deportable foreign nationals" as an expression of sovereignty and as a matter of administrative and executive action.
Finally, Ethiopian authorities maintained that the deportation program would respect due process and the right of appeal while safeguarding the property interests of those required to leave Ethiopia. In press releases directed at the sizable international community in Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Foreign Ministry officials promised that the removal of selected aliens would be executed in a manner consistent with international human rights laws guaranteeing minimum standards of treatment.
Politically, the expulsions were accompanied by charges that Eritrea was deporting equal numbers of Ethiopians. Selomme Tadesse, head of Ethiopia's Office of the Government Spokesman, alleged that Ethiopian refugees from Eritrea had been beaten, raped, and robbed. In the first months of the deportations, Tadesse's office issued regular statements accusing Eritrea of tit-for-tat deportations and relating stories of human rights violations committed against Ethiopians in Eritrea. Eritrean-Ethiopians came to regard such claims as a harbinger of further expulsions. Many future deportees found their names or the names of their businesses published in Addis Ababa newspapers, a public naming reminiscent of Kristallnacht or the expulsion of Indians from Uganda. Ethiopians, supposedly, would not want to buy from indebted Eritreans who might be regarded as a flight risk. As incredible as the government's statements appear to outsiders, they played well in Ethiopia: with the exception of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), a small civil liberties organization, no one protested against the mass deportation of a formerly enfranchised minority.
The pogrom against ethnic Eritreans began overnight and without notice. ("Deportation" is a misnomer, since it suggests a legal right of a sovereign state to rid itself of undesirable foreigners.) The deportees have had no means of challenging their designation as aliens. Many, particularly those who speak Amharic (the predominant language of Addis Ababa) rather than Tigrinya (the most prevalent language in Eritrea and the Ethiopian province of Tigray), have never been to Eritrea and are better described as persons of Eritrean destination than people of Eritrean origin. Although many Ethiopians whom the government classifies as Eritrean hold identity cards stating that the bearer's nationality is Eritrean, neither the state of Eritrea nor the affected population believe them to be citizens of Eritrea.7
To be sure, states in the international arena set limits on the grant of citizenship to foreigners for a variety of reasons, ranging from residency requirements to cultural affinity to ethnic membership. But to revoke a minority group's citizenship is a political decision that involves manipulating individual identities through a shrinking definition of the state—one based on a contrived concept of national origin rather than residency or membership in a political community. The logic of Ethiopia's conduct—Eritrea is an independent state, therefore Ethiopians with ties to Eritrea are no longer Ethiopians—threatens to erase the very category of Eritrean-Ethiopian that appears on the identity cards of so many deportees.
Ethnic Eritreans—many of whom blame Eritrea for the border conflict—are learning that the identity ascribed to them by Ethiopia's Immigration Office matters more than their subjective loyalties. The threat they pose to Ethiopia's national security derives from an assigned nationality in a time of war-driven hysteria. For them, "due process" consists of a post-arrest appeal whereby certain deportees claim that they are not really Eritrean. To challenge one's determination as a national security risk in Ethiopia's courts, says Daniel Haile, an Eritrean-Ethiopian who is the former dean of the law faculty at Addis Ababa University, is to invite arrest, deportation, and other reprisals.
What began as a round-up of prominent Eritrean-Ethiopians has developed into a systematic, country-wide operation to arrest and deport all people of Eritrean descent. Amnesty International reports that by late January, school children, pensioners, and hospital patients were being arrested and detained, often in the middle of the night.8 The fortunate expellees packed suitcases in anticipation of their eventual arrest and sold their televisions, calculating that it is better to take cash than luxury goods on an uncertain journey; the less fortunate were arrested in their pajamas and arrive in Eritrea with nothing.
The expelled have been stripped of their citizenship, deprived of education, and separated from their families. Their businesses, pensions, and bank accounts are subject to expropriation. Many deportees report that they were compelled to sign powers of attorney granting property rights to "full Ethiopians." Several thousand other Eritreans of military age have been arrested and are currently being detained in Ethiopian internment camps.
• • •
When I visited Ethiopia and Eritrea in November and December—at the height of the expulsions—I encountered numerous refugees whose middle- class lives had been torn apart. Social worker Elsa Tefari was one of the earliest deportees. Elsa's name appeared in an Addis Ababa newspaper on a list of Eritreans accused of owing money or of having failed to repay debts. The day before she was due to visit her three children in the United States on her Ethiopian passport, she was arrested at her place of work, the Scandinavian children's aid society, Red Barna.
On the bus to Eritrea, Elsa realized that several of the deportees were unaccompanied teenagers and that passengers were hungry or sick. They were subjected to the additional humiliation of being guarded while they used the toilet. In Gondar, the buses stopped at a picnic area where the International Committee for the Red Cross was invited to film the deportees enjoying a buffet lunch. Elsa refused the food. Several weeks after she was deported, Red Barna received a letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stating that Elsa had been declared persona-non-grata "because [her] continued presence in Ethiopia [was] deemed incompatible with the national security interest of the country."
Another early deportee, Fekadu Andemeskal, was arrested at his Addis Ababa home last summer in front of his wife and youngest daughter. Fekadu's wife, Rigad Berhane, was so afraid that her baby girl would be deported that she gave the child, Wintana Fekadu, to Eritrean friends en route to Nairobi. They, in turn, gave the girl to a third family as they left for the United States. Fekadu subsequently traveled across four countries on a new Eritrean passport to find his daughter in the care of her third set of guardians. He later confided that he traveled in shock. "I was doing my best for Ethiopia and for the government and then I was deported. I felt totally naked, like a new-born."
On the other side of this crisis are Ethiopians who have left Eritrea since the war began. The vast majority of Ethiopians in Eritrea are originally from the province of Tigray and they are among the poorest of Africa's poor. Until the conflict erupted, most of them worked as maids, gardeners, day laborers and port workers. Since then, many have been laid off and are without food, shelter or diplomatic support. Roughly 25,000 Ethiopians have returned to Ethiopia, victims of joblessness and discrimination against Ethiopians in Eritrea.
Ethiopians leaving Eritrea have experienced delays at the hands of an Eritrean immigration bureaucracy reluctant to issue exit visas to persons counted as "deportees" on their arrival in Ethiopia. In a tuberculosis-riddled refugee camp in Nazaret, Ethiopia, I found refugees from Assab who had waited four months in a city of dwindling food stocks before obtaining permission to leave.9 In a camp on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, impoverished Ethiopian repatriates from Asmara detailed the ultimate irony, passing Eritreans headed across the border in the opposite direction.
There are distinctions between the two groups: Eritrean deportees are the victims of state action (notwithstanding the efforts of many sympathetic Ethiopian neighbors to assist deportees) while Ethiopian refugees are forced out of Eritrea by less direct means. Abrehet Woldegarima, a fifty year-old Ethiopian who has lived in Eritrea for most of her life, described how her Eritrean friends in Assab turned on her when she told them she was leaving. Their refusal to buy her property rendered her destitute when she arrived in Ethiopia. By contrast, some Eritreans continue to manage properties in Addis Ababa through Ethiopian intermediaries—though those colleagues will suffer reprisals if they are discovered by Ethiopian authorities.
Mass deportation has clear costs: as refugees lose jobs and businesses, economic activity declines and new expenditures are required to absorb the displaced. Indeed, the uprooting of Eritrean-Ethiopians and Ethiopian- Eritreans threatens to disrupt the social and economic infrastructure of both vacated and resettled areas. Though Eritrea has made optimistic claims of a deportation-related "brain gain," experience shows that forced transfers of civilian populations can lay the foundation for future cross-border violence. Already, diminished cross-border work migration and closed roads between Assab and Addis Ababa have contributed to interpersonal enmity and commercial atrophy.
Yet the policy of expulsion has a perverse appeal to the Ethiopian leadership: the expulsions impose resettlement costs on Eritrea, provide revenue in the form of expropriated properties, and unite other Ethiopians against an enemy in their midst. The international community, for its part, has failed to dissuade Ethiopian authorities from uprooting persons of Eritrean origin, though both the US State Department and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have condemned Ethiopia's actions.
Unlike Kosovo, the latest Eritrea-Ethiopia war ranks low on the list of international conflicts, all the more so because it requires preventative peacekeeping and sociological bridge building in Africa. NATO is not about to bomb Ethiopia in defense of pluralistic identities. Unchecked by outside parties for want of strategic significance, the Eritrea-Ethiopia war thrives as a conventional state-to-state conflict fueled by supra-nationalist xenophobia, a marked contrast to the tragedies attendant to the dissolution of the state in Somalia, Rwanda, and Congo.
Persecuted by one state and unable to receive assistance from the other until they cross the border, the deportees must nonetheless hope for the normalization of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea if they wish to return to Ethiopia or fashion a cross-border existence. Appealing to the international community for legal or political intervention is unlikely to breach the impunity with which Ethiopia's government has selected ethnic Eritreans for expulsion.10 Instead, the victims of assigned identification and expulsion must look to a bilateral political process contaminated by distrust and demonization. In that dynamic, both states are guilty of building new national identities on the basis of enmity and neither has seriously pursued even modest steps to quiet the hostilities such as staged demilitarization or a compensation commission for the uprooted.
• • •
At risk is a proliferation of falsely ethnicized politics in the Horn of Africa. Mass deportation poses a threat to pluralistic cultures and ethno-national diversity. Eritreans have lived in Ethiopia as long as either country has existed within defined boundaries. Until recently, Eritreans in Addis Ababa constituted a successful merchant class. Ethiopia's actions represent the erasure of established Eritrean communities and the ethnocization of political differences. The history of Palestinians, Bosnians, and Kurds suggests that individuals forcibly deported from their homes on the basis of national origin rarely return.
Equally disturbing, mass expulsion has the power to shape individual identities. Yemane Binega's search for a nationality is echoed in the experience of Eritrean-Ethiopians who are uncomfortable with their newly assigned identities. (Yemane's child, born of an Ethiopian wife and a recently classified Eritrean husband may some day have to choose a means of self-identification. Between two warring nations with universal conscription, that is not an insignificant choice.) The hesitation deportees feel in embracing an assigned nationality is apparent in the school children who carried their homework on the "Salam" hoping to mail it back to Addis for grading. If these people are powerless to prevent the depopulation of Eritreans from Ethiopia, they are nonetheless refusing to self-identify as entirely Ethiopian or Eritrean.
In the main, Eritreans and Ethiopians, especially Tigrayans, have no problem identifying one another as different. Their ethnic antennae have been raised to differences in speech, family networks, and appearance. Contrary to the claim of many Amhara Ethiopians in Addis Ababa that Eritreans and Ethiopians are the same—Eritreans generally consider the "sameness" argument antagonistic since it contains a suggestion that all Ethiopians suffered equally under the Dirgue or that their independence was "granted" by Ethiopia—there are important distinctions between people of the two countries. But those differences-in professional expertise, class, and accent—come from historical experience, not invented ethnic traits. The challenge is to contain the current conflict to statist interests without confusing citizenship with national origin, to recognize separateness without vilifying difference. For Eritreans accustomed to defining themselves in opposition to Ethiopia and for Ethiopians who are practicing ethnicized governance, this is a formidable obstacle.
The danger of mass expulsion is that it will sever the familial, cultural, and civic links necessary for reconciliation and reconstruction. Heavy battlefield casualties coupled with the expulsion of civilian populations spreads a human stain across bilateral relations. Therein lies the danger to states beyond Eritrea and Ethiopia. Negotiators who have focused on the territorial controversy may be correct that in the absence of a border dispute, there would have been no deportations. But the deportations have contributed to the intensity of recent fighting and could well provide the fodder for the next war. In February, Ethiopia reclaimed part of Badme, raising hopes of a cease-fire. But Ethiopia's territorial advance has not quieted the guns, and Ethiopia has continued to deport Eritreans to Assab, 1,200 kilometers to the east.
"The border" says Professor Mesfin Wolde-Mariam of EHRCO, "has become a pretext for the deportations. And the deportations are causing a build up of hatred. If this tension continues, it will lead to indiscriminate violence that will go on for generations." He adds, "I believe we should be bigger morally."
1 Ethiopians and Eritreans refer to each other by their first names; their second name is their father's first name.
2 See "Trench Warfare," Economist (March 13, 1999): 56.
3 Sha'abia is the Tigrinya phrase for the EPLF; Woyone refers to their Ethiopian counterparts, the TPLF.
4 Human Rights Watch Report, "Ethiopia: The Curtailment of Rights," December 1997, Vol. 9, No. 8.
5 "The Legal Aspects of Ethiopia's Deportation of Undesirable Eritreans," Zakir Ibrahim, Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, referring to Updated Memorandum by the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia on July 16, 1998.
6 Ethiopian Nationality Law, Article Eleven (a), published in Berhanena Selam newspaper, vol. 6, No. 30, July 24, 1930.
7 In the absence of Eritrean nationality, ethnic Eritreans reasonably assumed they were Ethiopian citizens pursuant to the 1962 Ethiopian annexation of Eritrea, which conferred Ethiopian nationality on all Eritreans.
8 See Amnesty International news report, January 29, 1999 (www.amnesty.org/news/1999/12500299.html).
9 Neither Amnesty International nor the US Embassy in Asmara's investigation supports Ethiopia's claim that more than 40,000 of its citizens have been forcibly deported from Eritrea since May 1998.
10 Although Ethiopia is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, none of these treaties provides the deportees with the means to enjoin mass expulsion or to gain individual redress for their suffering. Article 12 (5) of the 1981 African Charter on Human and People's Rights explicitly proscribes mass expulsion but neither Eritrea nor Ethiopia is a signatory to the Charter.
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June 01, 1999
21 Min read time