From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Mon Dec 22 2008 - 06:45:22 EST
Tiny tribe claim Ethiopian allegiance in border row with Eritrea
DOHAN, Ethiopia (AFP) - Groups of children giggling as they walk home from
school in the shadow of Mount Asimba and the timeless stillness of
Ethiopia's northeastern highland convey a deceptive sense of peace.
After living in this region for more than 700 years, the tiny Irob ethnic
group is torn, in its heart, by the border with Eritrea and engaged in a
futile struggle for recognition dwarfed by the regional conflict pitting the
two rival nations.
A few miles from the front line, where tens of thousands of Ethiopian and
Eritrean troops have been facing off for years, on the brink of war,
children return from school on a dusty trail.
The mountainous region in northeastern Ethiopia was ravaged by the border
conflict that left some 80,000 dead between 1998 and 2000.
The border subsequently drawn by an international UN-backed commission in a
bid to end the war left the bulk of the Irob territory on Eritrea's side.
But so far the new demarcation has not been implemented. And Ethiopia,
taking the example of Irob people, is asking for negotiation for every
"The Irob people reject the Eritrean government. We don't accept anything
about the demarcation of the border. We want to remain Ethiopian and we will
never accept the Eritrean view on this issue," said Ruphael Shiferaw, head
of the local council.
"The Irob people have their own culture and language, it is a proper ethnic
group inside the regional government of Tigray and by history this area has
always been within Ethiopian boundaries," he added.
The Irob speak the Kushitic Saho language and their spectacular ancestral
land is dotted with Catholic and Orthodox churches perched on cliffs and
nestled on hill flanks.
Very little is known about the exact origins of the Irob. "Some say the name
Irob comes from the word Europe," Ruphael said with a smile. "But now for
sure we are Ethiopians and want to remain so."
"Not for one day or even one minute, Irob people have been under Eritrean
governance. It is one community, one family. Separating our family was the
decision of the UN, but we won't accept it," Ruphael said.
Since Eritrea acquired independence in 1993, Ethiopia has worked hard to
retain the allegiance of the Irob, who number only 30,000 but are the
masters of a crucial piece of estate flanking the disputed border.
Electricity was brought to the remote region, sanitation and water projects
were carried out, the first asphalted road is due to be completed in two
years and local officials said mobile phone coverage is on its way.
The district's administrative centre was moved from Alitena, the Irob
people's traditional capital, to Dohan, further away from the frontline.
Aware that fighting could resume at any time between Ethiopia and Eritrea,
the Irob are mobilised and show a united front.
"We don't want to give up our land any more than we want to take theirs,"
said Hagos Gidey, a 51-year-old farmer.
"If possible we just want peace: for them to be able to come here and us to
go there peacefully, as it was before. But if they don't want that and start
the war again, we will do everything we can to stay in our country."
Like most Irob tribesmen, he had to flee farther south during the war.
In 1998, when the conflict erupted over the border, the Irob militia were
the last defence against the Eritrean advance in the absence of the
They held off the enemy for five days, residents recounted, but when the
displaced eventually returned to their homes three years ago, they had lost
In the shadow of Mount Asimba, which culminates at 3,250 metres (10,600
feet) above sea level, the Irob region now looks relatively prosperous, with
well-fed cattle roaming the patchwork of lush green valleys and sprawling
fields of teff, the local staple grain.
"I'm afraid that the war can start again. But I want to stay Ethiopian, it
is my country and a great country," said Zewde Yohannes, a 30-year-old
mother of four.
"I don't want to leave my land again. I left once in 1998 and I had nothing
left, I lost everything. I don't want a second war to start, we need peace,"
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