It was May 2001. Not so long ago the fighting phase of the 1998-2000 border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia had ended, and now a UN peacekeeping mission (UNMEE) was on the ground in order to ensure the 20 kilometres security zone inside Eritrea remained that: a zone without soldiers and army-weapons. Of course, this was sort of impossible, as most Eritreans belonged to the army in some function or other, and many people wore army fatigues as their everyday closing, whether active soldiers or not.
We were in Asmara then and wanted to travel to Senafe. One needed a permit, not from the Eritrean government side but from the UNMEE office, as Senafe was inside the security zone, in fact almost at the border. It was also forbidden to stay over night, thus the nearest place one could stay was Adi Keih. The UNMEE permit was easy enough to get, and off we went.
After having checked into a hotel in Adi Keih, we drove off in the direction of Senafe. I had met a few of the people I had known there in Asmara, people who had fled or were evacuated when fighting reached the area. New health and education facilities in Senafe lay in ruins, and the little hotel where I used to stay and where the owner made the best spaghetti with chillies ever was burned to the ground. People started slowly to return from the adjacent countryside, some de-mining activities were under way, but overall Senafe looked like a ghost town.
Slogans on the wall, partly in English, told everybody in no clear terms what the Ethiopian army who had passed through thought about the Eritreans as a treacherous friend turned enemy. On and on we drove, as the only time papers were checked was when we entered the UNMEE security zone. Suddenly we seemed to be in what was possibly (and in all likelihood) already Ethiopia. It was eerie and spooky, the only living creatures were some stray dogs who went through the shells of former houses in search for food.
We thus turned around, visited a de-mining project on the way back to Adi Keih, and chatted to some Canadian UNMEE troops who had not really much to do, so they started clearing the rubble from one of the destroyed primary schools that they would later help to rebuild.
This was the last time I was in Senafe. Future visits were made impossible not by UNMEE (who stayed in the country until 2008) nor by renewed fighting, nor the fact that the Ethiopian side failed to implement the cessation of hostilities agreement that was to be final and binding, in particular failed to withdraw its troops from Badme, one of the symbolic flashpoints of the war. No, it was made impossible by new Eritrean travel restrictions that accelerated over time and prescribed a limited number of places foreigners were allowed to visit with a required travel permit – for security reasons, or so the official narrative goes.
The recent announcement by the new Ethiopian PM, to end the stalemate on the border issue with Eritrea that includes the offer of Ethiopian troop withdrawals from areas such as Badme, I thus warmly welcome. Of course, we have all grown sceptical and cynical, and esteemed colleagues and friends have already given their dismissive interpretation to the announcement – the Ethiopians do not mean it yet again; nothing will change from the Eritrean side and so forth – and sadly that may turn out to be true.
Also, we should remember that the (physical and symbolic) border between Eritrea and Ethiopia did not overnight suddenly become a point of contestation, when the actual war broke out. Rather, one could go back a long time in history to find between the supposedly ‘one people’ now artificially divided a sense of hatred and suspicion on both sides – be it in the assumed superiority felt by some Eritrean highlanders towards their Tigrayans counterparts; be it in the pleasure with which Ethiopian border guards harassed Eritreans on their way to Tigray post Eritrean independence – witnessed by myself for the last time in 1997, when travelling with fellow Eritreans from Asmara to Adigrat.
But the time may have come to put this aside, to remember the equally strong bonds and connections among peoples from both sides of the border, and at least give the Ethiopian initiative a chance. Little comment has come from the Eritrean side thus far, and overcoming the stalemate with Ethiopia would without doubt lead to political change in Eritrea that many in its current leadership are bound to strongly resist. But change will come eventually, and for once there might be a chance, however slim, that this rather courageous announcement from the new Ethiopian government will accelerate such change. If that makes the Horn of Africa as a whole a more peaceful environment, in the current geopolitical climate, is another question. But who knows, maybe I find myself on a trip to Senafe and beyond again sooner than I imagined possible.