Thursday, July 25, 2024
In DepthUnsettled border disputes leave desperate people of Irob in no man’s land

Unsettled border disputes leave desperate people of Irob in no man’s land

Medhin Aweala, 50, was born and raised in Irob Woreda on the border with Eritrea. He and his family left their rural home a few years ago to establish a business in Adigrat, seat of the administration in Tigray’s Misraqawi (Eastern) Zone.

That was before the war broke out in late 2020.

Medhin, a father of two, says the peace agreement that ended the war two years later has not marked the end of tribulation for the residents of Irob. He recently facilitated the relocation of his elderly parents to Adigrat after their rural home was demolished. Medhin said his parents were living in a state of “fear and bitterness.”

Medhin describes living in the area now as dangerous, and told The Reporter that locals are “helpless to survive” in light of growing Eritrean military presence and control in the region.

The 2000 Algiers Agreement that ended the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea at the turn of the millennium ceded two kebeles in Irob – Endalgeda and Woreatele – along with half of Agerlekoma Kebele to Eritrea.

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Medhin says the residents of Irob did not support the agreement, arguing it did not take into account their interests.

“Our people have consistently rejected the agreement,” he said, referring to past mass protests and ongoing calls for its reversal to both the international community and the Ethiopian government.

According to him, since the onset of the Tigray war in 2020, Eritrean forces have expanded their occupation of the Zone to cement full or partial control over a significant portion of the region.

Medhin laments the lack of Ethiopian military presence, leaving the Irob people vulnerable to the whims of Eritrean forces. He says the Zone’s administrators are seemingly indifferent to their plight, questioning their very “existence” in the area.

“The region is naturally prone to drought, and without essential humanitarian aid, our people are struggling to survive, displaced and unfamiliar with their surroundings,” he told The Reporter. “Witnessing the suffering is heartbreaking. It feels like we, the Irob people, have been abandoned to Eritrea, with no positive outcome in sight.”

During their shared struggle against the Derg regime, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) were once allies, and their struggle eventually led to Eritrea gaining official independence in 1993.

Five years later, a border dispute, specifically concerning the town of Badme, led to a two-year war between the two countries. The conflict ended with the signing of the Algiers Agreement in June 2000, mediated by the AU and the UN.

The agreement established a ceasefire and a Boundary Commission to demarcate the disputed border.

The Commission, however, encountered significant obstacles in its demarcation duties. In April 2002, its decision to designate Badme as Eritrean territory was rejected by the Ethiopian government

Consequently, a lengthy stalemate ensued, resulting in heightened tensions between the two nations. However, in 2004, Ethiopia eventually accepted the ruling “in principle,” yet no further progress was made regarding the matter for over a decade.

Following a political transition in Ethiopia in 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) publicly expressed Ethiopia’s commitment to honoring the Algiers Agreement and actively pursuing peace with Eritrea.

This announcement was widely regarded as “historic.”

However, tensions escalated in the Tigray region in 2020, leading to a conflict between the Ethiopian federal government and the TPLF. Eritrean forces entered the conflict, siding with the Ethiopian federal government and occupying areas that were not part of Eritrea’s designated territory according to the Algiers Agreement, further complicating the situation in the region.

On November 2, 2022, representatives from the Ethiopian government and the TPLF reached an agreement to halt hostilities following peace negotiations facilitated by the AU in Pretoria, South Africa.

The agreement came on the eve of the second anniversary of the war.

Since the signing of the peace accord, various parties, including the Tigray Interim Administration (TIA) and the international community, have accused the Eritrean government of exerting control over different parts of the Tigray region, including multiple woredas and kebeles.

Additionally, reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have extensively documented allegations of Eritrean forces engaging in atrocities and occupying territory in Tigray that extends beyond what was designated for Eritrea by the Algiers Agreement.

The documents are supported by testimonies, satellite imagery, and other evidence.

On February 28, 2024, the Eritrean embassy released a statement asserting that Eritrean troops have maintained control over the border areas since the resolution of the two-year conflict in northern Ethiopia through a peace agreement.

Unsettled border disputes leave desperate people of Irob in no man’s land | The Reporter | #1 Latest Ethiopian News Today

The Eritrean government maintains that Badme and other contested territories in the northernmost fringes of Ethiopia rightfully belong to Eritrea under the Algiers Agreement. The statement refers to these areas as “sovereign Eritrean territories that the TPLF had unlawfully occupied for two decades with impunity.”

The TIA has repeatedly condemned the presence of Eritrean forces in Tigrayan territory and consistently called for the federal government to liberate these areas from Eritrean occupation.

The Pretoria Agreement mandates the withdrawal of all forces from Tigray, except for the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF).

Nonetheless, reports from Irob Zone indicate an expansion of Eritrean military control in the region, accompanied by widespread displacement following the withdrawal of Ethiopian military personnel from Aiga Hill.

Eyasu Misgina, head of Irob Woreda administration, told The Reporter that civilian lives are at grave risk, particularly after the “sudden departure of Ethiopian forces from the area”.

He highlighted the ongoing plight of the Irob people, persisting even after the signing of the 2022 peace agreement. Eyasu revealed that Endalgeda and Woreatele kebeles are now fully under Eritrean control, with their presence partially observed in Agerlekoma Kebele.

Furthermore, he noted an increase in Eritrean military presence in the region, including their control over the road linking the Irob Woreda to Adigrat, effectively isolating the populace from humanitarian aid and essential services.

“Irob is inaccessible now,” he said. “Our people are suffering in darkness. We demand unrestricted aid and the complete withdrawal of Eritrean forces, as well as protection for the Irob minority.”

Medhin and Eyasu expressed their concerns over the Irob community’s struggle with an “identity crisis,” where they are compelled to choose between Ethiopian and Eritrean identities.

They emphasized that this dilemma not only erodes their identity but also places them on the brink of “extinction.”

Furthermore, they emphasized that the Eritrean regime’s annexation of Tigray territory poses a serious threat to the Irob community, potentially resulting in their permanent marginalization. They also underscored that this blatant disregard for international conventions safeguarding minority and indigenous groups amounts to a profound neglect of duty.

Medhin and Eyasu appealed to the federal government and the international community to fulfill their responsibilities in preserving the Irob people and preventing their demise.

“In advocating for the rights of minorities worldwide, the international community must also fulfill its obligation to ensure the safety and protection of our people,” they told The Reporter.

Less than a month ago, a viral video showed the Eritrean military commanding members of the Irob community in  areas under Eritrean control to “forget Tigray and think [about] Eritreanness and Eritrea.”

“You are the people. The land you live in belongs to Eritrea. If you are Eritreans, you are subject to this land, and you have a duty to help the army here. You also have an obligation to provide national service. You have to live the life of an Eritrean citizen,” announced the representatives of the Eritrean army.

Eritrean speakers in the video further state that the land of Eritrea is inhabited by Eritreans, and the people of Irob should expect nothing different from other Eritreans.

Consequently, the Irob community appealed to the Interim Administration of Tigray and the federal government for rescue. The Irob Anina Civil Society strongly condemned the act, labeling it a “concern” for the Irob people.

“Eritrea’s continued occupation of Tigrayan territories and renewed attacks on the Tigray people, crossing international borders and repeatedly breaching Ethiopian sovereignty, have had an immense impact on the Irob people due to the intergenerational toll of militarized violence,” reads a statement from the Society.

However, in a statement released on April 12, 2024, Eritrea’s Ministry of Information announced that the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea has been “demarcated for the last time in a way that will never be changed.”

Referring to the Algiers Agreement, the statement asserts that the border between the two countries is based on decisions from the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission and describes Eritrean control of the areas as a “legally confirmed boundary.”

The statement emphasized that the border dividing Eritrea and Ethiopia is “one of the most unequivocal and legally acknowledged borders globally, unlike any before.”

It also said that only new “violations” could lead to further conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia or Tigray.

“The era draws to a close,” reads the statement. “Eritreans stand firmly by a guiding principle: we neither want what isn’t rightfully ours nor give what is ours. Ethiopians have gleaned invaluable lessons from tumultuous foreign entanglements, marked by widespread loss and devastation.”

In a recent interview with state television, Abraham Belay, minister of Defense, revealed the establishment of a committee tasked with investigating accusations of violence and human rights violations in areas of Tigray currently under Eritrean control.

The Minister said “the majority” of Tigray fell under federal jurisdiction following the war. However, following the peace deal, local governance resumed everywhere but disputed territories remained under ENDF control to avoid further conflict, according to Abraham.

“Eritrean forces withdrew following the Pretoria Agreement,” he said. “In case any areas or districts remain contentious, we are working with a joint team comprising representatives from both the federal government and Tigray Interim Administration to thoroughly evaluate them and propose solutions.”

On December 12, 2023, commemorating the twenty-third anniversary of the signing of the Algiers Agreement, the US Department of State emphasized, “it is more important than ever that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of both countries be respected,” urging both nations to collaborate.

On April 15, 2024, the Salsay Weyane Tigray (SAWET) opposition party expressed deep concerns about the plight of the Irob people in their weekly press release titled “Irob Community Faces Catastrophe Under Eritrean Occupation.”

“The Tigrayan population along the Eritrean border, particularly the Irob people, is enduring appalling atrocities inflicted by occupying Eritrean forces,” reads the party statement.

The press release highlighted that the Irob youth under the Eritrean regime are forced into conscription and violence, while the situation presents a severe hindrance to the community’s access to essential humanitarian aid and basic utilities.

“The survival of the Irob community is under grave threat,” it reads. “The combination of warfare and the inability to access farming supplies and equipment has led to a dire humanitarian crisis in the region.”

Alula Hailu, president of the SAWET party, emphasized a significant “misunderstanding” of the Algiers Agreement, stating that the primary objective of the Agreement is to achieve peace through a negotiated settlement, with border disputes to be resolved by a border commission.

He criticized the exploitation of the Algiers Agreement by Eritrean forces, citing their control over extensive areas of Tigray following the 2020 northern conflict.

“They are using the Algiers Agreement as a pretext to occupy Tigray territories,” he told The Reporter. “This constitutes an act of aggression that must be addressed according to international law.”

Alula attributed this situation to a lack of effective governance, which should formally report Eritrea’s infringement of Tigray’s sovereignty to the international community.

He further urged the Eritrean government to abide by the principles outlined in the Algiers Agreement, which initially granted them control over certain areas pending border commission investigations, while calling on the international community to exert pressure and rescue the minority population from the brink of extinction.

“The plight of the Irob people and other parts of Tigray under the oppressive rule of the Eritrean military transcends mere border demarcation; it’s about safeguarding people from annihilation,” he told The Reporter.

Medhin says Irob youth are grappling with a profound dilemma, finding no solace from either the Ethiopian or Eritrean authorities.

“The Irob people, including our youth, are facing immense hardship,” he said. “What saddens me deeply is witnessing our people lose hope, with our youth resorting to perilous journeys to destinations like Libya and Yemen, only to be swallowed by the unforgiving desert.”

Neither the Ethiopian federal government nor the Tigray Interim Administration have issued a response to the latest statement from the Eritrean government.

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