Skip to main content
Zalambessa: A town that has endured

Zalambessa: A town that has endured

There is something overwhelming, perhaps defeating but mostly mesmerizing about the border town of Zalambessa. The no-war-no-peace mantra has totally crippled it, its population has dwindled and a once in a lifetime chance to bring it back from ruins earlier this year has totally disappeared as Eritrea has chosen to close its borders with Ethiopia.

This has suddenly ended a short-lived trade between the people of the two nations that was beginning to change the narrative of this old town. Welcome to the town of Zalambessa – a town in ruins!

“I moved when fighting became heavy more than two decades ago and came back to open a shop when the borders opened earlier this year and received instant success,” Kiflom Gebrehiwot told The Reporter. “I was happy to return but that has now subdued and it has come to a sudden stop.”

“For those of us from this town, who want to live and work here, it has become a Catch-22 for us. I am now planning to move once again,” he added.

Located just 40km from Adigrat and a 20 birr ride on a bumpy road at the end of the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea and past towns and villages in the downturn and young people sitting idly, Zalambessa is a town of bombed properties and whose characteristics have not changed for decades.

Many of the young people have lived with little opportunities and exposure and the generation just above them have experienced war and conflicts and they have directly suffered as a result of it. It is a place from another era with abandoned broken stones whose war has affected it greatly and has its populations live in fear.

It has a lone elementary school and the hospital that is accessible to them is a long journey on foot and with little job opportunities, paying transportation to towns a bit far is still a lofty dream for most.

“Since the re-closing of the border with Eritrea, business has been slow and this is how empty our restaurant have become,” a waitress at Mereb Hotel, a two room property told The Reporter throwing her hands in the air in frustrations. “Added to that is, there is no regular electricity here and little water. If you are young, you cannot help but want to move elsewhere looking for opportunities that is no longer here.”

Looking around what is left of the town, with little infrastructures and development, Zalambessa, to many residents, has gone from a business area to quite neighborhoods in ruins with little opportunities.

“We live in fear. We live thinking we would be attacked overnight. We have little enjoyment and the smallest of hope has been dashed. When the border opened, there was a sudden activity. We rushed to make money and take advantage of opportunities. That is gone now. We have once again become prisoners of our homes. More vulnerable and in need of handouts,” Kibrom Zenawi, a 74 year old dweller told The Reporter, giving a tour of a town that he has lived in for generations, except for few years across the Eritrean border as a youngster.

Earlier this year, the streets were full of Eritreans and there was an aura of peace in the air and the locals were in a rush to expand their businesses to accommodate rush of customers.

“All of a sudden, the soldiers became friendly. They seemed content and happy and at the end of fighting for a border that was no longer attractive to keep closed. We celebrated and visited each other’s side and that was a milestone to behold. It felt like a family reunion,” a Bajaj driver told The Reporter. “I am sad that was to be a short-lived experience.”  

According to many The Reporter spoke to, citizens of both nations were moving freely from the borders to trade, attend festivities and finally, it seemed, the impossible was becoming the possible, to a place that has had more misfortune than perhaps no other in Ethiopia.

“I was the very few that visited Eritrea when the border opened,” said 64-year-old Tadios Abera. “I had families I had not seen in such a longtime. To be requited with them was a dream of a lifetime. I wonder if I ever would see them again.”

Young people as well were also beginning to return to the town. There was even a talk of re-building the homes and life’s destroyed by once considered, an enemy fire but has become friendly since the era of Abiy Ahmed began a year ago.

“Like most of people my age, I was making plans to move elsewhere and make my move to western nations, preferably to Europe when the border opened and all of a sudden, staying here became an attractive option. I saw as Eritreans came to our side and we went to theirs. We became close, as we should always be and made lots of exchanges and trade. But that just stopped with no clear explanation. If I do not move, my life is doomed. The hope the border opening gave us seems like a blip, a dream and are we supposed to wait and hope that it would open up again,” said Yonas Mehari.

An entrepreneur who worked inside a family run restaurant, others of his generations have already left for nearby towns, such as Adigrat and Mekele looking for greener pastures.

The border between Eritrea and Ethiopia is a five km road ride of empty water and animal waste on a Bajaj or a carriage. It costs about 20 birr on a contract Bajaj and less on the carriage.

The Reporter was able to visit the border of the Ethiopian side but was advised to turn back.

“We advise you to turn back and go back to town (Zalambessa). If you really want to visit Eritrea, go through the Debre Damo border as that has not been closed yet,” an Ethiopian soldier advised.

“This border is closed for now until further notice,” another soldier added.

Ed.’s Note: Samuel was recently on a region wide tour of Tigray and this is the second part of a series of articles he would be writing on his experience.