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Irobland by Henze


by Paul B. Henze


I last visited this region in March 2004. I found no major changes in my visit in early June 2005. There had been some rainfall this year which improved prospects for agriculture and raised the morale of the population. The border situation remains in a condition of stalemate with UNMEE continuing to patrol the border. I heard fewer complaints from people about UNMEE smuggling activities. That may be simply because everyone now takes them for granted. I heard much more about Eritreans, mostly young men, coming across the border to seek refuge in Ethiopia. Some remain in camps, but many melt into the population and seek work in Tigray or farther south in Ethiopia. People spoke repeatedly of worsening economic conditions and increased political oppression in Eritrea. In Tigray there has been slow but continual improvement in economic activity and the quality of life. The May elections resulted in no complaints or demonstrations in Tigray, for the two principal anti-EPRDF coalitions, Kenejit and Hibret, had no significant support in this region and were perceived as anti-Tigrayan. Likewise, Aregawi Berhe, an alienated TPLF leader who had preceded Meles Zenawi, attracted no significant following.


One travels to Zalambessa on asphalt all the way. The highway shows some evidence deterioration and repair, apparently from heavy use by UNMEE and Ethiopian military vehicles. There is, of course, no through traffic to Eritrea. A great deal of progress has been made in the rebuilding of Zalambessa and a portion of the original population appears to have returned. The main southern and middle sections of the town are beginning to take on a normal appearance. The northern section before the border continues to present a panorama of total destruction.

The population of Zalambessa and other parts of northeastern Tigray is confident that Ethiopia has sufficient military strength in the region to prevent a new Eritrean incursion. They expect, in fact, that renewed efforts by Eritrean forces to invade would be met by an immediate Ethiopian counteroffensive.


Good progress continues in reconstruction and development in Irobland. The region inhabited by the Irob is one of the most dramatically impressive regions of Ethiopia with rugged mountains, deep gorges, and some fertile valleys. Terracing provides terrain for agriculture in many areas. Cattle, goat and sheep herds seem to be increasing. The worst of the physical destruction done by Eritrean forces during their invasion and occupation of the region in 1998-99 has now been overcome, but the memory of it is still vivid among the population. Though some Irob who fled then have returned, many of the older people have not. There are colonies of Irob in Adigrat and Makelle. Some who came as refugees have found employment and now return only for occasional visits to their homeland. There is a small group of Irob students at Makelle University and other educational institutions in Makelle who are preparing themselves for professional work in the future.

The Irob people remain strongly committed to their Catholic heritage. Churches are important centers of spiritual and social life for the majority of the population. Welfare activity undertaken by sisters and priests provides urgently needed services to the population (see below). The capacity of the Irob to help themselves remains an impressive characteristic of these people.

Roadbuilding in Irobland continues to progress. I found the road to Alitena in considerably better condition than when I last traveled it. It is still being worked on, however, and from Dowhan onward is one of the most rugged highways in Ethiopia, travelable only by a 4WD vehicle. Some bridges have not yet been finished. A dam is under construction on the river that flows down the escarpment and along a broad valley below Alitena. The area behind it is already forming a substantial reservoir which will make possible a continual flow in the river by release of water in dry periods. Whether it will also include facilities to generate electric power I am not sure. In Alitena and in other parts of Irobland elementary solar power installations have been established.


Alitena was captured by the Eritreans in 1998. They did a great deal of deliberate, wanton destruction. Much of it has now been repaired. With easier access, Alitena could become a center of attraction for tourists because of its picturesqueness. It could become a base for trekking and exploration in the escarpment region below. For now, however, visitors have no alternative but to impose themselves for an overnight stay on the Daughters of Charity who maintain a large compound with simple but comfortable living quarters and an impressive health station. I had visited this health station a few years ago and was very impressed by the efficient services and elementary medicines it makes available to the population not only of Alitena but far and wide throughout the region. On this visit, I saw another aspect of the services the Daughters of Charity and the Catholic priests who serve the church and school (six of them) render to the population: their gardens.


We arrived in Alitena in the early evening. Sisters Ababa and Tariqua suggested we take advantage of the long evening light to hike down to see the gardens in the valley below. These gardens have been laboriously formed through the years by the building of a long fieldstone wall some distance behind the river bank. It makes it possible to form a terrace about 2 meters above river level and has permitted the creation of a broad area of built-up soil which slopes gently down the valley and permits irrigation from deep wells. Several of these skillfully constructed well shafts are lined with stone. They are 12-15 meters deep and extend to a permanent water table well below the level of the river. At this season, and thanks to the dam higher upstream mentioned above, the river itself had a good flow of clear water. It was edged with great expanses of white flowers, creating the impression of luxuriance rare in this harsh region of rocky canyons. All of the wells are equipped with bucket arrangements for hauling up water by hand. Most of them are now served by generator-driven pumps which, during our visit, were pouring water out into irrigation channels that lace the entire cultivated area.

Gardens are rented, primarily to local women, for a three-year period for which they pay a nominal sum and, in return, promise to raise a variety of vegetables which are offered for sale to the population. We saw healthy patches of tomatoes, peppers, carrots, beets and potatoes. A variety of trees and bushes were also called to our attention. Some were dead and some were alive and flourishing. The sisters explained that those that had died had not been able to survive the Eritrean invasion, when people fled, the gardens were not tended and irrigation stopped. In spite of this misfortune several large apple trees had managed to survive and were now being generously watered and encouraged to recover. New citrus and papaya trees have been planted. The sisters explained plans for further expansion of the gardens.

Overnight at Alitena:

The hospitality of the sisters was enjoyable. They served us good simple food, including produce from their gardens. After dinner, we watched TV in the common room. Electricity is provided by a solar collection arrangement. We were comfortably put up for the night in simple guestrooms: our woman member in one and three men together in another. A barnyard below our window housed an energetic young donkey and a lively rooster who woke us several times during the night with their braying and crowing–they seemed impatient for dawn, but I forgave them when I went down to see them in the morning, for they were unusually handsome specimens.

Health Station:

We were up at dawn and went first to look in on morning services at the large church. Then we spent the better part of an hour going through the health station where the sisters each morning receive people needing medicine or treatment. A mother who had recently been delivered occupied one of the beds. We met a young soldier who had suffered shellshock from fighting and had been sent for treatment while helping with tasks around the center. Medicines and other materials were stored in orderly cabinets. The sisters told us they were adequate for their routine needs, but they always welcomed more. The receiving and waiting rooms for patients had posters on their walls describing medical conditions and kinds of treatment. Among them was a poster cautioning people about AIDS.

We were impressed by the dedication and good judgment of the two sisters on duty while we were there. The senior sister, Ababa, is a native Irob with extensive experience and training and very good English as well as Amharic, Tigrinya and Irobinya. The junior sister, Tariqua, only 21, is a native of southwestern Ethiopia, having been born and raised in Bonga. She was pleased to have been assigned to the Irob country. I found her a splendid example of the fact that young Ethiopians, far from having been victimized by ethnic politics, are showing a sense of dedication to the country and a willingness to serve in all parts of it.

Abba Mesghenna Woldu:

On return to Makelle I met again with the energetic priest, Abba Mesghenna, who looks after the Irob community in the capital. Though 64 hears of age he looks no more than 50 and has the energy of a man 40 years younger. In the compound of Lidetta Mariam Catholic Church he maintains an educational and community center for the entire Catholic population of Makelle. He attracts large numbers of Catholic students from Makelle University, but welcomes all without distinction of religious affiliation. For young people he provides courses in many practical subjects. He has built up a library in a reading room open to all who wish to use it. He is constantly in need of more books. He stressed his priority needs: books on management, English, mathematics, physics, chemistry, economics, dictionaries and encyclopedias. (His address: PO Box 69, Makelle; his telephone number: 251-40-1281; his e-mail

The Irob Development Association:

Abba Mesghenna invited me to a luncheon (featuring the Tigrayan specialty tihlo) at which he brought me together with the three serious young men who are leading the Irob Development Association: Hagos Mirach, Kahsai Debesu and Asgedom Berhe. All are students preparing themselves for serious professional work. Abba Mesghenna has given them a room in his compound which they use as their headquarters. Their association has a board of 15 members in Makelle, Adigrat and the Irob area, and about 200 members who contribute at least Birr 2 each every week. Those who can, of course, contribute more. Their aim is to accumulate enough money to be able to finance self-help projects in the Irob area. One of the problems they encounter, they explained, arises from the fact that the Irob are Catholic. Many NGOs, therefore, assume that the Catholic Church provides for them and leave them out of their reckoning for assistance. They cannot depend, they stressed on Catholic charity, for Catholic organizations have so many demands on them that they are forced to divide their limited resources among too many demands. They are eager to draw on support from Irob abroad, especially in the United States, who can spare resources for them. (Irob Development Association, PO Box 881, Makelle; reachable also through the e-mail address of Abba Mesghenna as noted above as well as through


The Irob are as loyal Ethiopian citizens as any group in Tigray or, for that matter, in all of Ethiopia. Their traditional Catholicism in no way interferes with their commitment to the Ethiopian state. The Eritrean invasion did severe damage to their region. Though small numbers of Irob live north of the generally recognized border, they have never been recognized by Eritrea as an Eritrean nationality.

It is tragic that the so-called “border commission” set up in the framework of the ceasefire agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea (the Algiers Agreement) in 2002 (it is not a UN body as such), allocated a portion of Irob-occupied territory on the historically recognized Tigrayan side of the border to Eritrea. Members of the “border commission” never visited any border region on the ground. Consequently, they were ignorant of the injustices their recommendations would do to the Irob. The Addis Ababa government, of course, supports the Irob and has rejected Eritrean demands that the conclusions of the border commission be accepted as the basis for final demarcation of the border.

Appeals by foreign governments and UN officials for Ethiopian acquiescence to Eritrean claims are futile. The recent Ethiopian elections demonstrate that there is unanimous support in Ethiopia for the position of the present government in respect to the border with Eritrea.

Irob are impressed with the progress toward democracy that has occurred in Ethiopia since 1991. They want to see it continue and participate in the process. They would welcome a peaceful relationship with Eritrea, for they would like to have contact with kinsmen and relatives who live on the Eritrean side of the border. But they are aware that Eritrea under the leadership of Isaias Afewerki has become an oppressive police state which is steadily deteriorating economically. No Irob wants to live under such rule.

The Irob area has benefited from support from USAID, from Italian assistance and other European assistance and from Catholic Church charity. Such aid has been effectively used. It has contributed to a substantial improvement in life in the Irob region. But more assistance is needed. Donors at all levels, official and private, can be assured that their assistance will be put to good use.


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