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Irob Border Issue


A Paper Written by Souba Hais
Oct. 25, 1998

Note: For more on Alitiena and the Irob see the article: Alitiena – Before the Invasion. Also see the attached Situation Update Report by the Diocese of Adigrat; and a report by Dr. Waters-Bayer: “Conflict causes suffering among the Irob people”

Table of Contents:


Irob is one of the Ethiopian territories invaded by the Eritrean armed forces this year. When news of the invasion broke, I observed that many Ethiopians, including Tigrayans, did not know anything about Irob, even its existence. After almost five months, there is not much change in this regard. The aim of this paper, therefore, is to provide some information about the people and the location. It will also include the current condition of the people after the invasion.


The Irob people occupy a small semi-arid mountainous region, which comprises various landforms: high, middle and low and almost all types of crops can be potentially cultivated. Irob is located in Agame, northeast Tigray. The territory is bordered by Hado (Hazo) to the east, by Dabri-Mela to the north, by Shoumezana and Sourouxso to the long western border, and by Sae`se` to the south. The first two neighbors mostly are followers of Islam and speak Saho language. The other neighbors are Tigrigna speaking Christian highlanders.

The Irobs who live in this geographic location speaks the Saho language. But many other Irob descendants who live in the rest of Agame and some other places have adopted the Tigrigna language. Irob is an ethnic community made-up of three sub-groups: Adgadee-Are Bouknaitee-Are and Hasaballa. Adgadee-Are and Hasaballa are predominantly Tewahido Christians, while Bouknaitee-Are is Catholic.


All of the three Irob groups claim to be descendants of one man, Soummae. Neguse (King) Werede-Mehret from whose son, Soummae, the Irob people trace their lineage is, according to the oral history of the people and also several written documents, believed to had come from Tsira’e in Kilite-Awla’elo, Tigray, more than 700 years ago. That is around the time when the Salomonic dynasty retook the control of the political power of the Ethiopian Empire from the Zagwe dynasty. It is recounted that Worede-Mehret, himself a local king, was descendant of Emperor Yitbarek of the Zagwe dynasty. Neguse Worede-Mehret and his followers left their ancestral land, probably, for political reasons related to the change of political power in the Ethiopian Empire. In fact, for many centuries they isolated themselves in this remote militarily strategic mountainous area keeping their distance from the political center.

When political center moved from Shewa to Gonder some Irob leaders such as Ona Koumanit and Ona Tensae traveled to Gonder likely to get a first-hand account of what was going on and to, accordingly, establish some type of relationship. It is narrated that the two men returned with ‘Gamma’ a traditional symbol of the blessing of the Emperors demonstrating that the local authority of the individual who received the ‘Gamma’ had been approved.

When the Irob people came to the new land, they brought with them the Christian religion, which they have kept to date. At the site of their first permanent settlement, Halalisse, they built a Christian Church dedicated to St. Mary and they named it Kidane-Mehret (Covenant of Perpetual Mercy). The local residents still call the site Soumma’e Massoare (the Church of Soummae). In the memory of their ancestral land, they gave the name Tsira’e to the mountain overlooking the site of the first permanent settlement.

At the time the Irob people settled in the geographic location they inhabit now, their new land was unexploited and fertile. Therefore, they enjoyed a comfortable life for centuries. Their economy was based on agriculture and pasture, and forestry was one of the chief assets.

Until few decades ago, Irob land was a source of the best quality of honey, livestock and dairy products that used to dominate the regional markets. During the last three decades or so, because of drought and other factors, the region rapidly became one of the poorest spots. The problem is rooted mainly in the ecological and environmental conditions. Deforestation is almost complete in this mountainous region. The rare rainfalls, which usually come in the form of sudden heavy downpours, the irregularities of the surface and centuries of poor farming practices have combined to facilitate the erosion and depletion of the soil. The falls and flood have carved much of the topography, changing it into rows of hollows and hills. The gravel, sand and topsoil have been washed off, exposing the bedrock to the surface in almost all places.

In the Irob region, besides the poverty of the terrain, the dimension of the land itself is a serious problem. It is very densely populated and the holdings of cultivated land per household are very small and unproductive.

From this brief description of the land one can easily visualize the condition of Irob peasantry. During the last decade or so the people farmed by terracing the hillsides. The land needs continuous maintenance so that it is not swept away by eventual sudden downpours. Now that the peasants are dislocated from their villages because of the invasion, the hard work of terracing or maintaining the hillside lands has been aborted. This year’s unusually heavy rains have compounded the problem.


The Irob lived for centuries between two culturally different societies: the highland Christians whose economic life is mainly based on agriculture and the low land Muslims whose economy is mainly based on pasture. This geographical location allowed the Irob people to have socio-cultural interaction with both, hence, a combination of both highland and lowland cultures are manifested in the Irob culture and way of life. There are some cultural norms and ways of life the Irob people have in common with lowlanders with whom they share the language (Saho). However, they are much more connected with the Christian peoples of the hinterland than they are to the lowland people of the region. Religion, cultural food, folklore, marriage customs, social organizations etc., are almost identical to those of Tigrigna speaking highlanders with special historical and cultural bonds with Agame people with whom they share the same Woldu-Subagadis Customary Law, foods like Tihlo, the original Maess etc.

Even though in the Irob society both highland and lowland cultures are reflected in their culture is not a simple mixture of the two. The Irob people have kept their identity and group characteristics of their own.

In the course of relatively autonomous existence of many centuries during which they waged enormous struggles (including wars) to defend their identity, the Irobs developed socio-cultural norms unique to them. The relatively democratic consuetudinary laws and norms through which they resolve issues and contradictions in their community, electoral system of their own, a relatively democratic relationship in family life, the active and socially recognized role of women, etc., are some of the social values that differentiate the Irob people from their neighbors on either side. It is a society with its own myths, legends, and historical mode of existence. It is also one of the most homogenous and harmonious groups in the whole geopolitical region. Irob, therefore, is a society with relatively advanced social values, whose group characteristics and identity not only must be recognized and respected but also deserve assistance to prosper.


The history of education in Irob is strictly related to the Catholic Church. Catholicism was introduced to central Irob (Buknaiti-Are) in 1845. As soon as the Catholic missionaries established roots in the locality, they built a school (Lideta) in Alitena in 1845. By 1850, it was legally recognized by Dej. Woubie, a native of northern Gondar and the then governor of Tigray. The curriculum included Geez, Amharic, primary science, and mathematics. Latin, French, philosophy, and theology were taught at higher levels.

Lideta School has had many interruptions related to religious persecution in its long history. However, it continued to flourish and, eventually, became one of the oldest academic centers in the empire and it provided a modern education for students from different parts of the country.

It is documented that in 1914 alone there were about 500 students in the school. However, obstacles related to religious persecution continued and, therefore, on May 4, 1916, a senatorial council, composed of the leaders of Buknaiti-Are and the clergy, held a special meeting to discuss appropriate measures to be taken to obtain redress for their faith and their school.

They concluded to send a delegation to the capital to present their petition to the highest authority of the nation. Accordingly, a delegation composed of four prominent Irob natives and a French missionary was chosen to go to Addis Ababa. They were Mr. Adoumar Halibo, Mr. Menelik Woldegiorgis, Abba Tesfaselasse Woldegerima, Abba Gebreigziabiher and the French missionary. When they arrived they were fortunate enough to converse with Lij. Eyasu (the heir of the throne) in July 1916. On July 28, 1916, Lij. Eyasu officially decreed that there should not be any persecution against them because of their beliefs. He sent the official decree bearing his stamp and signature to the governor of Tigray and gave a copy to the delegation. Since then, obstacles diminished and Lideta School functioned in an ameliorated way until the time of the Italian invasion of 1935. The Italians expelled the foreign teachers who were French nationals and closed the school.

In 1919, the school sent a group of students to Italy for higher studies. Among them was Dr. Abba Hagos Fessuh of Alitena, well-known scholar and founder of the Catholic school of Dessie and Abune Haile-Mariam Khasay of Adigrat, the first native Catholic eparch for all of the Ethiopian Empire and founder of the excellent Tsinseta School of Adigrat. A few years later, it sent another group. Among them was Dr. Abba Woldemarianm Khasay of Alitena who later (in 1959) started from scratch the current Lideta School, which had been closed and abandoned from the time of the fascist invasion of Ethiopia.

As I mentioned above, the Lideta School was reopened in 1959 and flourished again thanks to the Catholic Diocese of Adigrat. Especially due to the particular endeavors and commitments of Dr. Abba Woldemariam Kahsay, Abune Yohannes Woldegionrgis, and other concerned Irob priests and laymen. By the time of the Eritrean invasion, Lideta has been elevated into a secondary school level and there were about eleven elementary level branches all run by the Catholic church. There were also some elementary schools built and run by the Ethiopian government. All schools in the area occupied by the Eritrean Armed forces now have been looted and destroyed, leaving Irob children deprived of any kind of schooling again.

The beneficiaries of the original Lideta School were not only Irobs. Many students used to come to Alitena, not only from the adjacent regions but also from Showa and other far away regions. For example, Abune Asrate-Mariam Yemru, the second Catholic eparch of Ethiopia, was from Showa and received his education in Alitena. Monsignor Gebremichael- Shiferraw- the most prominent Amharic speaking Catholic priest from Gonder who served mostly in Addis Ababa also was educated in Lideta School of Alitena.

The graduates of Lideta played important role in the modernization of Ethiopia in various fields. Abba Tesfa-Sellassie Wolde-Gerima of Irob translated the Fetha-Negiest into French. Dej. Ayele Sebhat, also of Irob, played an important role in diplomatic and defense matters. It was he who was in the forefront in establishing an ambassadorial level relationship between Ethiopia and France and founded the Ethiopian embassy in Paris. He was also one of the most prominent Patriots during the war of resistance against the Italians. Many other graduates of Lideta School contributed in several ways working in the developing bureaucracy. Others contributed in educational and academic fields by establishing various educational institutions in many parts of the country.


From the time the Irob people settled in their present land up to early 1800’s they kept full autonomy from the central governments. However, they always recognized the nationhood of Ethiopia and pledged cautious allegiance to the highest leaders of the nation.

In the early 1800’s one of the Irob leaders, Dej. Soubagadis Woldu became the strongest man in Agame and was competing to incorporate the whole of Tigray, including what now is known as Eritrea, under his rule. In fact, he succeeded and ruled the entire region from 1818 to 1831. The question of how to deal with the case of this ambitious rising leader raised some problem among Irob people and leaders. The dilemma was between acknowledging full recognition and authority to their hopeful brother and putting their autonomy in jeopardy or being an obstacle to his success by opposing him. Hasaballa, Soubagadis’ tribe, and Adgadee-Are whose compatriot and leader, Belata Fessuh, had become the adviser and right-hand man of Soubagadis preferred not to oppose him. The leaders of Bouknaitee-Are in central Irob, instead, did not want to give-up their autonomy. Their determination to guard their autonomy and Soubagadis’ ambitions was bound to lead to conflict.

Haneita Tsaru and Haneita Koumanit were the most prominent leaders of Bouknaitee-Are at the time; Haneita Tsaru being the top leader of the region. He was a friend of Dej. Soubagadis and used to see him on and off. Haneita Kumanit, instead, was suspicious of Soubagadis and therefore kept himself distant from him.

As Koumanit suspected, Soubagadis, in a very tricky way, arrested Tsairu and started a war. Suspicious Koumanit had been on guard and with his followers overpowered Soubagadis’ warriors, arrested his chief of staff, and liberated Tsaru.

Soubagadis had to give up the venture of putting the Irobs under control by force. After some time he invited the leaders for a compromise and negotiated solution. The Irob leaders welcomed the invitation with three major preconditions one of which was the Irob autonomy. Soubagadis accepted them all and both sides reached a compromised solution. I am not going into detail about the war or other aspects of the compromise. But it is worth mentioning that Soubagadis agreed not to interfere in the internal matter of Irob and that the leaders elected by Irobs were going to be recognized by central governments. The Irob leaders, on their side, recognized his authority by promising to pay him symbolic taxes twice a year. This agreement had been respected until fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

Before the Italian invasion of 1935 Irob was a self-governing region ruled by its elected leaders highest of who held the title ‘Ona’. The last election in which Ona Desta Woldegiorgis and Ona Gebray Enday were candidates had been held just before the invasion. The Italian fascists ignored the results of the election and appointed their own man who ruled for about four years, i..e. until the end of Italian occupation.

When the country was liberated from the Italians and Emperor Haileselassie was reinstated the central government started to appoint Irob administrators. The first central government’s appointee was short-lived Fetawrari Giday who was killed in a local conflict before he had established an office. This coincided with Woyane uprising of 1941. After Woyane movement had been put down Haileselassie’s regime decreed disarmament of Tigray people and the region was put under strict control.

The second man that appointed by the central government to administer Irob was Kegne-Azmach Embaye, who partially, enforced in the Irob region the Haileselassie governments’ policy of disarming the people of Tigray. After him Basha Bisau, who was of Irob origin but neither spoke the language nor resided there, was appointed. When Basha Bisau was, nominally, Mislene (local administrator), of Irob a brilliant young Irob man who was employed in central government’s bureaucracy in Mekele, capital of Tigray, asked on his own to be transferred into Alitena, Irob, to work there as a Vice-Mislene. He was the son of lastly elected Bouknaitee-Are leader, Ona Gebray, and his name was Woldu Gebray. This meant less salary and lower rank than the position he held, but he was determined to work for his people. In short period of time he became very popular, not only because he was fair and just but, above all, because he worked hard and efficiently to safeguard the so far surviving aspects of Irob autonomy. He successfully defended to his death the semi-autonomous woreda status of Irob.

Immediately after his death, Irob was merged to the neighboring woredas of Gule-mekada and Sourouxo. It was deprived not only of its traditional autonomy and the right to elect its leaders but even of its woreda status until the current government re-instituted, at least, its woreda status.

Something we cannot bypass when we talk about the political history of the Irob people is their participation in the anti-colonial struggle of the Ethiopian people. The Irob elders narrate that many Irobs participated in the wars fought against Ottoman expansionists, for example, in Gura’e; and in Adwa and other places against Italian colonialists. During the fascist invasion, especially, the Irob patriots lead by their indigenous leaders such as Dej. Ayele Sebhat and Dej. Kassa Sebhat, the son of Ras Sebhat fought the Italians from their base in Assimba.

During the years of struggle against the internal dictatorship, the Dergues’ regime, the Irob people fought side by side with the Ethiopian opposition groups such as the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party (EPRP), the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) etc. By the way, none of the Eritrean movements advanced into the Irob region during those years or before..

Irob, despite its physical location by the border area, in essence, is a core part of Tigray. In fact, most Tigrayan leaders who played important roles in regional and national politics were fully or partly Irob descendants. Just to mention some randomly. Dej: Soubagadis, Emperor Yohannes IV, Itegie Denqnesh, Ras Sebhat, Shum Agame Desta, Ras Araya, Dej. Hagos, Dej. Derso, Dej. Maru, Dej. Tedla Abaguben, Shum Agame Aregawi, Dej. Belay Weldiye, Dej. Kassa, Dej. Ayele, Dej. Gebreselassie, Dr. Tesfay Debessay etc.

The purpose of bringing the last paragraph to attention is not to go into any detail regarding the personalities mentioned or historical events related to them. But to emphasize that the Eritrean claim to which I will come afterward in this paper has no historical foundation when it comes to Irob peoples’ socio-political association or historical background. Concluding this part we can say that the political history of the Irob people encompasses two equally important aspects: defense of internal autonomy and respect for the unity and sovereignty of the Ethiopian nation.


The Irob land was invaded at the end of last May. The invasion and the subsequent cruel treatment of the people have not received enough coverage, especially by the news media. The first journalist who reported the invasion to the world is Voice of America (VOA) reporter Mimi Sebhatu, who happened to be in the area the day the Eritrean armed forces invaded the Irob land. Irob communities in Addis Ababa and North America issued some statements pointing out the atrocities the invaders committed, and still committing, against the Irob people and underlining that Irob has never been part of Eritrea in any time in history. The most important account issued by an outsider is the one written by Dr. Anne Walters-Byare and circulated through the Internet. Other reports came out after that, include Mr. Wray Witten’s report that embodies other Ethiopian territories under the Eritrean invaders, interviews done with the administrators of Irob-Worda, a statement by Adigrat Catholic Church, etc. All of them revealed that the Irob peasants in the occupied areas are subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment from forced citizenship to expulsion from their homes.

Imprisonment, harassment, beating and killings of unchallenging civilians including Priests, rape of women, desecration and looting of churches still continue. Eviction of residents from their homes, destruction of houses, and the transportation to Eritrea of precious wood with which the ceilings of Irob houses are made also continued. The rest of it is being used for cooking and warming purposes. Personal and community properties such as farming and terracing tools, construction materials, household goods have been stolen. Health centers and schools are being ransacked. The EPLF government is also engaged in a systematic cultural destruction and stealing historical valuables.

The peasants are expelled without being allowed to take with them any of their household properties. Their domestic animals and beehives are left behind and are slaughtered and vandalized by the invading soldiers. Dispossessing people of all their property is one of the worst violations of human rights mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property”.

The evictions have been ordered without any advanced notices, arrangements or provisions during the months of unusual rain and cold. The people who are thrown out from their homes are mostly the elderly, the disabled, women and children that were left behind when able people left the area earlier to escape the war. The evicted people are suffering in the cold mountains without any shelter or food. The condition of those escaped to other areas is not much better.

The evicted women are having babies in the wild groves and the infirm are dying because of the hardship and they do not get the traditional religious funeral ceremonies. The funeral places are built in the lots around their churches, and the churches are under the control of the invaders who altered the residences of the pastors and parochial schools into their lodgings.

Will Irob villages, which have been the bedrock of a stable society, ever again be places people can resettle in? It seems very difficult. The invaders are not only looting whatever is available but also systematically eradicating all bases the Irob can rely on for future come back and placing land-mines everywhere in the villages.

The invaders prohibited the Irob peasants, during sowing season from planting making a prerequisite the acceptance of forced Eritrean citizenship and uprooted those who did not agree to. Those who somehow managed to plant are forbidden from harvesting what they grew. It is not difficult to foresee what the fate of these people will be.

All this, without any doubt, will make extremely difficult the rehabilitation of the displaced Irob peasants when, eventually, the invaders are out of the occupied areas.

As no international and neutral forces or journalists can get to the occupied areas, the full range of atrocities being committed by the Eritrean armed forces cannot be fully revealed. The sketchy information comes from those who managed to escape into Adigrat and other towns. All types of human rights have been violated extensively and it is escalating. People who were amassed in Alitiena after being eradicated from other Irob villages were told, at the beginning of this month, October 98, to leave immediately. Unless pressure is brought to bear on the Eritrean invading forces, they will not desist from committing more violations against the inhabitants of the occupied Ethiopian territories.

The aim of the Eritrean invaders seems to be to eradicate Irob and other invaded peoples for their expansionist objectives. The International Community in general and the Ethiopian government, in particular, should take urgent measures to stop the Eritrean government’s madness. Humanitarian Organizations, the Red Cross, and other concerned agencies also should do whatever they can to help the displaced people who were dependent on food aid even before the invasion. The Eritrean government who instigated war against four neighbors during its existence of only five years must be stopped before it commits more barbarity.



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