Irob and the Ethio-Eritrean Border Issue: “Here We Go Again”!
By Seyoum Berhe
(State refugees coordinator)
I was enjoying my Sunday at home when a friend forwarded me a Voice of America interview conducted with ambassador Shin and Don Connell and since that moment, my Sunday did not go so well. Even though I did not hear the entire English version of Don Connell’s interview, the Tigrigna interpreter clearly stated that Dr. Debretsion told Don Connell that for the sake of true peace, he would be willing to pull out not only from Badimme but Irob areas as well. I have confidence in Ambassador Shin that he did not change his past position that the Irob people should be consulted about their future before any decision. I am not surprised that Don Connell would side with the Eritrean position as he has spent most of his adult life supporting them. My surprise is with what Dr. Debretsion supposedly is credited with as saying.
My reaction is similar to what President Reagan used to say, “Here We Go Again!” Are the Irob people to be the sacrificial lamb for the two incompetent leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea who do not seem to be negotiating based on the interest of the people on the border, but from their own face-saving position?. We respectfully disagree with Dr. Debretsion and will not join him to go into our own slaughterhouse. The answer from the Irob community has been and continues to be “MAYYO” in Saho language it means “Hell No”! We have unequivocally stated that we Reject and will resist this evil sale of our people with every available means in our disposal including defending our land, our people and our national and ethnic identity from either of the possible enforcers. Some of my non-Irob readers may ask why a small community like ours would take such a bold and risky position. Here is why: Because Facts do Matter 1. The risky position would have been, not taking any position and waiting to be completely annihilated as a minority ethnic community. The community has stated since the start of the conflict that the Irob region has never been part of Eritrea during the Italian occupation of Eritrea, during the British control of Eritrea, and during the union of Eritrea with Ethiopia; we have never been part of Eritrea for one single day or even for one single minute of our history. 2. During the Eritrean liberation movement, none of the Eritrean fronts have ever controlled or even conducted any type of movement in the Irob region. The two movements that were active in the Irob region during that time were Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) until TPLF was able to defeat the EPRP and became the sole movement in Irob region. 3. More importantly, during the Eritrean referendum for independence, not a single person from the Eritrean government showed up in Irob region to conduct referendum because the Eritreans knew very well that Irob has never been part of their country. 4. If peace is the ultimate goal and it should be, giving Irob land and people on a silver plate as a pacifying gift to President Isayas will not bring peace. Peace is never brought by pushing a minority group against their will and forcing them to accept an artificial national identity without listening to their opinion.
Against all the above facts, there is a question that I keep hearing from my Eritrean friends saying, “But the international court has decided that Irob is part of Eritrea and you should accept a legal verdict; you are going against the law”! This argument comes from people who belong to a nation that doesn’t even have a constitution, a law by which governments govern their subjects, and the founders of the nation who broke every possible existing law during their struggle for a more just society does not pass muster. Let me touch on this idea that the Irobs are going against the law by rejecting the sale of their identity. The leaders of both the Eritrean Liberation movements and the Tigrayan Liberation Fronts were some of the most known lawbreakers during their initial startup in our country. They broke the existing Ethiopian laws left and right, starting with the formation of their movement. Therefore, they themselves were “illegal” in their existence. We can assume that they broke those laws because they felt the laws at that time were unjust and unfair, but now, they want to be “more Catholic than the Pope”? The Irobs believe that the verdict by the western personalities who have never stepped foot in our land and as usual, felt that they know best for Africa started with the wrong premise. The result of their verdict is unjust at its core, and therefore it must be rejected. Why should the Irobs then accept their own death verdict for the crime that they have never been part of? Who agrees to be evicted from their own house that they have built on their own land to be thrown into the street and become homeless? I have said this before but let me remind my esteemed readers again that President Isayas reminds me of one of the two women who ended up going to the wise King Solomon for judgment over who was the right mother of a child between the two women. King Solomon (unfortunately none of our kings seem to have this wisdom today) asked to bring the child and the two women to court. He then announced that he would cut the child into two and give each of the two women their part of the child. Right then, the one who was not the real mother shouted, “yes, give me my piece,” but the real mother said, “no, your majesty, give the child to her. I can’t handle my child getting cut into two”. Then King Solomon realized who was the birth mother and ended up giving the child to the true mother. President Isayas is saying, “just give me what was judged to be mine, even if there are some Eritrean land and people that were unjustly given to Ethiopia, and even if there will be families split into two countries. He wants to be given whatever was given to him irrelevant of what a horrific pain it will bring to the people on both sides of the border. I will let the Eritrean people be the judge of this decision and mainly those Eritreans who will lose their land and identity to Ethiopia.
The Irob community would be the prime beneficiary of peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea. They want to live in peace with their Eritrean brothers and sisters, but they are not for sale. The Irob community has been pleading with both governments to talk to each other and resolve the issue of the return of around one hundred of innocent Irobs abducted by Eritrea during the war. Unfortunately, neither authority has ever dealt with this issue directly or indirectly. If I am not mistaken, I have never heard Dr. Debretsion mention the word Irob in any of the talks on the issue of the border before. Now we are hearing our name that sounds similar to that of the gift to Herodotus deciding to give the head of St. John the Baptist’s head on a plate to his stepdaughter. I hope the VOA Tigrigna interpreter from Don Connell’s interview got it wrong, but I doubt it. If anyone would have taken time and asked us, we would have some practical ideas that would have helped the two countries resolve this issue that by their own admittance was never the cause for conflict and yet keeps creeping up every time we get closer to dialogue. The Eritrean president accepted the Prime minister of Ethiopia’s invitation to make peace. They both visited each other’s capitals; they spoke each other’s languages so that the general public could understand what was being said, although nothing substantial was ever said except that they will no longer fight. Just as the cause of the war was mysterious, the peace agreement is mysterious as well. While there is nothing wrong that the two seem to get along; (God knows what they have in common), there is more that is needed. It is critical that these two leaders go beyond their personal relationship into representing all their respective people of the two countries and include directly or indirectly, the leaders of Tigray and Afar states into the dialogue. While they are at it, they might as well encourage people to people dialogue with those on the border areas. There are several steps that would help move us towards sustainable peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and I will mention three areas to start with. Create a combined Peace Council elected in each country by the people to help the two countries’ policymakers. General membership would include: Elders from different ethnic communities in both countries, former male and female guerilla fighters, faith leaders from all the major religious organizations, as well as known individuals of faith, athletes, academics, and last but not least known warriors from both countries who understand war and already have earned respect for conducting the war. The general membership would also be divided into different subcommittees to tackle all the issues that become obstacles to peace between the two countries and work as an advisory council to the relevant ministries in both countries. A core group of leaders that represent all the subcommittees within these groups should be selected by the larger group and represent the group to submit their recommendations to a combined Ethiopian Eritrean policymaker.
Conduct Mourning not only for those innocent souls that perished but also for all other loses or perceived loses by both countries. One of the historically recognizable public acts in both Ethiopia and Eritrea is the way they mourn. It is one of the many cultural commonalities they share. They both have combined losses exceeding one hundred thousand fighters during the guerilla war. They also lost combined eighty thousand (80,000) or more fighting each other between 1998 and 2000. The first and most important step that they both should take, therefore, is recognizing their pain in public in official national mourning. Two different mourning rituals should take place. The Eritreans and Tigreans should have a united/common mourning day on the border towns. The two guerilla groups have fought together and against each other in many battles and in many places. They could bring their former fighters who obviously know each other and show solidarity and recognize the sacrifices they both paid. This is what binds them more than anything. Develop partnerships that can sustain long term relationships and strengthen the interest of both communities. Create a shared linguistic, Cultural and historical Institute that engages both the Eritrean and Ethiopian (Tigrayan) students. There are excavations and historical digs that are still at a very early stage where the Aksumite Empire existed for thousands of years. This is the heritage that belongs to and unites both countries. They should build on that common identity and develop it together. This will, in time, give the two people an opportunity to establish a closer long term relationship.
Finally my message to the Tigray regional leadership is that the Irob people have pleaded with you since the start of the Eritrean invasion for protection; and as a community, there is nothing we have not done to safeguard our national identity starting with hand to hand heroic fight to protect Ethiopian territory against a well-organized and trained Eritrean military. For the record, though, after twenty years of pleading for recognition of our Ethiopian citizenship, we have now recognized that you have utterly ignored us at all levels. No group should beg this hard to be listened to about belonging to a nation. We know that it is our fundamental natural right as we have earned it. If cornered, even a cut will fight for its existential position. Please don’t push the Irob community that far.