Feature: Badme residents vow to fight

Windswept, dusty and stiflingly hot, the border town of Badme hardly seems a contentious place. Lazing in the shade of the numerous ramshackle bars, farmers drink coffee and wait for the oppressive heat of the day to cool off.

But five years ago, on 6 May 1998, this remote outpost became the flashpoint of a costly border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

RENEWED CONTROVERSY

And now war-ravaged Badme is once again at the heart of controversy, prompting fears of renewed, unwanted conflict between the two neighbours.

An independent boundary commission set up by both countries has ruled that this isolated settlement, which is currently administered by Ethiopia, belongs to Eritrea.

Yet the local inhabitants, who number around 3,500 people, and the local administration which serves them, insist they will not cede an inch of territory to Eritrea.

The scale and cost of reconstruction work in and around Badme - some US $2 million - and plans to increase the numbers living in the town reinforce their determination not to give ground.

The town’s administration goes further, saying it is willing to defy the federal government in order to retain Badme and any other "endangered territories".

“We will never give Badme to Eritrea,” said Afeworki Gebre-Hiwot, the area's administration secretary. “The people will not accept this and they will fight for it."

“We would be on the side of the people and stand by them,” he stressed, although he added that he hoped for a peaceful outcome to this latest controversy surrounding the beleaguered town.

Afeworki said he was unable to vouch for the safety of the boundary commission staff who are expected to start demarcation in a month, and whose security depends on the governments of the two countries.

This defiance is putting both countries on a collision course, which neither wants nor can afford while the international community struggles desperately to avert a renewed crisis.

"FIGHT TO THE DEATH"

Within the government itself, the ruling coalition Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is grappling with what to do next.

Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin has denounced the commission for “belittling” Ethiopia’s calls for a variation to the now delimited 1,000-km border.

And the mere mention of the boundary commission inflames passions in this otherwise sedate town, with its tree-lined dusty main street.

One man, Abraha Tesfaye, weeps as he declares that the real border between the two countries is the Mereb River.

“This is my country, how can the Eritreans come and rule my land,” he says, with tears streaming down his face. “I was born and bred here and just because we are poor so that we don’t have money to fight, does not mean we have to give our land away."

Another vows to fight to the death to prevent the territory being handed over. All are adamant they will prevent anyone trying to construct border posts.

“They have lost their lives, their sons, for the sake of Badme,” said Afeworki. “I don’t think demarcation can take place until this issue is resolved.”

He adds that no plans are in place to “sensitise” the community to a potential move, many of whom heard of the decision through Eritrean radio.

RECONSTRUCTION

Although the land in Badme is fertile, it has few mineral deposits and water is scarce. But despite the obvious hardship and hostile environment, the government has pledged over US $1
million for reconstruction of the town itself.

Mulu Geramy, who sits on the town’s council, explains that two schools are under construction, water points are being installed and 400 new houses will be built. The issue, he says, is one of identity.

The boundary between the two countries was never officially demarcated after Eritrea gained independence in 1991, and sowed the seeds for the two year border war. Tens of thousands were killed on both sides in the ensuing fighting. A peace agreement in December 2000 officially ended the war, and provided for the establishment of an independent border commission whose ruling, both countries agreed, would be final and binding.

Meanwhile, in the border region, 4,200 UN peacekeepers maintain the fragile peace and they will stay in place until the final one-metre high border post has been laid.

And near Badme, Ethiopia’s 108th Corps - around 10,000 men - remain entrenched behind the 25 km temporary security zone which acts as a buffer between the countries.