In blistering daytime temperatures and near to freezing at night, working in altitudes of more than 9,000 feet, the UN peacekeepers along the 1,000 km Eritrea-Ethiopia border face tough conditions.
But now it is the impending demarcation of the contested border that is focusing the minds of the UN Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia (UNMEE) and the 1,500 strong Indian 27th Rajput regiment.
“We expect the two parties to abide by the decision they agreed to in Algiers,” says Colonel S Bhattacharya who commands the Indian forces. “We are prepared for our mandated task.”
Demarcation by the independent Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) is expected to begin in July, and should be finished by November, despite tense relations between the two governments. The process will begin in the eastern sector, but it is unclear when it will move to the more sensitive and critical central and western sectors of the border.
Key figures within the peace process hope the momentum of initial demarcation can see it through to the end, when the new international border will be marked out. However some diplomats, who maintain that both sides must abide by the “final and binding” EEBC ruling of 13 April 2002, remain sceptical and believe a cooling off period may help.
The two governments have not held face to face talks since the Algiers peace deal in December 2000, which brought an end to the sporadic two-year border war. The only exchanges take place at the Military Coordination Commission (MCC) meetings between senior-ranking armed forces officials from the two countries under UN auspices.
“It is significant and sad that, having signed a very good peace agreement there has been no dialogue between the parties since, no communications, no effort to normalise relations at all,” one official close to the peace process said.
Another source told IRIN that diplomats are looking at trying to facilitate high-level “proximity talks” between Asmara and Addis Ababa to help thaw relations. But as yet neither government has agreed to talks, and Eritrea has stated that any dialogue on the border issue is "unthinkable".
And so far only one of the three entities set up under the comprehensive December 2000 peace agreement is nearing the end of its work - the Boundary Commission. The African Union (AU) was tasked with identifying the cause of the bloody conflict, which claimed some 100,000 lives, but its work has yet to get underway. And a claims court – based in The Hague - is still analysing the financial impact of the war and whether compensation is due to either party. Its verdict could, in part, depend on the long-awaited decision by the AU.
Direct high altitude flights between the capitals also have to be implemented. Telephone lines and postal links still remain cut, and families are separated.
Local officials in Ethiopia have warned that resistance could be sparked as contentious areas like the village of Badme, where the war flared up, are demarcated. The village – which is in the western area of the border – is currently administered by Ethiopia. Yet under the border ruling it is located 1.8 km inside Eritrean territory.
While Badme has been the focus of much media attention, many other villages along the border will also be divided by the EEBC’s border ruling.
The Ethiopian government has called for "flexibility", in the demarcation process, but according to some informed sources, the EEBC can only allow for shifts of 50 metres.
UN's MONITORING ROLE
As Col Bhattacharya is quick to point out, the role of the peacekeepers is limited to “monitoring” the security of the contractors from the EEBC and the pillar sites themselves. The peacekeepers cannot police the border – that is the role of both sovereign governments who have signed up to the demarcation process.
The Indian peacekeeping force, which has been supplying troops since 1953 to the UN, patrols the central sector of the border region.
They act as the eyes and ears of the peacekeeping mission, but even so are spread thinly over an area of 260 km. Their sector has already seen heightened tension, fuelled in part by the current drought as local farmers on both sides of the border search for pasture and water for their livestock.
Yet as demarcation draws closer, pressure on the ground is likely to increase.
In recent months, two UN helicopters containing EEBC staff have been grounded on separate occasions in what officials describe as “misunderstandings”.
Claims of cattle rustling and abductions also abound. In one incident, that sparked an official protest from UNMEE, villagers opened fire over the heads of the Indian peacekeepers.
Significantly, however, the UN says there are no signs of military build-ups by either side in the run up to demarcation and both countries continue to reaffirm their commitment to peace.
And the Indian force, whose motto is 'Nothing But Excellence', remains calm.
The peacekeepers say by resolving local clashes over grazing or cattle rustling, or helping develop water points they can help defuse pressure in their border area. They have helped return livestock through negotiated cattle exchanges. It is an approach that will continue while demarcation gets underway.
The UN’s Force Commander, Major General Robert Gordon, acknowledges the important reassuring role the peacekeepers play among local communities, whose remoteness often means they are cut off from the outside world.
“Because of the operational experience the Indians have, not just within the UN, but also around their own borders, it makes them particularly effective peacekeepers,” he said.
“The soldiers are hardened, they are battle experienced and they understand junior command and leadership which is what you need in a UN mission," he added. “They also have soldiers, some of whom are from rural areas, so they understand intimately some of the sensitive issues like grazing and the need for water.”
The same approach is employed by Kenyan and Jordanian peacekeepers who patrol the eastern and western sectors respectively.
All the 4,200 Blue Helmets face a one-year tour of duty before returning to military units back home – and this tour may prove to be one of their most taxing.