Drought, Landmines, Greet Refugees Returning Home


THE road to Keren, Eritrea's second-largest city, is littered with the twisted, rusting remains of Ethiopian Army vehicles. The highway is in shreds, its aging asphalt torn up by the military traffic and not repaired for more than a decade.

But not only the land wears the scars of a war that engulfed this Red Sea territory for more than 30 years. An estimated 50,000 Eritrean combatants and as many as 200,000 civilians lost their lives; another 11,000 people were maimed before the Soviet-backed Ethiopian regime fell last May. The disabled are now a frequent sight across Eritrea, hobbling along shattered roads with rude metal or wood canes.

Tragically, the harsh legacy of war continues. Three young boys herding sheep and cattle on the slopes of Mt. Lalamba, on Keren's outskirts, were recently severely wounded when an animal stepped on a land mine. Ethiopian forces left land mines behind before fleeing to neighboring Sudan on May 25, the day after the Eritrean People's Liberation Front won the war here.

The three boys are the latest of more than 200 civilian land-mine casualties in Keren alone since the end of the fighting, according to doctors here. They say 90 percent of the serious injuries they now treat are land-mine victims. Officials of the provisional government of Eritrea say they have removed more than 200,000 land mines from farmlands around Keren, and more than 1 million elsewhere in Eritrea. They also warn that thousands more are still buried.

The problem is compounded by the rush of local residents to resume agricultural activity after more than two years during which they were unable to work their fields. With a severe drought in its second year, and with the local economy at a standstill, many farmers are anxious to get back to their fields.

As villagers return to their homes outside Keren, however, other refugees flow in from squalid camps across the border in Sudan, where more than 500,000 Eritreans sought sanctuary during the past quarter century.

Sadia Omer was 10 years old when she was separated from her family during the battle for Nacfa, a town north of Keren, in March 1977. When her parents fled to Sudan, she was taken by the EPLF to a school hidden in their mountainous rear base area. Six years later, she says, she was assigned to a village in the province of Barka to work as a teacher. Only last month, on a leave from the EPLF, did she find her mother, in the border town of Karora.

"I felt something very deep when I kissed my mother," she says. "I had forgotten them. All I knew was my learning and teaching. But when I saw them, I had all these new feelings."

The returning refugees are straining Keren's meager resources. Water, in short supply after a prolonged drought, is being trucked daily to crowded neighborhoods that lack functioning wells of their own. Electricity is rationed, unemployment levels are high, and most of the population subsists on donated relief grain.

The UN High Commission for Refugees is establishing a headquarters in Eritrea to assist returnees, but the official repatriation program is just getting under way this month. Meanwhile, local officials are struggling to keep up with the influx.

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