When Neighbors Become Enemies, Civilians Pay
A top UN official urged Ethiopia to stop kicking out Eritreans last week
ASMARA, ERITREA — Tesfaye arrived home on a discarded Aeroflot plane flown by a visibly intoxicated Russian pilot. The plane was, and still is, the Eritrean capital's only connection to the outside world.
He made it with the clothes he had on - a ripped T-shirt and a pair of pants - and his Eritrean passport.
Everything else had been taken away by Ethiopian officials, who - after keeping him in jail for 10 days in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital - appeared determined to ship him back to his country without a minute's delay.
"When I got out of jail, I called a friend of my brother, an Eritrean. I told him I needed the money to get on this flight, I was told to leave Ethiopia immediately," Tesfaye explains. "He came and brought me the money. I called from the airport to thank him and tell him that everything was OK, and his wife told me he had just been arrested."
Of the many stories Eritreans can tell about their recent exodus out of Ethiopia, Tesfaye's is a success story of sorts. He wasn't beaten, his stay in jail was relatively short and civil, and he wasn't put on a dangerously overcrowded bus whose journey to the border lasts more than a day.
Most of the 1,100 Eritreans expelled from Ethiopia after the two countries went to war in May over a border dispute were forced to leave their homes and jobs, detained in camps where they were beaten, and sent back to Eritrea without a penny.
Eritrean sources say "several thousand" Eritrean nationals are still detained in camps throughout Ethiopia. According to government officials in Asmara, Eritrea's capital, the 1,100 Eritreans - many of whom lived in Ethiopia for decades - were given a month's time to liquidate all their assets and get out. Their business licenses have already been revoked.
"Is this the way to treat people?" Eritrean Foreign Minister Amdemikael Kahsai asked as a second batch of roughly 800 Eritreans were welcomed to Asmara by a crowd of 150,000 June 22.
The United Nations top human rights official, Mary Robinson, urged Ethiopia last week to stop the expulsions.
Ethiopian officials insist there is no policy of automatic expulsion of Eritrean nationals.
Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin says that only "certain sections of Eritreans that pose security threats" had been "asked to leave the country."
Among them, he adds, are former fighters of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front suspected of spying, Eritreans in high government positions also suspected of spying, and "expatriates in the business community."
The latter, Mr. Seyoum says, had "continued to support the war effort of the government of Eritrea through financial or material means."
There are more than 500,000 Eritreans in Ethiopia. Many of them are highly educated and either own businesses or have been appointed to high-level posts in government and civil administration and consequently fit Ethiopia's description of those who should be expelled.
But as more and more Eritreans like Tesfaye - who lives in Asmara and happened to be passing through Ethiopia when he was imprisoned - return to Eritrea, the story told by Ethiopian officials simply does not seem to match the reality.
"Look, I can guarantee you every ambassador in this city has a horror story to tell," a senior Western diplomatic source in Addis Ababa said in reference to Ethiopia's expulsion of Eritreans. "It has become absolutely clear that Ethiopia is responsible for serious human rights violations."
Reproducing the tit-for-tat logic that so far has defined the conflict between two of Africa's closest allies, Ethiopia's foreign minister denies the accusations and says that "more than 600 Ethiopians" had been detained in Eritrean camps. "It is believed that some have been killed and others tortured," he adds.
While some Ethiopians appear to have been expelled from Eritrea, according to a Western diplomat in Asmara, "You cannot even begin to compare the two phenomena," because there are "many, many more Eritreans in Ethiopia than vice versa."