The straight ribbon of road from the Eritrean port city of Assab to Bure, just over the border in Ethiopia, is deserted. Save for a few camels and their Afar herdsmen, the only moving objects are the patrol cars of UN peacekeepers.
The Kenyan battalion – known as Kenbatt – of the UN peacekeeping mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia (UNMEE) is responsible for ensuring compliance with the ceasefire in this vast, remote southeastern tip of Eritrea.
The wind blows hot, and the lunar landscape is dotted with crumbled volcanic rock. Strange mystical mountains loom up in the distant haze. A far-off peak marks the confluence of three countries – Eritrea, Djibouti and Ethiopia.
The bleak terrain is also dotted with landmines and human remains – a grim reminder of the devastating two-year border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Bure front saw some of the fiercest fighting of the 1998-2000 conflict.
It is here, in sector east, that demarcation of the 1,000 km-long contested border was due to begin. But the twice-postponed operation is now stalled indefinitely as the international community scrambles to salvage the peace process.
In April 2002, an independent Boundary Commission ruled on where a new international border should pass, and the sides – as part of a peace deal signed in December 2000 – agreed that the decision would be final and binding.
But in the months that followed, Ethiopia grew increasingly agitated over the ruling which placed the dusty village of Badme – flashpoint of the war – in Eritrea. Finally, Addis Ababa rejected elements of the decision and called for dialogue to try and resolve the impasse. Eritrea, for its part, says there can be no dialogue until after demarcation, and insists that the border must be marked out in full, rather than sector by sector as advocated by Ethiopia.
The eastern sector is not contested, and the Kenyan peacekeepers are anxious for some action so that they can finish their job and go home. But they believe passionately in their mission and are fully aware of their importance in keeping the two sides apart.
"Our job here is to maintain favourable conditions to allow others to find a lasting solution," says Col Walter Raria, Kenbatt’s commanding officer. "Our hope is that a lasting solution will be found and UNMEE will complete its mission successfully."
The Kenyan peacekeepers cover an area of roughly 23,000 sq km, manning checkpoints in the buffer zone between the two countries and patrolling adjacent areas. The 25 km-wide demilitarised buffer region – known as the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) – is entirely in Eritrean territory and is also patrolled by Eritrean militia and police.
Raria underlines the challenges of operating in such harsh climatic conditions where temperatures can soar up to 50 degrees. Language also poses a barrier, and the Kenyan soldiers have to resort to sign language to communicate with the locals.
"We have a very good working relationship with both sides," Raria points out.
Kenbatt is also active in the humanitarian field, providing health services to hundreds of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the shadeless village of Debysima, about halfway between the first checkpoint and the Ethiopian border.
"We have requested extra funds to provide more health services and to build a school for the IDPs," Raria adds.
|Human remains still dot the landscape|
Huddling with his men under a canopy, away from the blistering heat, Lt Oloko is the platoon commander at the first checkpoint – known as Point 42. Their job, he says, is to check all traffic entering the TSZ, as well as the arms licences of Eritrean militiamen and police.
"We have to make sure they don’t come with unpermitted weapons," he explains. Only 20 police and 20 militiamen are allowed into the TSZ each day.
The peacekeepers also have to monitor the number of IDPs in the TSZ, and Oloko reiterates that there are no problems of cooperation. "The only problem is the language barrier," he says.
Driving through the TSZ from Point 42 to the Ethiopian border, the signs of battle are still very much in evidence - charred remains of tanks and other warfare, trenches and hideouts constructed from the abundant black rocks. The two armies faced off only a few hundred metres from each other in a vast, flat terrain offering no cover and no shade.
EAGER FOR DEMARCATION
As the shimmering road passes through Point 60 and arrives at Point 74 – the last checkpoint before the Ethiopian border – signs of life begin to appear. After the desolation of the TSZ, tiny Bure town across the border seems like a veritable metropolis.
The Ethiopian shopkeepers ply their trade from within brightly coloured kiosks, music blares from the main street as locals chat and drink tea. For the nomadic Afar, the town is a staging post before they move on again.
Here, UNMEE military observers from various countries support the humanitarian needs of people in the affected areas. They also monitor the redeployed positions of the armed forces, and check on the activities of the Eritrean militia and police in the TSZ.
People in these border areas are uneasy, the observers say. They hear the radio stations from both sides each broadcasting different reports, and are confused.
"At one point, the people in Bure were afraid that demarcation would take place behind them – they had to be reassured," one observer told IRIN.
"They are a bit scared, but they really want demarcation to happen," he added.
Before the war, the well-constructed tarmac road from Assab – which goes all the way to Addis Ababa – was bustling with trucks taking goods from the port to the Ethiopian capital. Some 90 percent of Assab's cargo was destined for Ethiopia. But for now the port lies dormant, waiting for peace and a new lease of life.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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