When Zaid Aregawi learned that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, her first thought was of her brother Alem, who is languishing in jail across the border in Eritrea.
He crossed over five months ago carrying wood for an Eritrean businessman — exactly the kind of trade that people in the border region hoped would flourish after Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a peace deal last year.
But Eritrean soldiers arrested Alem Aregawi without explanation, making him one of scores of Ethiopians who officials say have recently been taken into custody by Eritrean security forces.
For Ethiopians like Zaid Aregawi, the detentions are the most troubling sign that the peace deal — the main reason Abiy was awarded his Nobel — has yet to be fully realised.
“If there is no free movement from both sides, what is the point of the peace deal?” she asked in an interview with reporters.
“They say there is peace, however, we have got big problems along the border.”
Abiy’s attention is currently consumed by ethnic and religious clashes that broke out last week in the capital Addis Ababa and Ethiopia’s Oromia region, leaving nearly 70 dead and highlighting divisions within his ethnic Oromo support base.
Meanwhile, hundreds of kilometres north, frustration with his Eritrea deal is mounting in cities and towns nestled among the steep escarpments of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region — the area most affected by the 1998-2000 border war and the long, bitter stalemate that followed.
Residents of Ethiopia’s northernmost villages complain of a lack of progress on demarcating the two countries’ shared 1,000-kilometre border.
Eritrean refugees — who still cross into Ethiopia by the hundreds each day, according to the United Nations — note that peace has not moderated the behaviour of Isaias, widely considered one of the world’s most repressive leaders.
And nearly everyone laments that bilateral relations hinge on meetings between Abiy and Isaias, with little input from people on the ground.
‘Peace stuck between earth and sky’ –
“We can say that peace is stuck between the earth and the sky,” said Ahmed Yahya Abdi, an Eritrean refugee who has lived in Ethiopia since the war.
“When Abiy went to Eritrea he flew to Asmara, but he didn’t implement peace here, at the border between the two countries.”
The demilitarisation of the border, especially on the Ethiopian side, is the main benefit of peace cited by most people in the region.
It has permitted some Ethiopians to cross for weddings and funerals in Eritrea with little harassment from the security forces.
But Yosef Misgina, an official in the town of Dawhan, says he receives regular reports of Ethiopians being detained, jailed and beaten in Eritrea — often after they are caught transporting construction materials and other goods.
Among them were 13 traders who were taken into custody just days before Abiy won the Nobel, two of whom remain behind bars.
One recent detainee, Tsegay Suba Tesfay, spent two weeks in an overcrowded cell after soldiers arrested him while he was transporting rice and bottled water.
He said police officers beat him with a baton multiple times, and that he was deprived of food and allowed outside for just a few minutes each day.
“They don’t give you any reason when you are detained,” he said.
“In Eritrea, there is no freedom.”
Yosef attributes the detentions to continued ambiguity about the status of the border.
While the main crossings were opened shortly after the peace deal was signed, they have all since been closed, with no word on when they might reopen.
“Now we are asking that peace be institutionalised,” Yosef said. “If it is institutionalised it cannot be disrupted by individuals.”
‘I don’t accept this prize’ –
An even bigger source of anxiety for the region is the border demarcation process, which so far has gone nowhere.
When Abiy first reached out to Eritrea last year, he stunned observers by agreeing to accept a 2002 UN boundary ruling that Ethiopia had long rejected.
The ruling would transfer some villages and towns from Ethiopian to Eritrean territory, and would split the ethnic Irob community in two.
It is unclear what is holding up demarcation, but many analysts suspect Eritrea is dragging its feet.
“I would say that the Eritrean government probably wants to take things a little bit more slowly because the rapprochement has implications for the domestic situation in Eritrea. It has been a closed country for 20 years,” said Michael Woldemariam, an expert on the Horn of Africa at Boston University.
“The contradictions between the new era of external peace and Eritrea’s internal situation will be a significant challenge going forward.”
For refugees like Sebhatleab Abraha Woldeyesus, who crossed into Ethiopia a few weeks ago, waiting for change from Eritrea seems futile, meaning true peace along the border is likely to remain out of reach.
“As a human being, I don’t accept this Nobel prize,” he said.
“We don’t see the peace. Abiy and Isaias, they haven’t brought it.”
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