"Take me to the river!"
Repatriation means reuniting with family.
(1) Fictitious names
in order to respect the privacy of the individuals concerned.
Since 2001, the ICRC has facilitated
the repatriation of around 40,000 people to and from Eritrea
and Ethiopia and it is not over yet. Paul Conneally, ICRC
communication coordinator in Eritrea, remembers a repatriation
story in which he took part in May 2001.
The Adi Abieto transit centre is about ten kilometres north-west
of Asmara, the Italianesque capital of Eritrea. On a rocky
slope crowded with people, next to the centre's perimeter,
Abeba Tadesse(1) lays her belongings
out for inspection. All around us immigration officials sift
through the piles of personal possessions. When it comes to
Abeba's turn, she stands by as the officials poke and prod
and peruse. Family photos are in abundance, a thermos flask,
what looks like a wedding dress, scarves, sheets, shoes, jewellery,
children's clothes, a few books and the prerequisite kilo
of coffee are but some of Abeba's cornucopia. As immigration
goes about its business, Abeba shares snippets of her life
with me, an all-too-common tale of separated families and
economic hardship. Widowed and alone, Abeba has decided to
return to Ethiopia, where she has not been since her youth,
and to seek work as a domestic cleaner.
Entering the gate of the transit centre Abeba melts into
the crowds of people queuing and jostling for a place on the
waiting convoy of buses. ICRC delegates, assisted by volunteers
from the Red Cross Society of Eritrea (RCSE), are checking
the names and personal details of all the passengers. Everyone
here has already met the delegates during the previous week
when they were all interviewed about the circumstances of
For that is what is happening here. The repatriation of Ethiopian
nationals from Eritrea back to Ethiopia.
"The most vital question for the ICRC is that each and
every person or family is leaving voluntarily of their own
free will," explains ICRC delegate-in-charge, Maxim Gutov.
Once the details of all the passengers are double-checked
Maxim gives the signal. Two ICRC land-cruisers take up the
front and the rear of the convoy. Engines begin to rumble
as 17 busloads of people, together with five trucks filled
with luggage, begin their journey southwards to the outskirts
of Adi Quala, near the Ethiopian border.
Four-and-a-half hours later, our convoy shudders to a halt
some ten kilometres from Adi Quala. More than 1,100 travel-weary
passengers disembark, stretching their limbs and surveying
the location, keenly aware that this should be their last
night on Eritrean soil. In a display of mesmerising efficiency,
all the passengers have set up camp down the road in a clearing
sheltered by a plantation of young eucalyptus trees. As the
night draws in and darkness falls, the excited sounds of hand-clapping
and singing can be heard all around, as the smell of wood
bonfires and spicy cooking wafts towards the Ethiopian border
to the south. The volunteers of the RCSE are busy pulling
tarpaulin over the truckloads of luggage as final preparations
are made for the morning. We bed down in our sleeping bags
beneath the stars and fall asleep to the soft sounds of song
from the impromptu bush bivouac below.
Crossing point at the Eritrean-Ethiopian
border along the dry Mereb River.
A new day
It's 4:30 and Maxim and his team are all business. I find
Abeba, sitting on her bulging case, chatting away with new-found
friends from the overnight camp. One of them, Lemlem1, is
struggling to contain the early-morning energy of her three
children and Abeba seems delighted to be of assistance. In
the half-dark, half-light of the dawn, the RCSE volunteers
are busy distributing water and energy biscuits to all of
the passengers as they once again board their buses. When
everyone is seated a final head count is done before Maxim
sounds the signal and leads the way to the border crossing
at the Mereb River. It's 6:00.
After winding our way down through mountainous roads onto
the rocky plains of the Mereb hinterland, the sun is already
providing a taste of the heat that is bound to come. It's
only 8:00 but the temperature is already in the high twenties.
The terrain is as forbidding as it gets. Rocks, rocks, everywhere.
After some running repairs on a broken-down bus we arrive
at our final destination. Here, some half a kilometre from
the official crossing point, the buses park side-by-side and
Maxim and his team swing into action.
"We will escort one busload of people at a time,"
Maxim explains, "at intervals of about every 20 minutes.
They will follow a designated volunteer towards the riverside."
I join the first group as we walk cautiously behind a volunteer,
who is clearly marked with the distinctive emblem of the Red
Cross. He walks towards the river bank on a dirt track - especially
cleared of mines in an area still heavily contaminated with
them - where this first group are then helped by more RCSE
volunteers up onto the back of two waiting ICRC trucks. The
vehicles then ferry the people across the shallow, but fast-flowing
waters of the Mereb River into the care of another ICRC team
on the Ethiopian side. Most of the people are now in an upbeat
mood. The singing and hand-clapping start again as the trucks
come to a halt on the other side. They are only 20 metres
from us but they are on home ground now, the difficulties
of the past behind them and the uncertainties of the future
Around 14 such crossings take place, each one the same. Singing
and shouting with hugs and handshakes. Abeba is one of the
last to be helped up onto a truck. She's holding tightly onto
the hand of one of Lemlem's charges, a wide-eyed young boy
whose energy is fading in the late morning heat. "I will
write to Red Cross," she calls to our team and waving
with her one free hand she bids us farewell as the truck enters
the river and Abeba and a thousand more begin new lives in
With all the passengers on the other side of the border,
the luggage begins to arrive. This is the last major task
of the day and volunteers from the Ethiopian Red Cross unexpectedly
join us from across the Mereb River to assist their Eritrean
counterparts in transferring the cumbersome luggage onto Ethiopian
trucks. It's almost noon by now and the heat is relentless.
The volunteers mix easily, talking and chatting as they work
under the searing heat, hauling heavy loads of bulky luggage
from truck to truck.
This is a place where the trials of history and conflict have
riven two countries and their people apart. The Red Cross
may be the only organization that is able to function and
cooperate despite the painful past and the current conflict.
Watching these volunteers together, one can for a moment forget
about the division that suffocates their countries and concentrate
on the positive spirit that prevails. Maxim joins me on the
banks of the Mereb River. Here, on one of the most contested
borders in the world, as we endure the intense heat and work
alongside the volunteers of the Red Cross Societies of Ethiopia
and Eritrea Maxim turns towards me, perspiration streaming
down his face and says simply: "This is what it's all
Paul Conneally is ICRC communication coordinator in Eritrea.
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