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"Take me to the river!"
Paul Conneally

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 their repatriation.

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 ahead.

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 Ethiopia.

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 about!"

Paul Conneally
Paul Conneally is ICRC communication coordinator in Eritrea.

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