WHAT COULD WE ERITREANS ANTICIPATE CONCERNING THE ARBITRATION ON THE FUTURE BORDER DEMARCATION LINES
Since the beginning of the border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia in the Badumma Plains, our major concern has always been on the final outcome of the arbitration on the disputed territories, to be shortly undertaken by an international neutral body.
We shall be here outlining the doubts, the concerns and even the fears that we, as Kunama, have as most of the fertile parts of our land and the population there will be directly affected by the final deliberation of the arbitration committee.
We shall try to point out how the Algiers peace accord, recently signed by the two parties as regard to the border problem, seen from our Kunama standpoint, could bring deeper, more complicated and much larger consequences than those most ordinary Eritreans are hoping for.
We shall also be considering the reasons for our fears should the final deliberation of this issue be other than what most of us Kunama are expecting.
Based on the various reactions we have been having so far, from the fellow-Eritreans both at home and abroad, after the peace treaty had been signed, we are led to believe that, a great majority is not only relieved, but also seemingly very satisfied with it and, above all, very hopeful of a positive outcome for Eritrea.
Though we are not totally optimistic that the two parties will fully respect and abide by the signed agreements, knowing their past history, our main points on focus are the following questions:
how much of the content and details of that signed peace accord has been released,
explained by the two parties and how much of it has been understood by most of us ordinary Eritreans and Ethiopians?
How many and which are the main and critical Eritrean demands that are likely not to be met and therefore, could be considered as lost efforts?
How much of the contested territory of the Badumma Plains and "its environs" will be returned or allocated to Eritrea?
What was and is the rationale behind the Km. 25 "buffer or Temporary Security Zone" (TSZ) inside the Eritrean territory?
Will the entire length and size of those Km. 25 x 1000 be, in the final analysis, recognised, declared and respected as legal territories of the sovereign state of Eritrea?
These and many others are the daunting questions which keep tantalising us Kunama until that "D-day" when the ultimate fate of our territorial claims will be put to rest by the arbitration committee either favourably or unfavourably.
The entire length of the Kunama territory, from the village of Tukul in the far east to the town of Om-Hajer in the western border with the republic of the Sudan, as well as its width from the Setit almost to the banks of the Gash river, is now under the supervision and control of the UN peace-keeping forces.
Being this region very fertile, it used to be densely populated and preferred grazing encampment not only by the Kunama owners of large herds of animals, but also by the Beni-Amer of the Barka region as well as by the Tigreans of the Eritrean highland provinces of Hamasien and Serae. There were, at times, even Ethiopian Tigrean herds from across the border regions of Tigray.
During and after the Ethio-Eritrean war, this territory was deserted partly because of the war and partly due to the Eritrean government's policy of dislocating the local Kunama people putting them under continuous duress. The new situation forced most of the Kunama people either to retreat to the inner parts of Barka and Tika regions, with the risk of being later rounded up by the returning Eritrean military forces, truck-loaded and transported to the far regions of Dankalia or Sahil, or else they had to move to and settle on the other side of the Badumma Plains, meaning deep into the border parts of Tigray where, at present, the Kunama people are estimated to be well over ten-thousand (10,000). Our biggest concern is also our query: what will the fate of those Kunama people be should the Badumma Plains be partitioned based purely on political rather than on demographic principles?
We fear in fact that, the apparent temporary settlement of those Kunama might turn out to be a permanent and final one.
To our understand, with their signatures, the president of Eritrea, Mr. Isayas Afewerki and the Ethiopian prime minister, Mr. Melles Zienawi, pledged their words to honour and accept whatever the result of the arbitration will be.
According to our research, the members of that international committee are based in Geneva,
Switzerland, and they will be accompanied, in their study of the available documents and their applications, by some members of the Eritrean and Ethiopian nationals.
It is almost certain that, none of the observer-citizens of those two countries will either be a member of the local population or somebody with a wider knowledge of the history and geography of those places.
Our reasonable speculation therefore is that, with the political partition of those territories there will also be a clear demographic partition of our own Kunama people.
Who had in fact ever known or even cared about that part of the world and its population before the border conflict was started and developed in the two capitals and fought out in the Badumma Plains?
For those innocent and peaceful populations, the border issue has never been a problem but rather a solution to their social, political and economic interactions.
The hatred that has now been disseminated among them was not of their own but of the making of both the EPLF and TPLF first and of the Eritrean and the Ethiopian governments later.
As the border issue has never been the local people's problem nor will its solution.
We keep wondering when we hear or see some superficially enthusiastic Eritreans abroad who naively think, or perhaps pretend, that, the peace accord signed in the far away North-African city of Algiers, would automatically bring about, in the Badumma Plains and to its inhabitants, the past peace and tranquillity they used to enjoy when nobody thought and cared about them.
We also have the impression that our both governments realising, at last, how much damage they had done to their people and countries as well as aware of the extreme negative reactions they got from the international community, they decided to come to the negotiation table and agree to end their conflict as quickly as they had started.
Similarly, they are likely to quickly agree to and accept the quick decisions the arbitration committee will be making within the next six months or so.
This means that our Kunama people as well as all those other ethnic groups, both Eritreans
and Ethiopians, who used to coexist peacefully will be left in political and social shambles for many years to come.
The details of the signed peace accord, though not fully exposed and sincerely presented, let alone to the population concerned, not even to the communities in the Diaspora, will remain something of a mystery. Rumour has it that, some ministers from the Eritrean government are now shuttling through America, Asia and Europe trying to assure their financial backers that, since the war is over and the peace treaty has been signed, these should be motivated to pump more money for the reconstruction of the damaged infrastructure of the country as well as be ready and willing to invest in the whole of Eritrea now miraculously turned into a very safe place. The fellow-Eritreans abroad are said to have been also informed that the Eritrean government has "voluntarily" decided to reduce its military manpower thus alleviating the economy of the country.
The true agreement of the peace accord is said to have instead pressurised the Eritrean government to cut its military might and expenditure in proper proportion to its population.
Whatever the reasons, the Eritrean government keeps concealing, misrepresenting and deliberately misinterpreting the true content of that peace accord.
Was it perhaps too humiliating and degrading for our government to admit that it had to accept, sign, present and explain that document to its citizens and to the whole world, in its original version?
How embarrassing it is for us Eritreans abroad whenever our fellow-Africans describe us as "David challenging Goliath but with the opposite result" or defining us "as dangerous
breed likely to declare a war to anybody at any time!
As to the question whether our initial territorial demands will be met by the arbitration committee, we would like to point out that, we have no doubt that an international, professional, experienced and neutral body will act and decide based on and according to its historical findings, but from our Kunama standpoint, that decision is not likely to be an absolute guarantee that our land will remain intact and our people will be left to live all together again as peacefully as they always have.
The entire or partly return or allocation (depending on how one interprets geography) of the Badumma Plains to Eritrea, demographically will have a very little or no significance for us Kunama as long as our people, who are now living as refugees in Tigray, will not return soon to their ancestral land and villages.
Neither the peace accord signed in Algiers nor the deliberation of the arbitration committee will ever heal the scars left on our people.
In fact, insults are being repeatedly added to injuries, when one considers that, besides being driven out of one's own natural habitat one is also constantly pursued and persecuted no matter where one finds oneself.
The Kunama people have nowadays become an object of retaliation of the present Eritrean government.
Dankalia, Glas, Haggaz, Sahil or Tigray, for the Kunama people, make no difference at all as long as they are not allowed to return safely to their ancestral and free land and let to lead their naturally democratic life.
As we were carefully following almost all stages of events leading up to the final agreement to accept and call for the UN peace-keeping forces to be stationed inside Eritrea, we already had the impression that the Eritrean government appeared the one inclined to
favour the presence of that international force more than the Ethiopian government though the main burden fell on it.
We Kunama could never understand the reason for that unilateral acceptance of responsibility by the Eritrean government.
Though we do not discard, "a priori", the usefulness of the presence of a peace-keeping force, we are however very worried about the social consequences such a massive
presence of a military personnel could have on the local population.
We in fact very much fear that, the longer the presence of such military unit the greater and varied the sentiments likely to arise from and among the local populations.
Let the previous cases of the presence of the UN peace-keeping forces in countries like Somalia, Sierra Leone and the Kongo be of example to us.
Finally, it is a historical truth that, in any given period of time following a war, one of the fighting parties is likely to come out as a winner and therefore with a probability to be in a position to dictate its own terms.
It does not take a person with a high "IQ" to speculate, read the signs, understand and state that, the way events are now unfolding and developing inside the Eritrean territory, the Ethiopian government seems to be that dictating force against which our Eritrean government seems to have no appropriate means to react on equal footing so as to advance also its own claims.
The presence of more than 4200 foreign personnel in a tiny state like Eritrea cannot prove otherwise.
In fact Ethiopia too could have offered more than just Km. 25 x 1000 of its own land considering its geographical size, had it not been for the result of the war which had obviously ended in its favour.
One of our last, but not at all, a least concern, is precisely on the final state of the Eritrean territories now under the supervision of the UNMEE (United Nation's Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia).
Will they still remain intact or will they too undergo some minor changes?
Will even the arbitration committee itself be strong enough to resist eventual political and diplomatic pressures which might derail its genuine findings and its final deliberation?
Let us only hope that, the dictating force, will not get more than what it had initially asked for.
Let us also hope that, the local inhabitants of Badumma and its environs will safely return to their beloved villages and countryside to live as peacefully as they have done for generations in the past.
December 3, 2000 The RKPHA (The Representative of the Kunama People at Home and Abroad)