When Fitsum Berihu fled into Ethiopia, he risked death by hyenas, snipers and land mines. Two years later the 35-year-old Eritrean vividly recalls the fear he felt as he made his way through a U.N.-patrolled buffer zone and across the trenches and artillery lines of some of the tens of thousands of soldiers dug in on both sides of the divide. Even worse than all that, though, was leaving behind his 72-year-old mother and two siblings. "I never told my family I was crossing the border," he says. "I never said goodbye."
Berihu still doesn't know what happened to his family after he defected from the Eritrean Army. There are no phone or mail links between the neighbors, and he has had no way of keeping in touch. So today he waits and hopes, one of more than 15,000 Eritreans stuck behind barbed wire and chain-link fencing at the Shimelba refugee camp in a remote corner of northern Ethiopia. It's a part of the world that is growing increasingly tense as the two countries seem to be gearing up to fight their second war in less than a decade. On Nov. 27 an international commission set up to resolve the long-running border dispute between the two nations is set to dissolve. The commission, which made its findings five years ago, has warned Ethiopia and Eritrea that if they fail to demarcate the border themselves then it would be drawn based on predetermined coordinates.
Neither country seems willing to accept that decision. Both sides say publicly they want peace and accuse the enemy of warmongering. But last month Ethiopia's foreign minister warned that Eritrea's army had occupied the U.N. Temporary Security Zone along the border and that the two armies were less than 75 yards apart in some places. Earlier this month an Eritrean opposition group said the government was sending 25,000 reinforcements to the border. Ethiopia has also sent more reinforcements, say residents near the frontier, and has jammed Eritrean broadcasts and Web sites. One Western diplomat puts the chances of war within the next few months at 50 percent. An Ethiopian official who spoke to NEWSWEEK said some elements of the government are calculating that Ethiopia has four to five weeks to topple the Eritrean government before international pressure—particularly from the United States—forces a ceasefire. Landlocked Ethiopia might also try to grab the Eritrean port of Assab.
As the situation escalates, more Eritreans are making their way to Shimelba. In October alone some 700 made the journey—more than double the figure from the same month last year. Most have little to do but wait—either for the outbreak of conflict or, in cases like Berihu, in the hope of a refugee visa from the United States or Canada that may never come. "You just vegetate here doing nothing," he says.
Like Berihu, most of the Eritreans at Shimelba fled to escape mandatory service in Eritrea's military. Others left because they're Protestants or members of other religious groups facing persecution from Eritrea's Coptic Orthodox government. About a quarter belong to the Kunama tribe, a minority group that sided with Ethiopia during the 1998-2000 border war between the two countries. After the war many of the Kunama still left in Eritrea were stripped of their grazing lands. Some of the refugees at the camp have been there for five years or more and have settled into an almost permanent life of waiting. Many have mud-brick houses with metal roofs. The main dirt track through the camp is lined with dirt-floor tea shops, small restaurants, and ramshackle theaters blaring American movies.
There are ping-pong tables and grass-thatched pool halls and satellite television. A few refugees make money from scratching ramshackle plots of sorghum from the pebbly soil near the camp. The United Nations provides each refugee with just over a pound of wheat a day, a bit of cooking oil, and a few other foodstuffs. That makes life in the camp generally better than in Eritrea, say refugees, where President Isaias Afwerki's authoritarian government has destroyed the economy and conscripted most of his country's young people in an effort to match the military might of Ethiopia, a country 15 times as populous. "We saved our lives [by leaving]," says Daniel Abraham, a 29-year-old refugee who spent four days hiding in the scrubland along the border before making it to Ethiopia.
Though it may be better than sitting in a trench waiting for an Ethiopian attack, refugee life has been hard. The Ethiopian government doesn't permit Abraham and other refugees to work outside the camp, and there is little to do inside but sit around. "We are prisoners," says Abraham. "Only God knows what the future will bring." In these conditions, tensions inevitably are rising inside the camp as much as outside. "Men beat us," says Asmara Zewere, a refugee who says a man threw stones at her after she rejected his advances. "When a guy asks you for sex, if you say OK, he will leave you after he enjoys himself. If you say no, he's going to stone you."
Men outnumber women three to one at Shimelba. But as so many of the men are army defectors and former university students, the ratio of young men to young women is closer to eight to one, says Lula Kahassa, 20. "We encounter sexual harassment," she says. "There's also a lot of unwanted pregnancy." Sexually transmitted diseases have become a problem. An HIV/AIDS counselor at the camp says that one in eight women refugees is HIV-positive. And there is little health treatment for women, says Terhasse Tesfo, a 22-year-old woman who fled Eritrea after 12th grade to avoid conscription in a country that drafts both men and women into the military. "Men want casual sex," she says. "The major problem is we are living together with [so many] men."
Ethiopia itself is hardly a model of democracy and good governance. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has held a tight grip on the country since seizing power in 1991. Following the country's disputed elections in 2005, government security forces killed 193 protesters. Opposition leaders, activists and journalists were rounded up and jailed. The few local news outlets not controlled by the government operate only with a high degree of self-censorship. In addition, human rights groups and aid organizations have accused Ethiopia of widespread atrocities in its eastern Ogaden region, where its army is battling ethnic Somali separatists. This year alone, four foreign journalists have been arrested by the Ethiopian government for reporting on the conflict.
But for those in the camps, Eritrea's government may be even worse. As a result of the country's increasing isolation from the West (due to its support of rebel movements in Somalia and Sudan), bread lines have become common on the streets of Asmara. Refugees say opponents of the regime often "disappear," never to be heard from again, and that landholdings are sometimes confiscated and given to Afwerki loyalists. While Ethiopia's economy has grown nearly 11 percent a year for the past year, according to the IMF, private industry in impoverished Eritrea—which became independent from Ethiopia in 1993—has dwindled, and the private press is nonexistent. Eritrea's ministry of information, which controls the media, has taken to issuing press releases with titles like "Better to Be Seen Proudly Standing in Respectable Homegrown Queue Lines."
Those in the camps aren't so sure. Samson Afewarkei, a refugee at Shimelba whose father died in the 1970s fighting for a rebel group headed by Eritrea's current president, says that after four years of sitting behind Shimelba's fence he's begun to lose hope. "There is no future in this camp," he says. A successful singer in Asmara before fleeing to Ethiopia, Afewarkei sits on a stool in a Shimelba tea shop singing a few bars of "Niei Tello" ("Please Come Quickly"), a political song that drew the ire of the Eritrean government. "Please come quickly, peace and democracy," he sings a cappella, as a half dozen bored-looking refugees look on. "Please come quickly." That's not a plea that's likely to be heeded anytime soon.