In the city of Adigrat in Northern Ethiopia, a woman by the name Zefer Sultan is having her hair braided. She is preparing for the baptism of her firstborn near the border. At the corner is the TV playing their wedding video from the previous year. This video is what keeps them entertained.
“We celebrated our wedding almost the same time when the border was opened. This was a double celebration,” she explains.
Late 2018 was a delight for most of the people living near the Ethiopia-Eritrea border. A peace deal between the two countries that were at war was signed. Movement across the border was permitted after twenty years of mistrust. Families that were separated for a long time were reunified. Events such as weddings were a medium to bring friends and relatives together.
This time she hopes her son’s baptism will bring relatives from both Ethiopia and Eritrea together. The ceremony is taking place in Zalambessa. This is where Zefer’s family and the husband come from. Zalambessa is located on the Ethiopian part of the border. During the 1998-2000 warfare, borders were closed and heavily militarized. The countries suffered economic stagnation. Everyone here narrates a story of separation.
Watching from afar as borders close.
Many people missed important family events like weddings and burials. Some were unable to reach their ailing relatives on the other side. While most were unable to say goodbye to loved ones. Abrahaley Gebremariam had to watch his grandmother’s funeral and remembrance services from afar
It may be easy to assume there might be animosity between Ethiopians and Eritreans. A hundred thousand people were killed during the combat. Others were evacuated from their homes. However, the cultural and social bond has proved to be deeper and persisted in the forced separation that came forth.
“The people were not in conflict; they never betrayed one another. The problem was the leaders.” a resident said.
Borders open – and then close
Zalambessa began going through a change when the borders were reopened in 2018. The movement brought forth booming businesses as travel and trade increased. Local businesses benefitted greatly. However, months after the borders opened, they started closing again. No official explanation was offered at the time, and almost most of the checkpoints remain closed.
Both Ethiopia and Eritrea are trying to resolve the problem, but no official agreement has been reached. However, there have been basic and lasting changes. The checkpoints are now less patrolled compared to before. Therefore, there has been an informal movement on foot for two years. Cars being restricted at the border point forces shoppers to walk across carrying what they are able too by hand. This does not down heart residents because the previous situation was worse. This is no different for health services; residents from Eritrea cross the borders to get health services on foot. Women especially come to Zalambessa Health Centre for contraceptive services. Here they are all given equal treatment regardless of where they are from.
If the Border is closed, we can’t move forward.
Zefer’s son is baptized on a cliff-top church that overlooks the borders of Eritrea and Ethiopia. Relatives from both sides of the borders made it to the baptism. After the ceremony they gather at Zefer’s in-laws at the bottom of the hill. Zefer introduces one cousin in particular. The cousin explains how the peace treaty changed her life. The period before the treaty they had no news of who was dead and who was alive.
The difference is huge. They continue to share their feelings about the unofficial freedom of movement. However, the closure of these checkpoints still affects their lives. Zefer further reveals that there were lesser Eritreans at the baptism than at their wedding. Many decided not to show up because they were not certain whether they would be permitted to cross the border.
“It bothers me that if the checkpoints are closed, we won’t be able to move forward,” she adds.