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Between two peace treaties: Tigray’s Irob community confronts plight, looming displacement

The Irob people, consisting of around 60,000 individuals, with an estimated 35,000 living in semi-arid mountainous areas, face challenges to their survival and cohesion, initially from the Algiers treaty and more recently due to failure to fully implement the Pretoria peace agreement (Photo: Irob Advocacy Association)

By Mihret G/kristos @MercyG_kirstos

Addis Abeba – Fisuh Welde, a resident of Irob district in the Eastern Zone of Tigray, has spent his entire life nestled in the northern escarpment of the Ethiopian highlands.

Like his forefathers, Fisuh and his four children have called this rugged mountainous area, straddling the Ethiopian-Eritrean border, their only home.

For centuries, the Irob people have inhabited this remote, mountainous area, primarily sustaining themselves through agriculture. Yet their resilience has been tested by a series of adversities.

Among these, the 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrean border war and the recently concluded Tigray war, which ended in November 2022, stand out as pivotal events.

These conflicts have left an indelible mark on the lives of the Irob community, reshaping their way of life and presenting formidable obstacles to their continued existence.

When Eritrean forces assumed control of the majority of Irob four years ago, Fisuh and the rest of the Irob community, numbering approximately 60,000 individuals, of whom an estimated 35,000 reside in semi-arid mountainous areas, found themselves confronting a profoundly unsettling reality.

The entry of Eritrean troops into the Irob district four years ago coincided with the intensification of the Tigray war in Ethiopia. Collaborating with Ethiopian government forces, Eritrean troops engaged in combat against Tigrayan forces, leading to the perceived transformation of the Irob lands into what some observers characterize as an “open-air prison.”

As a consequence of security concerns, residents of Irob have experienced isolation from the broader Tigray region. This isolation has exacerbated an existential crisis marked by abductions, humanitarian suffering, and limited access to essential public services, including electricity supply and banking facilities.

In September 2023, officials from the Irob district reported that 28 youths had been abducted by Eritrean troops over a period of ten months.

Subsequent to this incident, Eyasu Misgina, the head of the Irob district administration, revealed that the families of the abducted youths remain uninformed regarding their whereabouts.

One mother, in her testimony to Addis Standard, disclosed that her child and other siblings were seized by Eritrean forces shortly after the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) in November 2022.

Stressing that these abducted individuals are civilians devoid of weapons and militia affiliations, the mother also noted that six additional youths were taken from her village within a week.

Despite the provisions outlined in the Pretoria accord, which mandated the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray, Eritrean troops persistently maintain their presence in the Irob district and other border areas.

Eritrea justifies the continued occupation of parts of Irob based on the Algiers agreement, which was ratified 24 years ago between Ethiopia and Eritrea, purportedly aimed at delineating borders and fostering peace.

With the demarcation lines traversing his very hometown, Fisuh’s sentiments evoke a profound emotion rooted in the looming specter of displacement, casting a pall of uncertainty.

Reflecting on the profound impact of the Algiers Agreement on his family and community, Fisuh shares his poignant perspective: “It is a somber reality to witness one’s own home torn asunder by political agreements, devoid of consideration for the communities it impacts.”

Residing in Wereeitle Kafina, a kebele within Irob district that Eritrea claims as its territory under the Treaty of Algiers signed in 2000, which concluded the 1998-2000 Ethiopia-Eritrean border war, Fisuh finds himself amidst geopolitical contention.

Presently, four kebeles of Irob, including Wereeitle Kafina, are under the jurisdiction of Eritrean troops, further complicating the situation for Fisuh and his community.

Community leaders such as Nigusse Hagos emphasize that subsequent to the recent war in the Tigray region, Eritrean forces intervened in Irob, enforcing provisions outlined in the Algiers Agreement, thereby worsening the plight of the community.

While acknowledging the agreement’s permanence, Nigusse underscores the pressing requirement for organized implementation that takes into account the interests of the Irob minority.

For Fisuh, the implementation of the Algiers Agreement signifies more than just a geographical demarcation; it entails the involuntary separation of families, including his own.

 “My residence and that of my uncles have been forcibly partitioned,” Fisuh conveys, his voice resonating with emotion, “an injustice that deeply undermines the essence of familial ties.”

Amidst this significant upheaval, Fisuh confronts the unsettling prospect of being displaced from his ancestral homeland, grappling with the grim possibility of separation from his beloved family members.

“It is our rightful place to remain united,” he affirms, articulating a fervent wish to maintain residency in Ethiopia, where his familial heritage holds profound significance.

While Fisuh articulates his dissent against the possible injustices and significant human suffering that may arise from treaties and political resolutions, community representatives such as Nigusse, who have been involved in discussions with both federal and regional authorities concerning the implementation of the Algiers Agreement, have voiced profound concerns regarding its impact.

Particularly troubling for Nigusse is the division of the minority Irob community into two distinct entities.

Drawing attention to historical errors, Nigusse emphasized the past decision of the former ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), to sign an agreement that encroached upon Irob land.

Unpacking the Algiers peace treaty

The Algiers Agreement was formally signed on 12 December, 2000, in Algiers, Algeria, with the aim of bringing an official conclusion to the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, a border conflict that occurred between 1998 and 2000. This agreement facilitated the establishment of a boundary commission tasked with delineating the border between the two nations.

On 12 December, 2000, the Algiers peace agreement was signed by former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, under the oversight of former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (Photo: AP)

Initially, both countries publicly declared their intention to abide by the ruling of the 2002 UN-endorsed Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC), which allocated disputed territories such as Badme to Eritrea.

However, shortly thereafter, Ethiopia sought clarifications and subsequently expressed strong dissatisfaction with the ruling.

The primary point of contention in the border demarcation process lay in the “Western Sector” of the Eritrea-Ethiopia border, particularly in the Irob district and near the village of Badme, where the initial clashes that sparked the war occurred in May 1998.

Ethiopia contested the commission’s decision to assign villages like Badme to Eritrea, characterizing the action as “completely illegal, unjust, and irresponsible.” Furthermore, the country restricted access to this area for demarcation purposes.

To justify its actions, Ethiopia cited a similar case decided by the ICJ in Cameroon v. Nigeria, where the Court said that “it has no power to modify a delimited boundary line, even in a case where a village previously situated on one side of the boundary has spread beyond it. It is instead up to the parties to find a solution to any resultant problems, with a view to respecting the rights and interests of the local population.”

This Ethiopian position remained unchanged until Prime Minister Abiy assumed power six years ago.

In June 2018, the Executive Committee members of the former ruling EPRDF unanimously voted to fully honor the Algiers Agreement.

During a visit to Asmara, the Prime Minister signed the Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship Agreement on 09 July, 2018. This was followed by the signing of the Jeddah Peace Agreement on 16 September, 2018, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

The signing of the Declaration of Peace and Friendship Agreement marked a significant milestone in the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea, as it put an end to their long-standing hostilities and ushered in a new era of peace.

One of the key components that facilitated these agreements is Ethiopia’s acceptance of the decision made by the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission.

Following the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, diplomatic relations were restored, and borders were reopened. Telephone connections were reinstated, embassies were reopened, and air flights between the two countries resumed. The peace deal not only revived people-to-people relations but also facilitated cross-border trade.

After one year, Ethiopia made efforts to solidify the friendship agreement by drafting three bilateral agreements with Eritrea. However, little progress has been achieved in this regard.

In his study titled “The Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission: The Aftermath,” Marco Odello, a researcher in public international law at Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom, contended that the 2018 Agreement lacks clarity regarding the entity responsible for the border demarcation process and whether it will adhere to the decisions of the Boundary Commission.

Odello expressed in his 2021 research that “a definitive statement on this matter would have facilitated any future delimitation activities.”

Odello advocates for the assignment of physical demarcation to a distinct body primarily composed of technical experts. According to him, this strategy, as outlined in the 2018 Agreement, presents an opportunity to establish a specialized team of experts capable of tracing demarcation lines using the geographical coordinates provided by the Border Commission.

Nigusse stressed that historically, the Irob community has always been considered Ethiopian. Nigusse also criticized the absence of consultation with affected communities during the formation of the agreement, denouncing it as “a violation of minority rights.”

Yoseph Adayu, another representative of the Irob community who has actively participated in dialogues with both regional and federal authorities, highlighted the distinct identity of the Irob ethnic group. According to him, this identity is deeply rooted in its unique history, language, culture, and challenging natural terrain, which renders conventional farming practices impractical.

Yoseph emphasized the critical necessity for the proper implementation of peace agreements, particularly regarding the preservation of small ethnic groups like the Irob.

He expressed concern about the detrimental impact of neglecting the community’s special circumstances, warning that such disregard could lead to their cultural and demographic extinction if not duly considered.

Nigusse underscores the imperative of achieving a peaceful delineation of borders, urging the federal government to initiate dialogues with neighboring countries.

He expresses apprehension regarding the inadequate attention received from both the regional interim administration and the federal government, pointing out deficiencies in healthcare, education, and food resources.

Additionally, he highlights the adverse impact of road blockages, which have further compounded the post-war hardships faced by the Irob community.

Despite the conclusive nature of the agreement’s determinations and the absence of recourse avenues, Nigusse and Yoseph underscored the necessity for a peaceful resolution to secure enduring peace and stability in the region.

They bemoaned the inadequate consideration of the Irob community’s apprehensions during the negotiation and implementation stages of the agreement by the international community and organizations such as the United Nations, resulting in a feeling of psychological displacement and marginalization.

Tesfay Woldemariam, a GIS research associate with the Global Restoration Initiative, has presented a compelling appeal for international intervention to protect the rights of the Irob ethnic minority amidst escalating tensions in the border region.

With expertise in forestry and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which are computer-based tools used for storing, visualizing, analyzing, and interpreting spatial data, Tesfay offers a unique perspective grounded in his profound comprehension of the intricate geographical and social dynamics at play.

Central to Tesfay’s argument is the historical continuity of the Irob community, which has inhabited a singular, well-defined territory for centuries.

“Despite their status as an ethnic minority, the Irobs have maintained their unity and identity across generations,” he asserted.

Tesfaye highlights the United Nations’ obligation to protect minorities, as outlined in General Assembly Resolution 47/135 of 18 December, 1992.

Emphasizing the importance of the Algiers agreement, the expert advocates for the prompt implementation of the UN resolution regarding minority rights for the Irob community.

He stresses the potential for an independent body to utilize existing international frameworks to ensure the realization of these rights, including traditional conflict resolution mechanisms facilitated by respected elders from both involved countries.

The resilience of the Irob people has been challenged by a succession of hardships, such as the 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrean border conflict and the more recent Tigray war, which concluded in November 2022 (Photo: Irob Advocacy Association)

He warns against unilateral decisions made during the signing of peace agreements, emphasizing the necessity of inclusive dialogue involving communities directly impacted by border disputes.

“Sustainable peace can only be achieved through genuine engagement and consensus-building among all stakeholders,” he contends.

Furthermore, Tesfaye illuminates the psychological impact of arbitrary border demarcations on divided communities, underscoring the need for a systematic approach to implementation that addresses the long-term consequences.

Adding fuel to the fire

However, the implementation of the Algiers Agreement has been complicated by the outbreak of the Tigray war in 2020 and the continued presence of Eritrean military forces, which were supposed to leave Tigray as part of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, which have not left and are still present in the northeastern part of the Tigray region, including the Irob district and other border areas.

During his deliberations with representatives of Tigray’s communities, Prime Minister Abiy conveyed the establishment of a committee tasked with monitoring and reporting on potential violations of the Algiers agreement by Eritrean forces.

This committee comprises representatives from affected regions, as well as the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and the federal government.

Chaired by Temesgen Tiruneh, Deputy Prime Minister of Ethiopia, the committee held its inaugural meeting in March 2024.

The primary objective of the committee is to monitor and report any potential violations of the Algiers Agreement by Eritrean forces, particularly concerning territorial occupation.

In a recent interview with state media, Abraham Belay, Minister of Defense, discussed the matter of Tigray territory currently under the jurisdiction of Eritrean forces.

He acknowledged that Eritrean forces had acquired control over a substantial portion of Tigray territory during the war, a control that was “subsequently relinquished following the Pretoria peace agreement.” However, Abraham emphasized that certain parts of Tigray still remain under external control.

The Minister stressed that thorough assessments, involving authorities from both regional and federal levels, are currently in progress to ascertain the exact areas that remain under the control of Eritrea.

“Once identified, concerted efforts will be made to devise appropriate solutions,” he stated. AS

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