Field Trip Report From Northern Tigrai

Conflict causes suffering among the Irob people

From: (Dr. Ann Waters-Bayer)
Subject: Participation in suffering
Date: Mon, 03 Aug 1998 14:49:00 +0200

Last night I returned from Ethiopia, and am now trying to reach as many people as possible with the following message. It is written initially for the international research community, in the hopes that the people can pass it on to political decision-makers they know who can do something about this. I don't have the direct political contacts myself, although we are trying to reach the political parties here in Germany with a report in German. Whatever you can do to raise awareness about the continuing plight of northern Tigray would be greatly appreciated.

As I am sending this to many networks, you may receive this message 2 or 3 times. Please forgive the repetition.


Participation in suffering

Participatory research draws you into the lives of your research partners, encompassing much more than the particular farm enterprise or technology you are investigating and developing together. At times, it means also participation in suffering.

One of the research areas in our programme "Indigenous Soil and Water Conservation in Africa" (ISWC) lies in the land of the Irob people, in Eastern Tigray just south of the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Irob are a formerly pastoral people who, within living memory, have made a transition to a very intensive form of agriculture in their dry mountainous landscape (about 300 mm annual rainfall). They have, completely on their own, developed techniques to trap water and silt flowing off the Ethiopian highlands down to the Red Sea, and have created farmland where there was only rock before. These industrious and ingenious people have continued to innovate and improve their land-use system.

In the past year, Irob innovator farmers have been collaborating with the Ethiopian ISWC programme, coordinated by Mekelle University College (MUC) in Tigray. They have been explaining and demonstrating their innovations to farmers from other areas, and have been conducting experiments in partnership with MUC, for example, trying out new varieties of crops in the micro-environments they have created by virtue of their physical and biological structures of soil and water conservation (SWC).

At the end of May 1998, Irob was one of the border territories invaded by Eritrean forces. Overseas, we heard much about the war in that initial period, but now the international news has turned to wars elsewhere in the world. We are not hearing about the ongoing suffering of the people in the occupied and adjacent territories in northern Ethiopia. The coordinators of the ISWC programme in Ethiopia, Ms Fetien Abay and Dr Mitiku Haile, together with the head of the programme Steering Committee, Yohannes GebreMichael, travelled with me to Eastern Tigray in late July. We could not travel the sole motorable road to Alitena, the centre of the Irob area, as this road passes through the border town of Zalembessa, which is now inaccessible because of the occupation.

In the Catholic Secretariat in Adigrat, we spoke with a priest who is coordinating a development project of a non-governmental organisation that is working together with us in Irob. He reported that the northern part of Irob land is now occupied by the Eritreans. Women and girls have been raped. Churches have been desecrated and are now being used to store Eritrean weapons, ammunition and other materials for the occupying troops.

Some local priests have been forced to be storekeepers in their own churches; others have been driven out or imprisoned. The dead cannot be properly buried according to custom. The heavy wooden beams which form the roofs of the Irob homes are being removed by the Eritrean soldiers and transported away, presumably to Asmara (the capital of Eritrea) for use as fuel or building materials. The young Irob men who could not flee from the invaders have been captured, and it is suspected that they are being conscripted by force into the Eritrean army.

The rainy season (mid-June to mid-August) is at its height, and it is a good season this year. However, the farmers in the occupied area of Irob are not allowed to cultivate their fields, unless they agree to become Eritrean citizens and obtain an Eritrean identity card. The people are not allowed to harvest the fruits of the planted and wild-growing "beles", the prickly pear cactus, which is normally an important source of food and cash during the growing period before the cereal crop can be harvested.

From the part of Irob adjacent to the occupied territory, the able-bodied people have fled by foot through the mountains to Adigrat, and are now living in cramped quarters with relatives or in tent accommodation set up by the Red Cross. The church had to suspend its development activities in Irob, and is now concentrating on food aid and other forms of emergency relief to the displaced people. On 11 June, the Eritreans made an air attack on Adigrat and bombed the town's grain store.

It was in Adrigat that we met the farmer collaborators of the ISWC programme. They had to abandon their homes and fields, and cannot take advantage of the rainy season to grow their crops. They cannot monitor their SWC structures during the heavy downpours and the floods from the highlands, and make any immediate repairs that may be necessary or treat spots where they recognise that erosion could start. This is their normal practice to prevent more serious damage. These farmers are among the 35,000 displaced people who have found their way from Irob and other invaded territories to Adigrat, more than doubling the town's normal population. These pastoralists-turned-farmers, who pride themselves in their ability to work the land and for whom idleness is equivalent to sin, are now dependent on handouts. This is a form of torture for them. They are impatient to return to their land.

On their own, the Irob cannot repel the well-armed Eritrean force. They would prefer if life could be restored to normal through peaceful means, but they cannot accept the continued occupation of part of their land and the division of their people. The Irob regard themselves as Ethiopians and will not accept Eritrean rule. People from other parts of Tigray and Ethiopia are condemning the invasion and rallying behind the displaced people.

The international community is quiet. There has been no resolution at the level of the Organisation of African Unity or the United Nations to condemn Eritrea's invasion of Ethiopian territory. There has been no international pressure exerted on Eritrea to force it to withdraw to the boundaries of its country before the invasion. Most Ethiopians, like the Irob, would prefer to resolve this conflict without further bloodshed. After 17 years of civil war to topple the communist regime of the Dergue, the Ethiopians had been in the midst of rebuilding their nation, when the Eritreans made their unexpected attack. However, if the international community does not convince Eritrea to withdraw its troops, the Ethiopians will have no choice but to take back their land through battle. This will cause further loss of lives and destruction of property and natural resources.

Last week, as our group from the ISWC Ethiopia programme said farewell to Ato Zigta Gebremedhin and Ato Yohannes Tesfay, two of the most creative farmer innovators in Irob, we all promised each other that we would meet again in Irob and continue our joint research and development work. We could not set a date.

Ann Waters-Bayer, Addis Ababa, 30 July 1998

Dr Ann Waters-Bayer
Rohnsweg 56, D-37085 Goettingen, Germany
Tel +49-551-485751/86, Fax +49-551-47948

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