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Remembering the Infamous Mass Deportation of Eritreans from Ethiopia

By - Simon Weldemichael

In June 1998, TPLF officials publicly announced that Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin would be expelled from Ethiopia in the wake of the regime’s declaration of war that was adopted by its Parliament in the previous month.

The regime tried to imbue security dimensions to its reprehensible and unprecedented acts that reeked of racial profiling and stigmatization. Indeed, in the despicable words of the then Prime Minister, “Ethiopia had full rights to expel all Eritreans if it does not like the color of their eyes”.

Following the announcement, the first wave of 800 deportees, many of whom were women, children and the elderly, crossed to Eritrea on 18 June 1998 through Omhajer. In the space of few months, the number of deportees rose to 80,000.

The capricious arrest of Eritreans started at midnight on June 12, 1998. Eritrean businessmen, community leaders, government employees, youth who had at one point undergone through the National Service and students who were on a scholarship programme in Ethiopia, and even young secondary school students who might have participated once in Eritrea’s summer work program became targets of this sudden dragnet.

Ethiopians of Eritrean origin who have never been to Eritrea were hunted down and rounded in concentration camps, such as the infamous Shegolie Meda, located in the northwest of Addis Ababa.

The arrests and deportations were in flagrant breach of key tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Ethiopia was a signatory.

It all began after the failure of the first military campaign in early May and June 1998. Eritreans who were legally residing and working in Ethiopia were deliberately targeted to pay the price for a military defeat on the battlefront.

Let alone to monitor their belongings, most of the deportees were not allowed to even to say goodbye to their family. TPLF officials deliberately separated families to inflict deep psychological scars. The forcible separation of parents from their children is one of the most distressing aspects of the deportation. Many reports indicated that even breastfeeding mothers were wrenched away from their babies.

Against the expectations of TPLF authorities, however, the deported Eritreans did not become a national burden. They integrated quickly and contributed their share in the defense and development of the country. One of Eritrea’s iconic singers, the late Alamin Abdelletif, made a popular song at the time entitled “lam qerna aykebdan”; which translates into: “her horn can’t be a burden to a cow”.

The people and Government of Eritrea welcomed the deportees with great reception; as a show of unity and defiance to the immoral action of the TPLF.  Australian author, Natalie S. Klein, described the process of reception: “On arrival in Eritrea, the deportees are taken by government buses to the reception center closest to the point that they crossed the Eritrean-Ethiopian border. . . The Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission manages these centers and registers all deportees upon arrival. Deportees receive a relief package and are then transported to towns or villages in Eritrea, with which they have ties. Deportees without families to accommodate them remain at the reception centers until appropriate arrangements can be made.”

The response of the international community to the widespread inhumane treatment of the TPLF, including physical torture, detention in camps, separation of families, confiscation of property, and leaving Eritreans in the militarized border, was, however, almost mute; with few exceptions.

Regardless of the TPLF’s inhumane treatment of Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin, the Government of Eritrea refrained from reciprocal reaction and pursued a principled and far-sighted policy of respect and proper treatment of Ethiopians who were resident in Eritrea in those times.

Indeed, on June 26, 1998, the Eritrean National Assembly issued the following resolution: “in contrast to the inhuman policy of the Ethiopian government, the Eritrean government has not, and will not, take any hostile actions against Ethiopians residing in the country….their rights to live and work in peace were guaranteed. If this right is infringed under any circumstances or by any institution, they have full rights to redress. This policy that can see a horizon beyond the conflicts of today will not change even if the current crisis deteriorates to any degree.” (At the end of the two-year long vicious war, Eritrea was compelled not to renew the retail business licenses of Ethiopians as this was restricted to national investors only and extended to Ethiopian investors on the basis of the reciprocal Bilateral Agreement of 1994 that Ethiopia had unilaterally annulled in June 1998).

In conclusion, contrary to the intent of the TPLF and its venomous propaganda campaign targeted towards Eritrea and Eritreans, the two peoples treated each other with respect. During the mass expulsion of Eritreans, compassionate Ethiopians of all ethnicities showed sympathy to Eritrean victims of TPLF’s repugnant and myopic policy of stoking hatred among neighbours destined to co-exist in adjacent lands for reasons of immutable geography.

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