Each night along the border of arid hills, Eritreans cautiously move through the terrain’s dead ground out of sight of their own military to escape into Ethiopia’s northernmost Tigray region.
“After we crossed we tried to sleep in the desert until daybreak, but we could hear hyenas around us,” said 22-year-old Yordanos, who crossed with her two children and another mother with her two children. “We started shouting and then the Ethiopian soldiers came – they were like brothers to us.”
Ethiopia and Eritrea loathe each other at a political level, and yet Ethiopia is embracing the burden of endlessly arriving Eritrean refugees along the shared 565-mile border – many of whom remain in Ethiopia for years that turn into decades.
Why such magnanimity to one’s implacable foe, and from a government roundly criticised for its human rights record and brutal treatment of its own citizenry during recent protests?
“We differentiate between the government and its people,” said Estifanos Gebremedhin, of Ethiopia’s refugee agency, the Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (Arra). “We are the same people, we share the same blood, even the same grandfathers.”
Eritrea used to be Ethiopia’s most northern region before a referendum officially giving it independence in 1993 meant Tigray became the most northern.
Hence on both sides of the border, many people share the same language – Tigrinya – as well as Orthodox religion and cultural traditions.
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