Posts Tagged ‘Kunama’

A Typical Story: The Kunama of Eritrea

February 9, 2007

The following is a work of historical fiction.  The events are true; the characters and even the quotations are not.

Tukka is not sure exactly how old he is but he guesses he is 51. He was born in a small village near the larger town of Gonye in the Gash Barka province of western Eritrea. The province takes its name from the Gash River which sows a ribbon of green fertility through an otherwise brown and hardscrabble land. Tukka is a Kunama, a small pastoral tribe whose homeland is divided by the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia. He claims to be Catholic although he isn’t aware of any difference between Catholicism and other forms of Christianity. His Catholic beliefs are mixed liberally with the traditional religious customs of the Kunama. He never attended school. Like his parents, and like most other Kunama, he is a farmer. He married his first and only wife in Eritrea but he is unable to say when they married or how long they have been married. When pressed to estimate, he guesses that he and his wife married “ten years ago.” He guesses he was “about 18 years old” at the time. They have five children together.

Tukka lives with his wife and three of their five children in Shimelba, a refugee camp in northern Ethiopia. Officially, the site satisfies a requirement of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that all camps are located at least fifty kilometers from all international borders, but maps suggest that Shimelba is in fact much less than fifty kilometers from Eritrea.

While she does not live with them, their eldest daughter is also in the camp. She lives with her boyfriend and their two children. They are not married. A Kunama wife is purchased, and therefore owned, by her husband. Many women, especially the younger ones who have been educated in refugee camps, prefer not to get married. This does not prevent them from having children. The average refugee camp offers few forms of entertainment. Sex, and alcohol, often fill the void. Not surprisingly, sexually transmitted diseases are widespread in Shimelba.

Their second child is also in Ethiopia but he does not live in Shimelba. He was recently recruited, or probably coerced, to join the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of the Eritrea Kunama. There are decades of enmity and suspicion between the two neighboring countries. Ethiopia is happy to host opposition groups seeking to overthrow the Shabia government in Asmara. Eritrea is equally happy to host rebels seeking to topple the Woyane regime in Addis Ababa.

Tukka and his family fled from Eritrea to Ethiopia in 2000. Their escape was during what is known to the Kunama as the third round of the border conflict between the two countries. The war was not their reason for escape. Rather, it was their opportunity.

According to Tukka, life in Eritrea was “stressful” and “difficult” after independence from Ethiopia in 1991. “The reason for the stress and the difficulties in Eritrea is that the government hates the Kunama community. The government doesn’t like it if the Kunama show any progress in any manner.”

He explains that “the soldiers take the homeland and the farmland from the Kunama people and they give the land to the rich people of the Tigrinya tribes. The government tells the Kunama to build big houses on our land but the Kunama are poor people so we cannot build such houses. The government tells us to leave our land so the rich people can come to build their big houses.” A similar tactic was used to steal his farmland. “I had gardens but the government said to me I should have to use a small generator to pump the water. It was beyond my capacity to buy a generator so the government seized my farmland.” His land was not taken all at once but whittled away from him little by little. “Every year after independence, some land was taken. I could never have a year with peace.”

It was physically and financially difficult for him to farm whatever land the government left for him. The threat of forced conscription into the military is a constant concern for every Kunama. Men and women are taken equally. The old and the young are taken indiscriminately. No one is considered ineligible for national service. Soldiers frequently raid villages to abduct new recruits. Those who refuse are jailed or even killed. Entire villages regularly have to flee into forests and mountains to escape the raiding soldiers. “Forced conscription is one way for the government to destroy the Kunama.” Because they have to spend so much time in hiding, it is impossible for Kunama farmers to tend to their farms. They are also required to hire government tractors to plow their land. Kunama are not allowed to plow their own land. For the compulsory use of a government tractor, “we were required to pay a lot of money.”

Not surprisingly, the government of Eritrea is Tigrinya. “The government courts always support the side of the rich Tigrinya.” In Africa, the government and the armed forces are typically synonymous. “The soldiers are all Tigrinya. There is no Kunama with the soldiers.”

More surprising, however, is that the government of Ethiopia, the hated enemy of Eritrea, is also Tigrinya. The two governments were allies not long ago when they were rebel groups fighting together to overthrow the military regime of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the brutally paranoid dictator of what was then a larger Ethiopia that included the province of Eritrea. After thirty years of very industrialized warfare, funded in large part by the United States and the Soviet Union, the rebels succeeded in 1991. Meles Zenawi became the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. Two years later, a man rumored to be his cousin, Isaias Afwerki, became the first president of the newly independent state of Eritrea. Given their position as a tiny minority straddling the border between the two countries, the Kunama were not a major factor in the war. They were not part of the Shabia, “the people” who unified and mobilized to fight for the independence of Eritrea. Nor were they Woyane “fighters” from Ethiopia. Accordingly, they have been outcast from the government that formed after independence. Institutionalized persecution of the Kunama began almost immediately in independent Eritrea. However, they were initially unable to flee because there was nowhere to go. Ethiopia, the only nearby neighbor, was a staunch ally of the young government in Asmara.

Then, throughout the nineties, the relationship between the two countries rapidly soured. The first offense was committed by Eritrea in 1998 when it created a new currency, the nakfa, to replace the birr from Ethiopia. War exploded the same year when Ethiopia claimed, then occupied, the tiny, dusty town of Badme located on Kunama land near, if not on, the unmarked desert border between the two countries. The war has been likened to two bald men fighting over a comb. It is an apt description insofar as it accurately conveys the inutility of the fight. It fails, however, because a comb is at least useful to some. Badme is not.

In the first round of the war, in 1998, Ethiopia occupied Badme. In the second, in 1999, it was Eritrea who was on the offensive, although they never managed to recapture Badme. In the third and final round, in 2000, the Woyane from Ethiopia forced Eritrea to seek peace.

As part of the internationally negotiated settlement, the Woyane had to withdraw from Badme to allow a border commission from the United Nations to investigate the dispute. The Kunama took advantage of this peaceful withdrawal of troops to flee to Ethiopia in safety. They followed closely behind the soldiers before the Shabia government ever knew they were fleeing. They feared that if they were still there when their own government soldiers returned, then they would be accused of treason and collaboration with the enemy. “They would accuse us of staying with the enemy during the war and they would kill us.” Although they never volunteered for the assignment, the Woyane became the armed escorts for entire communities of fleeing Kunama. It was a safe escape, but still a tense one for many of the Kunama. It is widely believed among them that the constitution of Eritrea, drafted during the war, proscribes death for anyone caught trying to flee to Ethiopia.

The refugees regrouped just across the border in Ethiopia where they created a camp, Wa’ala Nhibi, literally from the dirt. They lived there for years, sustaining themselves, before the IMGP1778 copyinternational community managed to mobilize. In 2004, they were moved en masse to the new camp at Shimelba. An aid worker joked that the site was chosen, by the refugee agency of the government of Ethiopia, by seeking the most barren and inhospitable location in the region. “The problems which I am facing here are beyond the problems I faced in Eritrea. We are not free to work. We are not free to leave the camp. I do not have work and I do not have land. All I can do is wait for my rations, but there is not enough food. There are no clothes for my children. The local people beat us and they steal from us. They tell us this is not our land.”

Tukka would like to be able to return to Eritrea, but “I can never go as long as the government is the same. They would kill me.” Even before fleeing, Tukka had many reasons to want to escape Eritrea. Now the very fact that he fled is the primary reason he cannot return. “I am living here with the enemy in Ethiopia. When I crossed the border, I became the enemy. The government in Eritrea would think I am supporting Ethiopia. If I go back, they would kill me immediately.”

“We were persecuted in Eritrea and we are persecuted in Ethiopia. We are seeking to be liberated from persecution. That is why we want to be resettled.”

Even resettlement, however, is not without stress. “They told us it would be better in Shimelba than it was in Wa’ala Nhibi. Now they tell us it will be better in America. I don’t know what to expect.”