'Peace Is Everything': Ethiopia And Eritrea Embrace Open Border After Long Conflict In July, the countries declared the war was over; a couple of months later, they opened their border for the first time in almost 20 years. Some analysts caution big changes are coming too quickly.
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'Peace Is Everything': Ethiopia And Eritrea Embrace Open Border After Long Conflict

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'Peace Is Everything': Ethiopia And Eritrea Embrace Open Border After Long Conflict

'Peace Is Everything': Ethiopia And Eritrea Embrace Open Border After Long Conflict

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Historic changes have come to Ethiopia. Now that it's reached peace with its longtime enemy, Eritrea, phone lines that were once dead have come alive. Flights have resumed. And the border that was once a killing field just months ago is now suddenly open. NPR's Eyder Peralta visited that once-contentious territory.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Pretty much everywhere you go here in Zalambessa, there are reminders of war. Buildings and houses are in rubble. Walls are still riddled with bullet holes, and trenches still mark the border. But today, a young woman has set up a cafe here, and kids are selling drinks and candy to travelers.

TESFAGABIR: (Vocalizing).

PERALTA: Tesfagabir is just returning from Eritrea on a horse-drawn cart. He's been ferrying people and things back and forth. And every time he crosses, he says, it still feels like a dream.

TESFAGABIR: (Through interpreter) Peace is everything. And the first time I cross, I feel very happy but sad for those who sacrificed in the war.

PERALTA: Eritrea and Ethiopia were once a single country. Through a referendum, Eritrea amicably split from Ethiopia in 1993. But the countries disagreed on their borders, and that sparked one of the longest and bloodiest wars on the continent. As many as 100,000 people died, and hundreds of thousands were displaced. To Tesfagabir - who, like most people here, only gives his first name because he still fears the government - it was a war that never made sense.

TESFAGABIR: (Through interpreter) We have children from them, and we - they have children from us. We are connected with blood - deeply, not in the border only.

PERALTA: As he drives away, I step over the trenches. In the distance, Eritrean soldiers are still patrolling. This is a harsh land. It's mostly white rocks. It hardly rains. But here, I find Mezgebo winnowing wheat, making the air golden as his grains take flight. He points to what used to be his house. It's a pile of rocks. A week ago, he would have been shot for coming back here.

MEZGEBO: (Through interpreter) I don't feel hope that I will see them.

PERALTA: But the one thing he wants is closure, for the governments to confirm that his brother is dead. After years of popular protests in Ethiopia, a reformist prime minister was installed by the ruling party. And one of the first things Abiy Ahmed did was fly to Asmara. He shook hands with Isaias Afwerki, one of the world's most ruthless dictators, and a peace began to blossom.

DANIEL BERHANE: But when you go to the details, they are poorly managed. They are not properly planned and designed, so most of them end up being messy.

PERALTA: Daniel Berhane is a political analyst. He worries that the relations between these two countries have resumed too quickly, without any ground rules on taxes, or border controls or currencies. The last time these two countries fought, it was over these exact issues.

BERHANE: So all these could potentially explode. We never know. We are in a crossroads, anyway.

PERALTA: That unknown was clear the minute I arrive in Badme.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Tigrinya).

PERALTA: It's a tiny, dusty town that has been at the center of this conflict. Both countries fought bitterly to keep it within their borders. But when Ethiopia made peace, it promised to hand Badme back to Eritrea. So it was surprising to still see Ethiopian military vehicles rumbling through town.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES RUMBLING)

PERALTA: I stop at the final house before the Eritrean border. The owner tells us we shouldn't go any farther because the rest of the road is mine. But she invites me to sit to meet Shishay and Mihret, a brother and sister who have not seen each other in 20 years since the beginning of the war. The owner begins a coffee ceremony. She burns incense. She roasts some beans and then grinds them with care.

(SOUNDBITE OF POUNDING)

PERALTA: Shishay and Mihret just look at each other. She married an Eritrean man. And the last time she saw her brother, he was a little kid.

MIHRET: (Speaking Tigrinya).

PERALTA: She says authorities warned them not to visit Badme because they could be killed by a mine. But her heart told her to make the journey anyway.

SHISHAY: (Through interpreter) We were missing very much each other. If missing could kill, it would kill us.

PERALTA: Shishay says for years, the only news he got from her came through letters ferried by the Red Cross. And sometimes he would stand here in Ethiopia and stare across an open field, knowing that his sister was just a few miles away.

SHISHAY: (Through interpreter) We were in constant life thinking about each other. I was thinking about her. And I never expect that I would find her alive. She's lucky than the other families because she find me. She miss her - our father because he died. He died.

PERALTA: And just as we finish our coffee, the owner, who didn't know any of us, begins to pop some corn.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Screaming).

PERALTA: We watch cousins play as if they've known each other all their lives. I ask the adults if they think this peace will last. They hope so, they say, because everyone is tired of fighting. The soldiers, the people, the governments, everyone is tired of the fighting. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, along the Ethiopian-Eritrean border.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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