August 19, 2007 / 11:27 PM / 11 years ago

Expelled Eritreans seek damages from Ethiopia

ASMARA (Reuters) - Standing in a muddy courtyard, 65-year-old Letezai Tewolde-Bahta’s eyes dart back and forth as she stares at a doorway leading to Eritrea’s legal office.

Lawyer Ruta Ghebremichael receives a war damage claims from a woman in her office in Asmara in this file photo from July 30, 2007. REUTERS/Jack Kimball

One of thousands of Eritreans deported from Ethiopia during the two countries’ border war of 1998-2000, she opens up a green identity card and points to the granddaughter she says she carried across the front lines.

“The Ethiopians came in the middle of the night and they took us to prison for three days. Then I was deported along with the rest of my family,” said Letezai, who had lived in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, for 40 years.

“They took everything from us. Then they took us to the border. There must have been 30 buses,” the Eritrean housewife said.

In her weathered hands she holds papers from her past life in Ethiopia — proof, Eritrean lawyers argue, that she was one of 70,000 dual national Eritreans expelled during the war, in which a similar number of people died.

In a peace deal signed in Algiers in 2000, the two countries agreed to submit to binding arbitration by a claims commission and a boundary commission in The Hague.

While the independent boundary commission has made its final decision, the claims commission — set up to assess war damages — has yet to make a final ruling.

In the last few weeks, thousands of Eritreans who lived in Ethiopia before the conflict have lined the streets outside the legal office in Asmara and in other cities across the Horn of Africa nation.

They hope the Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission will give them back what they say was stolen by Ethiopia. Many say they have lost all they had — money, homes and businesses — but so far no compensation has been forthcoming.

Ethiopia is also preparing claims for damages against Eritrea at the commission.

While no figures have been released, Eritrea estimated in 2005 its claims could exceed $500 million, or half the country’s gross domestic product for that year.

Eritrean lawyers say deportee claims will be the largest.

“It’s important, because so many lost so much. Some of these people lost millions of U.S. dollars,” said lawyer Ruta Ghebremichael, 23.

The Commission has yet to receive all the financial claims from either side and is not expected to rule on how much should be paid until some time next year.

“WE LOST EVERYTHING”

Wearing an Adidas jacket and U.S. college basketball hat, Melake Yhidego, 40, enters a tiny office in a run-down one-storey building next to Eritrea’s legal office.

After waiting in line for most of the morning, Melake sits down in a chair facing one of a team of Eritrean lawyers working on the claim forms.

Like many expellees, he said he was arrested before being deported from Ethiopia, where he had lived for 30 years.

“My wife and child were deported one month before I was. We only met in Asmara,” the former driver said.

“This is our money. This is what we worked for so it’s a must that Ethiopia pays. We’re not begging, this is ours.”

The Commission — part of the Permanent Court of Arbitration set up to settle international disputes — angered Eritrea when in 2005 it blamed Asmara for triggering the war by attacking Badme town on May 12, 1998.

The small, dusty town was awarded to Asmara by the boundary commission, set up by the Algiers peace deal to mark the Eritrea-Ethiopia border.

Ethiopia initially rejected the decision. Addis Ababa now accepts the frontier ruling, but wants more discussion — a move Eritrea vehemently rejects.

The border stalemate has ratcheted up tensions along the 1000-km (600-mile) border and Eritrean lawyers said the dispute may affect the claims decision.

“It’s hard to see how the claims commission’s final judgment can be implemented when one of the parties is still refusing to comply with the boundary commission,” said Lea Brilmayer, a U.S. lawyer advising the government.

Melake Yhidego (R) presents his claims forms to a lawyer at his office in Asmara in this file photo from July 30, 2007. After waiting in line for most of the morning, Melake sits down in a chair facing one of a team of Eritrean lawyers working on the claims forms. Like many expellees, he says he was arrested before being deported from Ethiopia where he had lived for 30 years. REUTERS/Jack Kimball

In the crowded corridor, housewife Letezai shared the scepticism, echoing the concerns of many expellees.

“We lost everything, and we want it to be known,” she said.

“The Ethiopians deported us from our houses so why should we believe that they’ll pay us,” she added before turning her attention back to the slow-moving line.

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