With border open, Ethiopia and Eritrea are back in business

For two decades, little besides soldiers, refugees and rebels moved across Ethiopia and Eritrea’s closed border, but today the once-barren no man’s land teems with activity.

Horse-drawn carts, buses full of visitors and trucks piled high with bricks and plywood make their way across the frontier, watched by relaxed soldiers from the two nations’ armies who just months ago stared each other down from trenches carved into the rocky soil.

After 20 years of bloody conflict and grim stalemate, the Ethiopia-Eritrea border is bustling once again, revitalising frontier towns and allowing the countries’ long-estranged populations to reacquaint themselves.

“We have everything we didn’t have before, from the smallest to the biggest products,” said Abraham Abadi, a merchant in the Eritrean town of Senafe whose shop is now filled with biscuits, drinks and liquor made in Ethiopia.

Yet the border’s re-opening has sparked a surge in refugees and also raised concerns over the black market currency trade that some fear will destabilise the economy.

– Back in business –

Once a province of Ethiopia, Eritrea voted for independence in 1993 after a bloody, decades-long struggle.

A dispute over the the border plunged the neighbours into war in 1998, leaving tens of thousands dead in two years of fighting.

The conflict continued as a cold war after Ethiopia refused to honour a UN-backed commission verdict demarcating the border, a policy Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reversed in June.

Flights restarted and embassies re-opened shortly afterwards, and in September, Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki re-opened the crossing at Zalambessa, an Ethiopian town on a major route into Eritrea.

The opening was transformative for the town, a strip of shops and restaurants damaged in the war and economically paralysed by the border closure that now bustles with shoppers.

“We’re selling sandals and these shida shoes,” said trader Ruta Zerai, gesturing to a pile of the open-toed footwear popular with Eritreans.Read more>>>

In Senafe, a trading hub 23 kilometres (14 miles) north of the border, the impact of the rapprochement is clear.

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