By Alisha Ryu- Nairobi, 05 June 2008 — Residents and community leaders in western Ethiopia say thousands of people in several border regions have been displaced by Sudanese troops in recent weeks, following what they describe as a secret, illegal deal between the governments in Addis Ababa and Khartoum. Critics say the secret deal to demarcate the border gives Sudan the right to occupy areas Ethiopians historically consider sacrosanct. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has details from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.
A former regional official in the southwestern Gambella region, Omod Oman Obono, tells VOA that as many as 2,000 people have been displaced there in recent weeks in on-going clashes between residents and Sudanese soldiers.
Omod says troops from Sudan have built military camps in Gambella and in other areas north to protect territory handed over to Khartoum by the Ethiopian government sometime last year. He says Sudanese soldiers in Gambella are chasing away local people and inviting people on the Sudanese side of the border to settle in Ethiopian villages.
Last month in the Gondar region of western Ethiopia, the Sudanese army reportedly set fire to two dozen Ethiopian farms and imprisoned 34 people. Residents say 28 are still being held in Sudan.
The deal to demarcate the 1,600-kilometer-long border was not announced. But rumors that a deal had been struck began to spread early last month after high-level officials in Khartoum confirmed that farmers in eastern Sudan were reclaiming disputed lands from Ethiopia. On May 21, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi publicly denied that any Ethiopian had been displaced as a result of what he termed the acquisition of a portion of Ethiopian land by Sudan.
The news of a boundary settlement shocked many Ethiopians, who consider the ceded Ethiopian land to be historically and culturally theirs. The existing border between the two countries was drawn up more than a century ago when Sudan was under British colonial rule.
A U.S.-based advocacy group called the Ethiopia and Sudan Border Issue Committee accuses Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of illegally ceding territory without the consent of the Ethiopian people.
Ethiopia and Sudan Border Issue Committee chairman Fiseha Abebe tells VOA that his group will try to nullify the boundary settlement through the courts. He warns that Ethiopians will never accept what Mr. Meles has done.
“He did not even mention what he was doing until we exposed him,” said Abebe. “In some places, they have given up about 50 miles inside Ethiopia and in other places, about 30 miles. There is going to be a big backlash. This is going to be impossible for any Ethiopian to accept this type of situation.”The Ethiopian government has not said why it decided to demarcate the border with Sudan at this time.Both governments in Ethiopia and Sudan are embroiled in complicated domestic and regional conflicts, stretching from Sudan’s western Darfur region to Somalia.