Zalambesa: A Contextual Background Note of the

Gulo-Makeda and Irob Area 
February 19, 2001 

By Ad Hoc committee of Zalambesa-Irob community 

I. The issue: 

A.  Eritrea has claimed Zalambesa, Badme, Bada and other places as its territory during the negotiation held between Ethiopia and Eritrea under the auspices of the UNMEE on December 28, 2000 in Nairobi. Eritrea had also opposed to the deployment of Ethiopian Defense Forces on these territories. As a result both parties had to submit their conflicting territorial claims to the representative of the UN Secretary General who is heading the UNMEE for his “guidance”. 
B.  Despite the claims and counter claims by both countries, the parameters for settling the territorial dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea is already fixed in the peace agreement that was signed by both countries on December 12, 2000 in Algiers. Regardless of what the interim decisions may be, Eritrea is making a case so that when the final and binding decisions are made, it could get some or all of the territories it has claimed. Take note of the following provisions.


    Article 4, subarticle 15 reads as follows: “The parties agree that the delimitation and demarcation of the Commission shall be final and binding. Each party shall respect the border so determined as well as territorial integrity and sovereignty of the other party”.

    Article 4, subarticle 2 reads as follows: “The parties agree that a neutral Boundary Commission composed of five members shall be established with a mandate to delimit and demarcate the colonial treaty border based on pertinent colonial treaties (1900, 1902 and 1908) and applicable international law”.  

C. Given the framework and the parameters of the treaty signed in Algiers; there is a real danger that Ethiopia may cede to Eritrea, its very legitimate territories, some of which were recently liberated at the cost of immense human life. For the EPRDF administration, Ethiopia as a historical state is a vacuous entity whose territory and peoples has yet to be defined and bounded on the basis of abrogated colonial treaties and bogus technicalities which in the first place were designed by Italy to fragment and colonize Ethiopia.  

D.  The present government had from the outset advocated that Assab belongs to Eritrea depriving the Afar people of their Ethiopian citizenship and depriving Ethiopia of its legitimate right to own and use the Afar Red Sea Coast area. It had also argued that Ethiopia does not need Assab as it could use Djibouti and others as alternative ports. Since that statement, the absurdity of EPRDF’s argument and the vulnerability of Ethiopia to predators have become clear. Djibouti had suddenly raised its port fees by 150% to 300%. The conflict with Somalia have become more severe, the border with Kenya has become a security problem and less reliable, the Port Sudan outlet is obviously prone to all sorts of uncertainties. Despite such hard facts that Ethiopia’s national security and economic interest are in grave danger, the Ethiopian government has never revised its previous statements. Ethiopians could neither forget nor forgive the EPRDF government for its decision to cede the Red Sea Afar region and its people to Eritrea. 

And yet many people including some well-meaning Ethiopians may find our fears and mistrust that the present Ethiopian Administration may once again concede to Eritrea such places as Zalambesa, Badme, Bada or other places that are not yet explicitly mentioned as “absurd”, “unthinkable”, “crying wolf”. While we admit that it is bizarre for a typical government to betray the vital national interest of the people and country it governs, this is precisely what the EPRDF government has done.  

Against the background of the these observations, we as concerned Ethiopians from the Zalmbesa - Irob frontier present a contextual background history of Zalambesa and its surrounding regions of Gulo-Makeda and Irob by way of forewarning our fellow Ethiopians. While we focus here on the Zalambesa – Irob frontier, we realize that this is only one of the many areas Eritrea may again claim as the negotiation unfolds over the coming months. Since the Ethiopian government has chosen to keep the Ethiopian public in the dark on the border negotiations as a whole and the areas being contested in particular, we hope that the community members of the remaining affected areas as well as all other Ethiopians will also tell their story in the face of these imminent dangers.  

II. A general background note of Zalambesa – Irob area: 

Zalambesa is the capital of Gulo-Makeda woreda and Alitena is the capital of Irob. Both of these woredas are the core areas of Agame awraja, now named as Eastern Tigrai zone under the TPLF admini
stration. Adigrat is the capital of Agame.


Gulo-Makeda and Irob are part of the cradles of Ethiopia's civilization and history. They also form frontiers of resistance against foreign incursions and invasions throughout the country's history. The pride and patriotism of the inhabitants of these areas derive from the legacy of war, resistance, and sacrifices against foreign incursions and the campaigns the inhabitants underwent over the centuries to preserve their independence and identity. The name Gulo-Makeda is associated with Negeste Makeda, otherwise known as Queen Saba. One of the adjacent villages close to Zalambesa is called Sabaae. The name is popularly associated with the legendary queen of Ethiopia, Negeste Saba. In the middle of this village, Sabaa, there is a smaller village called Adi Ezana, meaning the country or house of Ezana. Alitena is another historical center. Located on the escarpment, Alitena is the first line of defense against colonial invasion and the point of departure from which Ethiopia controlled and dominated the Red Sea and beyond when Ethiopia  

dominated the high seas and safeguarded its trade to and from overseas. The highest mountain in Irob, Assimba is located near Alitena and was one of the main bases of the patriots during the resistance against the fascist occupation of Ethiopia. It is also the same mountain where EPRP started its armed struggle. The Irob community speaks the Saho language but many of them also understand Tigrigna . The population is Christian :Tewahido Orthodox and Catholic. The population is basically from the central part of Agame, Adi Werede Mehret. The Irob people trace their lineage to Negus Werede Mehret, after whom the place was named. According to the Irob oral and written history, Negus Werede Mehret moved to Agame from Tsiraá in Kilete  

Awlaélo. One of the oldest catholic monasteries in Ethiopia is located in Alitena. Two famous monasteries Debre Damo and Gunde Gunde are located in Gulo-Makeda and Irob area respectively, despite changes in administrative boundary lines over the years. The monastery of Abune Aregawi at Debre Damo is considered one of the oldest and holiest monasteries in Ethiopia. The EPLF has many times targeted it during the war. The ancient collection of documents and library in the monastery was burnt sometime before the war. The inhabitants of the area suspect that it was EPLF agents that burnt the library. It was a time when the EPLF agents were pillaging Ethiopia's heritage in the bordering area of Tigrai unchecked. 


Alitena and Irob in general are also known as the ancestral home of Subagadis and many prominent Ethiopian leaders that followed. Emperor Yohannes IV, who died in Metema, has his royal origins in Irob. Several of Subagadis' descendants have ruled different parts of Tigrai.  


The rural populations of these two areas are mainly peasants practicing mixed agriculture including livestock breeding and bee breeders as in the case of Irob. Many households however combine regular farm life with small trade and seasonal migration. In the past, they worked as small rural traders in many parts of the country including Eritrea until it seceded. While ethnic based administration system may have reduced the seasonal migration and normal small trade mobility; the inhabitants of Gulo-Makeda area and Agame in general work throughout the country where trade and work possibilities existed. The town dwellers of Zalambesa and Alitena are largely small merchants that move all over the country along the trade routes. Thus, the  

inhabitants of Gulo-Makeda and Irob area have been exposed to and familiarized with the national and cultural diversity that Ethiopia is endowed with because of their trade or seasonal labor related mobility. Amongst other reasons, it is because of this that the EPRP whose members came from all corners of Ethiopia felt at home and were well received. For the same reason the TPLF and the EDU were also able to operate in this region.

Despite its humiliating defeat under the Ethiopian Defense Forces that led to a hasty acceptance of the OAU agreement under Ethiopian government terms, allowing its defense forces to stay in Eritrean territory, Eritrea attempted to renegotiate the terms by claiming Zalambesa was under its administration prior to the conflict. The Eritrean claim is rather paradoxical and sounds absurd. The question however is not how absurd the Eritrean claim is, rather the trust Eritrea has that its absurd claims shall kindly and respectfully be entertained and satisfied by the Ethiopian overnment. It is just another evidence that Eritrea's EPLF trusts that it will always be protected against its own risky adventures without any reprisals all at the expense of Ethiopia's vital interest. Obviously Eritrea hopes to secure Zalambesa and the other places. The track record of the Ethiopian government on matters related to Eritrea is suspect. Therefore we ask all Ethiopians to stay watchful and on guard against a rude surprise once again.

  1. Contextual History
The Zalambesa and Irob have played a key role in frustrating the EPLF’s ambition to exploit Ethiopian resources and thwarted EPLF’s attempt to invade and disintegrate Ethiopia. For the EPLF, the Zalambesa and Irob frontier had remained one of the hostile areas that it wants to control as a springboard for its long-term schemes and adventures. 
  1. Zalambesa ruined EPLF’s scheme to loot Ethiopia’s resource.

Following the Establishment of the EPRDF government in Addis Abeba and the EPLF government in Asmara, the EPLF got unbridled access to Ethiopia’s resources. The EPLF organizations had free access to the national foreign exchange, to credit facilities and to earn foreign exchanges by exporting Ethiopia’s export commodities such as coffee. They were free to use the Ethiopian birr and benefit from Ethiopian exchange reserves uncontrolled. Even after 1993 when Eritrea became dejure independent, Eritrea’s access to Ethiopia’s credit facilities and foreign reserves continued. In the mean time Eritrean citizens were given priority in credit facilities, license benefits, and trading possibilities. While Ethiopia remained an open market to Eritrean merchants, Eritrea remained a closed market to Ethiopian merchants. In effect the Eritrean traders got all the advantages of an Ethiopian citizen as well as all the advantages guaranteed to a foreigner. It was impossible for Ethiopian merchants to compete and many were driven out of business.  

The unequal and advantageous rights guaranteed to Eritrean merchants were flagrantly clear to the Ethiopian merchants and Ethiopian community at large and for the residents of Zalambesa in particular. Many Ethiopian citizens complained about the discriminatory treatment they suffered at the hands of Eritrean administrators at the border and inside Eritrea. There was no satisfactory response and it continued. In the end, residents of Zalambesa and the Gulo-Makeda community as a whole took the law to their hands when the Ethiopian government failed to protect their rights. Thus the Gulo-Makeda community stopped any Eritrean truck that carries Ethiopian export merchandise such as coffee by establishing a border post similar to what the Eritreans were doing on the other side of the border. In the end, the local administration recognized this post and placed its employees. Despite this, the Eritrean forces tried to impose their predatory advantages with the help of government functionaries and Eritrean agents through intimidation. But the threat and intimidation policy bear little fruit on the Zalambesa front, and Eritrean merchants diverted their trade trafficking to the Adowa-Rama routing until that route was closed too.  

Furthermore, residents of the border towns like Adigrat, Zalambesa, and others on the trading route started boycotting Eritrean products. Melotti Beer and shoes made in Eritrea were totally boycotted. Shops selling such products were boycotted. Sure enough the boycott policy against Eritrean products that started in Adigrat and Zalambesa spread to other towns. To make things worse, traders in the border areas boycotted the use of the Eritrean “NACFA” as a medium of exchange or its value was not what the Eritreans had hoped for a one-to-one exchange. To the frustration and disappointment of EPLF, its plans to printout NACFA and import Ethiopian commodities at paper value failed and its plans to develop quickly also became simply unattainable. 


B. Local militia defeats and halts EPLF’s rapid invasion in Zalambesa-Irob front.


Encouraged by the absence of an Ethiopian army on the border areas and its miscalculations, the EPLF followed its invasion of Badme in 1998 by launching a massive attack at Zalmbesa, Aiga and Maicháa on the Gulo-makeda and Irob frontier hoping to penetrate deep into Ethiopia by surprise. The Gulo-Makeda and Irob community had warned that such an EPLF adventure was on the making. To the surprise of the Eritrean forces, their initial invading army was defeated and driven back by the local militia and population at immense human costs. (Read the article: “Yesenbet TaTakiwotch”, Addis Zemen, Tahsas 23, 1991). Fearing encirclement in a hostile territory, the Eritrean invading army reinforced its retreating army with mechanized brigades and moved back to the Zalambesa and Aiga again. But they were checked from further advancing until the Ethiopian army was moved to the front some weeks later.

During the two years on and off war, the EPLF army systematically destroyed the historical places and relics, looted churches and antics of the town of Zalambesa and the villages in the area. EPLF’s worst hateful revenge and destructive conduct was best expressed in Zalambesa. The flourishing town of 16,000 was turned into an ancient ruin and haunted city. No standing building however modest, no wooden work, no metal work, no ceilings were left. To insure that the communities shall never reestablish themselves in Zalambesa and Alitena again and to terrorize the residents, the EPLF mined and booby trapped the ruined houses. Many old residents, who came to visit their ruined abode, were maimed and killed by the evil schemes of EPLF. This act was not limited to these towns, however. From the high places in these areas, they bombarded remote villages displacing every community they could. Adigrat the capital of the region and its surroundings were also the target of wanton destruction. Of course, Makale the capital of Tigrai on the line was also bombarded, with the school children at Ayder being the target. 

It is hard to imagine the depth of vindictive hatred the EPLF harbored against the Zalambesa and Agame community in particular and against the Ethiopian people in general. For the Gulo-Makeda and Irob community, it is still hard to fathom how the Eritrean army behaved as it did. In light of these circumstances, it sounds strange that Eritrea should claim Zalambesa, the symbol of its evil hatred and vengeance. It is actually not strange. EPLF’s vindictive destruction of Zalambesa is understandable from the standpoint of the evil mind. The Gulo-Makeda and Irob community as a whole and the Zalambesa town residents in particular frustrated EPLF’s scheme to exploit Ethiopia’s resources unbridled and unchecked. 

The greed and unrifled access that the EPLF wanted to have was checkmated at Zalambesa and later extended to other crossing borders in Tigrai (by late 1997 to early 1998), just before they resorted to invasion. It is no wonder that Zalambesa, the town in particular and Gulo-Makeda and Irob areas in general were targeted for a hateful destruction. It is also not surprising that the EPLF is claiming Zalambesa - to put the entire community in its torture chamber. At the same time, Zalambesa has become the symbol of Ethiopia’s national survival, victory and the revival of Ethiopian patriotic spirit; it is a symbol of Eritrea’s defeat and humbled ego, the symbol of evaporated ambitions.  


IV. Ethiopia should not repeat another historical mistake 

Despite its victory at Adowa over the Italian army in 1896, Ethiopia made some agreements with Italy regarding its borders in the hope of averting another war and securing a lasting peace. In reality, what happened was some of Ethiopia’s territories and people such as the Kunama and other parts of western Tigrai were sold in exchange for money. Yet, Italy was not satisfied with what it got and nullified all agreements it had with Ethiopia and continued with its occupation plans. Unlike what happened in the north western part of Ethiopia, however, the Agame chiefs rejected any deal on their territories and as in the past continued to collect taxes and rule over parts of present Shimezana and other parts of Akeleguzai. In fact, when some Eritreans refer to southern Akeleguzai as Agame, it is true that these areas were parts of Agame. When the Italians were defeated and left Ethiopia and Eritrea, the English who led the transition simply incorporated Shimezana and other parts of Akeleguzai under their administration. Indeed Ethiopia has a strong historical case to claim this part of Akeleguzai as its territory.  

Not learning from past mistakes, the TPLF lead government preached the same slogan in 1991 that Eritrea’s independence would lead to final peace and Ethiopia’s focus on development. Again, Eritrea was not satisfied with its independence and initiated a war that led to the destruction of towns, churches, historical sites and most of all the death of thousands of Ethiopians. Despite its military victory and possibility of reclaiming the Red Sea Afar coast and asserting its territorial integrity, the EPRDF administration has translated Ethiopia’s military victory into a humiliating political defeat. Ethiopia has once again put its sovereignty and its territories for negotiation. 

Although we believe all earlier colonial treaties had been nullified when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935 in violation of all agreements, if the Ethiopian government insists on application of any old treaty, it should also look at treaties that state "the convent of Debre Bizen with all its property (particularly GULTI) will remain within Ethiopia”. As is well known, just as the Mary of Axum Zion had "GULTI" spread all over Axum, Adowa, Agame, Tembein, Inderta and more, the convent of Debre Bizen also had "GULTI" spread all over Hamasen, Seraye, Akeleguzay the fertile areas near Massawa. The total area of the "GULTI" owned by the Debre Bizen Convent at the time of the treaty is believed to be close to the total area of Hamasen. Moreover the "GULTI" are the most fertile and strategically placed localities within Eritrea·  

Because of the strategic and economic importance of the Debre Bizen GULTI areas to the survival and security of Eritrea, the Ethiopian government could play it hard. For Ethiopia, the Afar Red Sea area including Assab is also of vital strategic and security importance to Ethiopia. The exchange of Debre Bizen "GULTI" with that of the Afar Red Sea Coast area may be a reasonable deal for both. Besides the exchange of territories, the Afars who have always asserted their Ethiopian citizenship will remain Ethiopians and the Eritreans inhabiting the Debre Bizen "GULTI" will remain Eritreans. Neither of the two people will be deprived of their historic and cultural identity and both people may be left in peace. For now our demand is that the Ethiopian government should claim and own the Convent of Debre Bizen with all its property and the "GULTI" it owned in accordance with the treaty signed between Ethiopia and Eritrea. 


V.  Conclusion 

Let it be known that we harbor no ill will against our Eritrean brothers and sisters and that we stand also for peace. As concerned Ethiopians from the Gulo-Makeda and Irob area however, our desire is to attain a peace settlement that respects our country’s territorial integrity, a peace settlement that respects our historic and cultural identity and our definition of us. 

We reject any agreement or demarcation that redefines the membership of our community under some fictitious legalities and technicalities. That our region and community is the cradle of Ethiopia’s civilization and history which is not a subject for negotiation. Our fathers and forefathers have resisted colonial encroachment and kept the independence of Ethiopia for centuries.  

Zalambesa is the symbol of Ethiopia’s resilience and survival. It is the symbol of Ethiopian unity. It is also the symbol and a reminder to our enemies that the Ethiopian people shall always punish aggression against their country – acting in unison as they always did for centuries.

In the absence of transparency and against the background of earlier policy decisions that sacrificed Ethiopia’s vital national interest, we have to guard against being rudely surprised once again. 


As we were about to post this article, it is reported that the Ethiopian government and the Eritrean agreement have agreed to the deployment of forces and the temporary security zone as proposed by the UNMEE. It is further reported that the Ethiopian government has started withdrawing its forces from Eritrea and that the withdrawal will be completed by February 26, 2001. As usual the Ethiopian people are still kept in the dark. The Ethiopian government has not told its people about the concrete content of the deployment map it has accepted.