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 neighbors 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 honor 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 paralyzed 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. In Senafe, a trading hub 23 kilometers (14 miles) north of the border, the impact of the rapprochement is clear.
Twice a week, organised groups of Ethiopian merchants cross the border, marked by a bare strip of earth only recently cleared of anti-tank mines, for Senafe’s market days.
They bring with them recharge cards for the Ethiopian telecom whose service can be picked up in parts of the town and teff, the once-scarce grain needed to make the staple injera food.
Some even decide to stay.
“I live where I can get a job. As long as I have a job, I’ll stay here,” Sanle Gebremariam, an Ethiopian currency trader working in Senafe, said at a roadside where buses from both countries congregate.
“We’re trading together, but the exchange rate is unregulated, unstable and illegal,” said Taeme Lemlem, a bar owner in Zalambessa, echoing similar complaints, made before the border war, that were never resolved.
Getachew Teklemariam, a consultant and former Ethiopian government adviser, said the unregulated trade at the border, where there appears to be little customs or immigration controls, risks opening a “shadow monetary front”.
“The exchange rate is being governed by largely speculative perceptions from both sides of the border,” said Getachew. “The overall trade scenario has to be guided by some strategy.”
Both countries’ governments have said they hope the renewed trade links will boost their economies.
But the neighbors are not equals. Eritrea’s economy has underperformed since the war, while Ethiopia has grown at some of Africa’s fastest rates, which hasn’t escaped the notice of visitors to the country.
“I’m very surprised. I didn’t expect this much development,” said Simon Kifle, an Eritrean air force serviceman who was hurrying back across the border before its sundown closing after his first visit to Ethiopia.