After 20 years of bloody conflict and grim stalemate, the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia is officially open for business and merchants are trading freely across the former war zone.
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.
But now the two countries will trade freely after a step by Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki reopening the crossing at Zalambessa, an Ethiopian town on a major route into Eritrea on September.
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.
Where soldiers stared each other down as recently as six months ago, a relaxed army presence now watches horse-drawn carts and buses full of visitors, as trade and tourism crosses the border of Africa’s longest-running conflict.
Merchants in the disputed territories once fought over between Eritrea and Ethiopia are now enjoying the benefits of open trade and a huge spike in the movement of people.
For two decades, little more than soldiers, refugees and rebel fighters moved across the closed border between the two countries.
However, now goods and people are free to cross the border, filling merchant shelves with goods that were previously out of reach.
- More importantly, the peace deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia has transformed a barren war zone into a border bustling with activity and potential customers for merchants to sell their product to.
The business boom is accompanied by a surge in the number of Eritrean refugees crossing the border into Ethiopia in a bid to escape the repressive regime of Isaias Afwerki.
There are also problems for Ethipiopian traders dealing with their new Eritrean partners, who have to deal with the unstable value of the Eritrean nakfa and unregulated exchange rates.
“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.
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.