Mr Habtom reluctantly changes his nationality

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The Independent Online
ETHIOPIA'S TOP ten-pin bowler, Belay Habtom, had reached the height of his sport when life struck a nasty blow. Having represented his country in Indonesia, Ireland, South Africa and Egypt, he was due to go to Japan last year - when Ethiopia decided he wasn't Ethiopian any more.

In June last year he received a letter in his government office in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian Roads Authority - "It was from the Immigration Department, and said I was on forced leave because I was of Eritrean origin." Like 150,000 other Eritreans, he had chosen to stay Ethiopian when his ethnic homeland seceded in 1993.

Mr Habtom still keeps a photocopy of the letter in his pocket, but, willingly or not, he has had to abandon Ethiopia. "I saw some of my best friends taken from in front of my eyes. So I sold my household goods, got a visa to Djibouti, then left."

Now living in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, he has found one unexpected compensation - most of his friends from the champion team, having been deported too, are there with him. They meet every night at Asmara's only bowling alley, and plan to put their new country on the international bowling map.

Ethiopia has deported 52,000 people of Eritrean origin since conflict began last June, placing enormous economic and social pressure on its fledgling rival state with its tiny, 3.5-million population. Every deportee, on arrival in Eritrea, is given pounds 155 by the government and resettled in temporary camps or with relatives.

Many come from poor backgrounds, but among those expelled were members of Ethiopia's elite: doctors, students, judges, wealthy businessmen and sports champions. Ismail Haj Mohamed was a supreme court judge in Ethiopia, serving under three regimes. When the former dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, was ousted in 1991, Mr Ismail decided the new rulers deserved help with their "democratic package". The judge was also influenced by the fact that the victorious rebels from Tigray, in the north, were ethnic cousins of the Eritreans and close partners in the struggle.

"We were unpaid cadres for that regime," he said. "One hundred and fifty thousand Eritreans gave their votes and advocated their policies. We gave our best to help them stay in power." His "best" included political advice and legal help with a new constitution. In the early years, the Eritrean community was seen - by virtue of its commitment to the new regime - as privileged. Ethiopians of Eritrean origin held important government and security posts.

But at 5am one Sunday, seven security men came to Mr Ismail's house. The guard was woken, the dogs barked loudly, and when he opened the door, he was told to get dressed. "I never thought they would come for me," he says now. He was taken to Shagoli detention camp, 30 miles outside Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. "It was horrible, covered with human faeces." Along with about 800 fellow inmates, the judge was eventually sent to the remote Sudan-Eritrean border. Some of the old and sick had to be carried across it. Now in Asmara, he has a new licence as a lawyer, but remains devastated. "I am still an Ethiopian - a man cannot be deprived of his identity by a government."

In the course of the mass deportations, Ethiopians of Eritrean origin lost millions of pounds worth of property. Leul Sebhatu owned a Shell petrol station, a supermarket, and three commercial trucks. After her husband was deported in July, she became "afraid of every knock on the door". The local administration made her compile a list of her property, then came in the middle of the night to take keys to the business premises and vehicles. She was eventually taken from her house in Addis Ababa in August with her mother and her children, and put on a bus to the border, carrying only her handbag.

In Asmara, Mrs Sebhatu has rented a restaurant, and started a new life "as a cook, a waitress and a cashier". Her loss amounted to hundreds of thousands of pounds, but her family, at least, is safe. It is unknown how many Eritreans remain detained or under surveillance in Ethiopia for "security reasons".