An on-scene report from Shimelba.

Waiting for War
As Ethiopia and Eritrea edge toward another conflict, refugees in a border camp are watching with trepidation

By Jason McLure | Newsweek Web Exclusive Oct 30, 2007 | Updated: 6:41 p.m. ET Oct 30, 2007

..Like Berihu, most of the Eritreans at Shimelba fled to escape mandatory service in Eritrea's military. Others left because they're Protestants or members of other religious groups facing persecution from Eritrea's Coptic Orthodox government. About a quarter belong to the Kunama tribe, a minority group that sided with Ethiopia during the 1998-2000 border war between the two countries.

Though it may be better than sitting in a trench waiting for an Ethiopian attack, refugee life has been hard. The Ethiopian government doesn't permit Abraham and other refugees to work outside the camp, and there is little to do inside but sit around. "We are prisoners," says Abraham. "Only God knows what the future will bring." In these conditions, tensions inevitably are rising inside the camp as much as outside. "Men beat us," says Asmara Zewere, a refugee who says a man threw stones at her after she rejected his advances. "When a guy asks you for sex, if you say OK, he will leave you after he enjoys himself. If you say no, he's going to stone you."

Men outnumber women three to one at Shimelba. But as so many of the men are army defectors and former university students, the ratio of young men to young women is closer to eight to one, says Lula Kahassa, 20. "We encounter sexual harassment," she says. "There's also a lot of unwanted pregnancy." Sexually transmitted diseases have become a problem. An HIV/AIDS counselor at the camp says that one in eight women refugees is HIV-positive. And there is little health treatment for women, says Terhasse Tesfo, a 22-year-old woman who fled Eritrea after 12th grade to avoid conscription in a country that drafts both men and women into the military. "Men want casual sex," she says. "The major problem is we are living together with [so many] men."

Ethiopia itself is hardly a model of democracy and good governance. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has held a tight grip on the country since seizing power in 1991. Following the country's disputed elections in 2005, government security forces killed 193 protesters. Opposition leaders, activists and journalists were rounded up and jailed. The few local news outlets not controlled by the government operate only with a high degree of self-censorship. In addition, human rights groups and aid organizations have accused Ethiopia of widespread atrocities in its eastern Ogaden region, where its army is battling ethnic Somali separatists. This year alone, four foreign journalists have been arrested by the Ethiopian government for reporting on the conflict.

But for those in the camps, Eritrea's government may be even worse. As a result of the country's increasing isolation from the West (due to its support of rebel movements in Somalia and Sudan), bread lines have become common on the streets of Asmara. Refugees say opponents of the regime often "disappear," never to be heard from again, and that landholdings are sometimes confiscated and given to Afwerki loyalists..