March 15, 2007 / 1:27 PM / 13 years ago

Swords into plowshares, mortars into Frappuccinos

MEKELE, Ethiopia (Reuters) - In the shadows of his dingy workshop in a northern Ethiopian town, Azemeraw Zeleke stoops over a baffling array of cylinders, tubes and handles.

Azemeraw Zeleke holds a used mortar shell which he uses to make coffee machines in Mekele, north of Ethiopia, March 13, 2007. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti

The 54-year-old inventor and repairman supplies Mekele, and indeed the whole of the hilly Tigray region, with coffee machines. But it is his choice of materials that makes Azemeraw’s trade truly unique.

“The farmers bring me mortar shells from the old battlefield,” he says, gesturing north where Ethiopia borders Eritrea and the two nations fought a 1998-2000 war.

“The empty tubes are perfect for the coffee machines. Look, the bronze does not rust. And the shape is ideal.”

Using the burnt-out mortar shells as the inner barrel of his coffee makers, Azemeraw and his half dozen workers need about a week to make one sophisticated machine capable of turning out the dozen of so different types of coffee drunk in these parts.

“We take these objects of war and turn them into objects of pleasure,” says his son Mehany, 22, who works proudly beside his father. “Maybe, this is a message for the world.”

They pay about 350 Ethiopian birr ($40) for each mortar.

Locals collect them from the barren border zone where a mass of munitions remain strewn from a conflict that killed 70,000 people in a territorial spat between the two Horn of Africa neighbors.

The finished coffee maker sells for some 9,000-11,000 birr ($1,060-1,290), and Azemeraw moves about half-a-dozen a year.

Most of the mortar shells are Russian-made, remnants of the Cold War arms trade.

“Look at this quality,” says Azemeraw, tapping a thick shell with appreciation.

Before the war, the father-of-six lived in the Eritrean capital Asmara, repairing coffee machines and fridges.

But when conflict broke out between Ethiopia and its former province, he and other Ethiopians in Eritrea rushed back home.

Given the similarities in ethnicity and culture — including a shared love of fine coffee — it is hard for outsiders to understand the enmity between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which has continued beyond the war.

It is puzzling for some locals too.

“Before, we lived hand-in-glove together. We are the same people. We worked together, we ate together,” says Mehany. “One day, we will again live in peace.”

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