Nestled within the shadow of huge overhanging boulders lies the town of Senafe in southern Eritrea, some 30 km from the Ethiopian border and about 500 metres from one of the largest minefields of the Ethiopian-Eritrean war.
Senafe, a busy, bustling and once-thriving trading centre, bore the brunt of much of the fighting during the bitter two-year border war between the two countries which broke out in May 1998 and claimed tens of thousands of lives. Destruction is everywhere. But so is rehabilitation.
"The attacking Ethiopian forces wanted to destroy the town's infrastructure and economy," Tesfai Baynosay, the Senafe area administrator, told IRIN. The evidence is everywhere from the shaky shell of the telecommunications building, to the ruins of the local hospital, to the rubble of what used to be the best hotel in town, owned by the relative of an Eritrean government official.
Tesfai says that after the third offensive in May 2000, the Ethiopians occupied the Senafe sub-zone for a year. About 50,000 people from a population of 80,000 fled the area and were scattered in various camps for internally displaced people (IDP). "The remaining 30,000 people had a very difficult time as Senafe was completely isolated and there were no services - no water, no healthcare, no food," Tesfai added.
And, sharing the same valley as Senafe, a huge minefield where the Ethiopian forces lay over 1,000 anti-personnel mines. Higher up in the mountains, the Eritrean and Ethiopian trench lines are still intact - only a few hundred metres from each other.
Many residential buildings were either partially or completely destroyed in the fighting. But an ambitious rebuilding programme, facilitated by the Post-War Emergency and Recovery project (POWER) of the UN Development Programme, is slowly bringing normality back to people's lives.
Professor Techeste Ahderom, a senior adviser involved in the project - which is financed by Italy, the Netherlands, ECHO, UNDP and USAID - says there is a modest recovery in Senafe town. However, many areas of the sub-zone are still mined and people cannot yet resume their lives, he states.
Tesfai agrees. He says people started returning to the town in May 2001, and one of the biggest problems now is the creation of sustainable livelihoods.
"Before the war, Senafe was growing very quickly," he points out. "The population doubled after Eritrea gained independence in 1991. Now this growth has stopped because of the war."
"I am satisfied with the pace of reconstruction. The government of Eritrea is working to restore the situation," Tesfai adds. "But I am really concerned about the sustainable livelihoods of the people. Certain villages on the border are completely destroyed, other villages are still infested by mines."
Work to rehabilitate destroyed houses is ongoing, he says, but external assistance is still needed to help people put their lives back together again.
Sa'ada Ali Omeh Higo has just returned to her village, Tisha, which was on the frontline between the two opposing armies. Her house is deeply scarred by bullet holes and it is with some trepidation that she came back.
"We were surprised when we saw the weyane [Ethiopians] arrive over the mountains," she recalls. "We fled to the [nearby] caves. I just had the clothes on my back."
She was away from her house for a year. The structure was partially destroyed and all her possessions were looted, she says. Now, thanks to the POWER project, she has a brand new roof on her house and new doors and windows. A total of 134 houses have been rehabilitated in the village, and work is underway to restore schools and other villages in very remote mountain areas.
But Sa'ada still fears there may be mines in the area. "Although they say it's clear, we are still afraid," she says.
The demining group, Halo Trust, is at the forefront of a massive mine clearing operation, mostly through Dutch government funding. Alan McDonald, the head of Halo Trust in Eritrea, says the huge minefield in the Senafe plain has been cleared of over 1,194 mines in an operation that began in April 2001.
He is confident the land will be handed back soon and that farmers will be able to resume their livelihoods. "This was a significant piece of clearance and means a large area can be returned to Senafe town," he says.
But he stresses the need for quality control. "You have to check you've achieved what you set out to achieve." Just one uncleared mine can be as devastating as an entire minefield.
McDonald believes there will be mine clearance in Eritrea for the next 10 years. There are roughly 250 mine sites in the country, identified through a variety of means including maps provided by both armies, the discovery of animal carcases and human bodies, and eyewitness accounts.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) is coordinating a mine awareness programme aimed at educating the population on the immediate and long-term consequences of landmine risks.
It has given financial and logistical support to the Eritrean Demining Agency (EDA) and other organisations to conduct mine awareness campaigns in IDP camps and schools. Even before this latest war, Eritrea was considered a heavily-mined country, stemming from the 30-year struggle for independence from Ethiopia.
UNICEF points out that landmines are an impediment to Eritrea's social and economic development. "Protecting civilians and especially children from landmines calls for a major international commitment to the development of culturally appropriate programmes for mine awareness and physical rehabilitation," it stresses.
NEXT STOP - ETHIOPIA
South of Senafe, the little town of Serha is the last point in Eritrea. Ahead lies the town of Zalambessa, awarded to Ethiopia by an independent Boundary Commission which last month issued its ruling on the common border. The no-man's land between the two countries is patrolled by Indian peacekeepers belonging to the UN Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia (UNMEE), with checkpoints at either end.
Serha is a ghost town. The wind sweeps eerily through the empty houses. The town was destroyed, but now the POWER project is starting to restore 560 housing units and a few people are trickling back. Most of the inhabitants are still in IDP camps, along with Eritreans from villages still under Ethiopian occupation or villages deemed unsafe because of mines and unexploded ordnance.
The UN Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator in Eritrea, Musa Bungudu, has emphasised the importance of keeping the momentum of rehabilitation going.
"Resources are crucial," he says. "If the resources dry up, the programmes will be left half-completed, and great strides are being made in the rehabilitation of this country."