By- Hirut Dawit
As I am flying back to Ethiopia from a 5 days trip in Eritrea, I could not help but feel an immense amount of gratitude. Stories of loss, endurance, love, search for freedom and above all the hope for peace after 20 years of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea where pouring out of the people we met in the city of Asmara and Massawa.
When I growing up, we often had family visitors from Eritrea and my sister was fortunate enough to visit the country before the war. I remember how my aunt and grandfather felt when they were expelled from the home they lived in for 40 years and forced to move to Addis Ababa. Soon after, my grandfather felt weak and left this earth wishing he were back in his house in Mendefera (1-hour drive from Asmara) surrounded by the people he knew and cared for. He sighed, “ I would like to be buried in my church in Mendefera”; an ask we never had the chance to fulfill until now.
When Eritrea gained independence in 1993, the relationship between the two countries deteriorated into a 2-year war followed by 18 years of ‘no peace-no war’ stalemate. Under a new leadership, Ethiopia finally accepted the Algiers agreement, which led to the immediate restoration of relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea. While we Ethiopians rejoiced on the idea of visiting our neighboring country and indulging ourselves in the beauty of Asmara and the red sea coast, I was yet to understand the deep-rooted implication of the war on the Eritrean people and what the prospect of peace means for the ordinary citizens of Eritrea.
For us Addis Ababaians we can’t truly understand the cruelty of war in depth. It feels as though we are very detached from the situation. The feeling is opposite for the people of Asmara and Eritrea as a whole. The war had a direct effect on the everyday life of Eritreans and the youth were the ones that suffered the most. Every person I have encountered has lost someone either in Sawa (a military academy) or trying to cross Libya. They have been imprisoned for having a view on religion or politics and for 20 years they have been on a national service which restricted them to travel anywhere outside of Eritrea; all of which was a justified necessity to overcome a likely scenario of an ‘Ethiopian invasion’.
In protecting their country’s sovereignty and dignity, the youth have paid the ultimate price by scarifying their freedom to education, to move freely, to access information, to see their loved ones and in many cases, they have sacrificed their lives. For the Eritrean youth, peace with Ethiopia means to finally start planning their lives without worrying about national service, For the first time they will have the right to demand a passport, to be able to travel, to have access to university, they will listen to Ethiopians song without being arrested, they will follow any religion they choose, and they will see their loved ones after 20 years of separation. In other word, they will have the opportunity to oppose the rhetoric of scarifying ones freedom to protect national sovereignty.
I leave you with some quotes from the beautiful people I have met;
“Now we don’t say ‘selam’( peace) to great each other, we say ‘all is Abiy’”
26-year-old guy I met on the road to Massawa, Serving his 5th year national service as mining engineer.
“ I left Addis 20 years ago. I used to ride the bike around Posta bet and look for the days where Ambassador cinema played free movie. I had to drop out of school when we were expelled. I regret not finishing school. We wasted so many years. Now we will make amend”
Man in bar, Asmara
“I was one of the lucky ones. I only served 5 months in prison for my religion. I have been trying to go to Addis to reunite with my fiancé. Now I can go legally”
My beautiful host who took my friends and I into her house even though we have never met before.
“I came to see my father. 3 years ago, he decided to go back to Eritrea as he missed home deeply. He tried to cross the boarder and he died a few km away. I visited his grave at the site”
Man in the plane back to Ethiopia
“I cannot wait to visit Addis Ababa. I download Amharic movies and I watch EBS and Kana. The city looks beautiful and as soon as they (the government) allow us to travel, I will go there”
Man we met in Asmara
እንኯን ሰላም ኮይና”
20 + men and women on the streets who heard I was from Ethiopia
This trip has been an overwhelming experience that I will cherish forever. I encourage you all to go and experience it yourself.