Ethiopia and Eritrea’s cold war has come to an abrupt end, sparking vast change. I speak with a political prisoner who was unlawfully detained for 20 years.
By Simon Meretab
Ethiopia and its neighbour Eritrea share an ancient history and a very young population. The median age is 18 years old in each country, compared with 36 in the United States and 42 in the European Union.
The youthful faces are the first things that catch the eye when walking around Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
Second is the omnipresence of cranes and construction sites.
The third and most ubiquitous of shared images is the picture of Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed smiling and shaking hands, with both of their flags in the background.
The image is plastered virtually everywhere, most commonly as stickers on private vehicles and the “blue donkey” taxis clogging city traffic. It’s all but impossible to miss this celebratory display of rapprochement while gridlocked in Addis traffic.
In less than a year since taking office, Ahmed has overseen unprecedented, fast-paced economic and political reforms, opened up to the opposition and released thousands of political prisoners.
Yet Ahmed’s reforms have gone beyond domestic policies.
He took the world by surprise during his acceptance speech when he stated his determination to end Africa’s longest cold war conflict by accepting the Algiers Agreement, which establishes the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The news sparked weeks-long outbreaks of jubilee on both sides.
With two of the world’s smallest economies per capita, Ethiopia and Eritrea went to war in 1998. Beginning as a border dispute, the fighting lasted only two years, but tens of thousands of people died in each country before the conflict evolved into a state of “no war, no peace” that lasted 20 years.
The two nations share more than a border. They have common ethnic groups, cultural traditions and language, making the conflict a truly vicious war between brothers. Both sides are now making concessions simply unimaginable only a few months earlier.
Phone lines between the two countries have been reestablished, allowing family members separated for two decades to hear each others’ voices again. Last June, an Ethiopian Airlines flight connecting the two capitals landed in Asmara for the first time since the war.
As I rode a taxi to interview Gebre (who asked that I use a pseudonym), I noticed a gigantic sombrero hat on the taxi’s dashboard, impairing the imperturbable driver’s view. Hand-painted on its brim were the Eritrean and Ethiopian flags.
“Sir, why did you put that hat there, with the flags?” I asked the driver.
“Because the Eritreans are our brothers,” he replied. “We are so happy that this senseless war is over.”
Gebre’s story lies at the centre of the seismic changes that have rocked the two countries.
A distinguished man in his 80s, Gebre speaks excellent English and has impeccable manners. These days he is constantly surrounded by his children, extended family and friends who swarm his house as though they were celebrating a newborn.
Instead, they are celebrating Gebre’s rebirth and return to them after an absence of 19 years and 6 months.
Gebre tells his story in a calm, analytical manner, rarely showing any anger or resentment.
He was born in Ethiopia, but at age 38 moved to Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. It was the mid-1970s, and he had won work as a manager for Italian companies working in Asmara’s thriving textile, shoe and sweater manufacturing industries.
Asmara became his second home — the place where he would eventually meet his wife and raise their children for 30 years.
In 1998, skirmishes between Ethiopia and Eritrea over the definition of their common border erupted into a full-fledged border conflict. Tension in both countries was high, but Gebre, nearing retirement and with grown children, continued to work in Asmara, managing a development NGO.
One morning in the spring of 1999, on his walk to work, three plainclothes men approached him. “I was taken 300 meters from my own house and put in a Toyota Corolla.”
It would be almost 20 years before his family would see him again.
He was brought to a non-descript building. “For three and a half years I was kept in a room in total isolation, sleeping on the floor, not even a blanket, with only the clothes that I wore on the day I was taken.”
During this time, no one ever told him why he was detained, he was never brought to court and no one informed his family of what had happened to him. He simply disappeared.
“I was lost for three and a half years. No one knew where I was. During this time, my wife managed to smuggle our children out of the country, for their safety. She remained behind alone, hoping to one day hear what had happened to me.”
During his solitary confinement, Gebre honed techniques that helped him stay sane. “I used to lecture myself on a variety of subjects. I used to pretend I was giving a lecture to which I was also the audience.”
After three and a half years, he was taken to a regular prison, where he was held with other people. Most were common criminals, but some were also political prisoners.
“Once in the regular prison, I managed to secretly give my family’s phone number to some visitors, asking them to contact my wife to let her know I was alive. But the phone number in the house where we lived was reassigned to someone else.”
Finally, he managed to have another visitor inform his family, who quickly came to visit him. “Up to that point, my family thought I was dead. They didn’t expect me to turn up alive at all.”
Once in the regular prison, his ordeal was far from over. “I was kept there for 16 years without ever having any formal accusation brought to me.”
Twice a year he would receive a visit by the International Red Cross — until 2008, when they were no longer allowed to visit the prison.
Gebre said his story was far from unique. “There are thousands of Ethiopian citizens who were detained during those years, most of whom have never been released. A few of them were arrested along with me. Other members of our NGO, hundreds of people, have suffered a similar fate.”
As the years went by and a sort of cold war between the two countries set in, Eritrea became more and more isolated. Its leadership, increasingly paranoid, feared internal and external enemies alike.
Human rights observers denounced the government for having detained thousands of its own citizens as well, without any due process or formal accusation. Many have never been released, earning Eritrea the grim moniker of “the North Korea of Africa.”
One day last October, three months after Prime Minister Ahmed and President Afewerki met for the first of many meetings that would signal an end of the hostilities, Gebre was visited by two military officials who told him he would be released the same day.
His 20-year ordeal was suddenly over. Without any interrogation or formal accusation, he was released, with a piece of paper that stated: “Reason for detention: political.” No further explanation was given.
The sudden end of the border conflict, initiated by Ahmed in his acceptance speech, has raised the hopes of thousands of families of Eritrean and Ethiopian prisoners detained indefinitely at unknown locations throughout Eritrea.
Many are known to have perished while in prison due to abuses, harsh conditions and inadequate health-care access.
To this day, the Eritrean government has not informed these families of their deaths.
While the world waits to see how peace between the two countries will unfold and whether it will foster change within Eritrea — Africa’s most isolated dictatorship — not everyone in Ethiopia is rooting for peace.
The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the small minority it represents, which is located in Ethiopia’s border region, see the changes to the status quo as threatening the power it has wielded over Ethiopia for the past 20 years.
TPLF leadership, responsible for freeing Ethiopia from the communist “Derg” dictatorship in 1991, has concentrated military and economic power in the hands of its leaders and their cronies. The border stalemate with Eritrea gave them excuses over two decades to sustain their control and suppress civil society, the press and political opposition.
Now, the sudden rapprochement is sending nervous shock waves across the Tigrayan leadership and threatens to challenge TPLF’s grip on power.
Still, the recent spate of arrests of military and intelligence officials accused of corruption and human rights violations has been denounced by many Tigrayan commentators as ethnically motivated attacks against Tigrayans in the government.
The thaw between the two countries could have implications for the African continent and beyond.
On the pretext of an Ethiopian threat, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans had been forcefully conscripted to an endless military service. With the economy stagnant, Eritrea’s colleges and high schools had sent graduates straight to the army.
As a result, the country has been one of the largest contributors of refugees to Europe, despite its small population. The cessation of hostilities could stem this outflow towards Europe.
On a regional level, the rapprochement could alleviate security challenges in East Africa.
For decades, both countries had embraced a proxy warfare policy — both in each other’s territories and other areas of the Horn, like Somalia — that led them to support and host rebel movements under the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic.
What is more, China has increased its military presence in neighbouring Djibouti, where the United States has a military base that is vital for counter-terrorism operations in the region.
So Washington now has a major stake in normalising relations with Eritrea and re-engaging with it over security and other interests.