Sun, Jul 22, 2018 - Page 4 News List

Eritrean diaspora watches as Ethiopia tensions ease

AP, TEL AVIV, Israel

Boys pose for a photograph as they sell cactus fruit in Asmara on Friday.

Photo: Reuters

The sudden thaw between longtime enemies Eritrea and Ethiopia is opening up a world of possibilities for the neighboring countries’ residents: new economic and diplomatic ties, telephone and transport links, and the end to one of Africa’s most bitter feuds.

However, the fledgling peace is raising new questions for Eritrea’s diaspora, tens of thousands who fled their government, a rigid system of compulsory military conscription and endemic poverty.

Now they are waiting to see how the truce will shape their homeland and perhaps offer them a chance to return.

“I want to go to my country,” said Salamwit Willedo, a 29-year-old Eritrean living in Israel. “Everywhere I am a refugee, but my country is my homeland. I feel home there. So I hope, I wish, that [peace] will happen.”

Tiny Eritrea, with 5 million people, gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after years of rebel warfare. It has been ruled by Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki since then and has become one of the world’s most reclusive nations.

The state of war with Ethiopia has kept the Red Sea country in a constant state of military readiness, with an indefinite conscription system that has drawn criticism from rights groups and sent thousands fleeing in to Europe, Israel and other African nations.

The two nations fought a bloody border war from 1998 to 2000 that killed tens of thousands and left families separated, but the antagonism faded abruptly last month when reformist Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that Ethiopia was fully accepting a peace deal signed in 2000 that hands key disputed border areas to Eritrea.

The hostility between the nations has evaporated dramatically since then. The leaders have visited each other’s countries to jubilant receptions, diplomatic and other ties have been restored, and the flagship Ethiopian Airlines resumed flights to Eritrea this week.

Ethiopia’s embrace of the peace deal was the boldest change yet by Abiy as the country moves away from years of anti-government protests demanding wider freedoms in Africa’s second-most populous nation of more than 100 million people. Now eyes are turned to Eritrea and how peace might prompt it to loosen up and drop its long defensive stance.

“Hate, discrimination and conspiracy is now over,” the 72-year-old Eritrean leader said this week to cheers and people chanting his name during his first visit to Ethiopia in 22 years.

While the diaspora is split into government supporters and critics, many Eritreans abroad are skeptical of change as long as the government remains in power.

“I think it’s not going to bring a solution inside the country, because we still have thousands of prisoners in the country. We don’t have a constitution, we don’t have internal peace,” said Bluts Iyassu, who came to Tel Aviv in 2010 and is a member of United Eritreans for Justice, a group of Eritrean expatriates who are working to promote democracy in their home country.

Israel has become a prime destination for fleeing Eritreans and is home to about 26,000. Most live in downtrodden neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv and work in menial jobs in restaurants or hotels.

While many say their lives are better than in Eritrea, they have not received a warm welcome in Israel, which has struggled to cope with an influx of migrants from Eritrea and Sudan.

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