Peace. Harmony. Reconciliation. In a world that is always striving to find new ways to divide and disagree, it’s hard to imagine that those ideals are still possible in any genuine way.
But this week, two East African nations with a bitter history found a path to reconciliation.
Eritrea is a relatively new nation. It became independent from its neighbor Ethiopia in 1991 after a 30-year war. My husband, Pete, was born in Eritrea during the war to two freedom fighters. In 1991, he remembers the jubilation in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, as the war for independence had finally ended.
The hope that came from that moment was not long lived. Isaias Afwerki, a major leader in the Eritrean independence movement, was chosen as the first head of state in April 1993. The first few years of his presidency saw the development of the government structure and an expanse of the educational system (which had for most children been formally non-existent during war times).
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But soon after, he became a hard leader. Eritreans were forced into “military service” at a young age, many unable to leave for a decade or more. Freedom of speech became a thing of the past, as the government imprisoned journalists, artists and others who spoke out of favor of the regime.
The hope of 1991 soured, and the country became locked in fear. They were not truly unified, but they were unable to protest for fear of retribution from the government. Had my husband and mother-in-law not left the country in 1994, he would have been among the generation of Eritreans that came of age under this dictatorship. It’s so hard for me to imagine who he would have been at this age, had God not made a different path for him.
Earlier this year, Ethiopia – which has had an ongoing border war with Eritrea since 2000 – appointed a new prime minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed. Ahmed is not a typical Ethiopian leader. He is young, only 41 years old, and he is from the Oromo tribe, which is the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia but has never been represented in the PM seat before.
When Ahmed began his term, he showed his heart for reconciliation and peace. He released political prisoners in Ethiopia, promoted unity between all Ethiopian people, and began constitutional and economic reforms aimed at improving relations inside and abroad. He also promised to resolve the Ethiopian-Eritrean border conflict.
Politicians make lots of promises that they do not keep. But in this case, last week saw the fruit of that promise. Ahmed and President Afwerki of Eritrea met in one another’s countries, and Ahmed publicly referred to Eritrea as “family.” Ahmed gave over the disputed border town of Badme to Eritrea and in the capital city of Asmara, Ahmed became the first Ethiopian leader in 20 years to meet with an Eritrean counterpart. They held a summit and together signed a “Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship” as they resolved to re-establish diplomatic relations between their countries.
Today, both nations ululate in a state of hope and joy. Phone lines and borders are open. The blanket of opacity over Eritrea is being lifted. And on a personal level, my husband can reasonably hope that he will bring his family back to visit his homeland in a state of peace in the near future.