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As Ethiopia & Eritrea Sign Deal to End 20 Years of War, Will Political Prisoners Be Released Next?

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A historic peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea ends 20 years of a “state of war” that saw 70,000 killed and thousands of families separated. We get response from Ethiopian writer Awol Allo, a lecturer at the Keele University School of Law in the U.K., and Vanessa Berhe, an Eritrean human rights activist. She founded the group One Day Seyoum, which campaigns for the release of her uncle, Eritrean photojournalist Seyoum Tsehaye, who was imprisoned in 2001 amid a crackdown on free expression.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at the historic peace effort in East Africa between Ethiopia and Eritrea, where leaders of the neighboring countries have signed a “Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship” and declared an end to nearly two decades of a “state of war.” From 1998 to 2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a border war in which 70,000 people were killed. Since then, ongoing disputes had kept the two countries in a state of conflict. On Thursday, the pro-government Eritrean Press agency announced on its Facebook page Eritrea has withdrawn its troops from the heavily militarized border with Ethiopia as a, quote, “gesture of reconciliation.”

On Wednesday, the first direct flights between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 20 years took off from Addis Ababa, headed to Eritrea’s capital Asmara. The majority of the flights’ passengers were members of families separated by the long-running “state of war” between the two countries. This is an Eritrean passenger, Abraham Tilahun.

ABRAHAM TILAHUN: It has been like 22 years. And, you know, because of the fight between Ethiopia and Eritrea, we had no even address to communicate with our family. But since Ethiopia and Eritrea create peace, we have come here. I have come here to look for my grandfamily. And I have a business in Addis, so I am planning to open sister company in Asmara, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, on Monday, Eritrea reopened its embassy in Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s prime minister and Eritrea’s president spoke at the event in Addis Ababa.

PRIME MINISTER ABIY AHMED: [translated] Forgiveness is to count the trespasses, the pushes and pains caused against you in today’s and tomorrow’s journey. Even if the offender doesn’t ask for forgiveness, the offended has the right to forgive. It is not necessary to have a recipient to make forgiveness. Forgiveness gives mental relief for the offender, and the liberty of the soul for the offended.

PRESIDENT ISAIAS AFWERKI: [translated] Because of our past historical and cultural synergy, we have overcome the plot to spread hate and revenge among ourselves. And we are determined to move forward together to register in development, prosperity and stability in all aspects.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on this historic peace deal and what comes next, we’re joined by two guests. Awol Allo is a frequent Ethiopian political commentator, lecturer at the Keele University School of Law in Staffordshire, England. His recent article for Al Jazeera is headlined “Torture, state terrorism and Ethiopia’s transformation.” And joining us from London, Vanessa Berhe, an Eritrean human rights activist, who founded the group One Day Seyoum, which campaigns for the release of her uncle, an Eritrean photojournalist who’s been imprisoned since 2001.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! We’re going to begin right now with Awol Allo. Can you talk about the significance of this coming together of Eritrea and Ethiopia?

AWOL ALLO: I mean, you know, as you said, this is such a historic, I think, coming together of two countries who have such a strong connection, one of the most, you know, proximate societies you could find around the world. So, for these countries to go beyond the kind of pain, the traumas and sufferings of that—the suffering that is induced by that senseless war and absolutely meaningless war, and to get to a place where the two countries and their leaders can stand together and say, you know, “We have been deprived of those very important moments of togetherness, and now is the time to move forward and forge a better future for both countries,” I think that is a historic and extremely significant move, not just for the two countries, but also for the broader region.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how this was accomplished, for people who are not familiar with the history between Ethiopia and Eritrea?

AWOL ALLO: So, Ethiopia and Eritrea are two of the most closely connected countries. And the reason is, Eritrea was part of Ethiopia until 1991. Before 1991, there were several movements that had been fighting against the Ethiopian government, and one of the most strongest movement was the movement that was fighting for the liberation of Eritrea, led by the current Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki; and several movements fighting on the Ethiopian side, and the strongest movement that was fighting on the Ethiopian side was the Tigrayan Liberation Movement, which was led by the former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. It was led by other people over the course of time, but it was Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia that finally brought down the Ethiopian government. So, these are people that knew each other very well, who fought against the Ethiopian government, shoulder to shoulder.

About seven years after Eritrea became—about around eight years after Eritrea became independent, there were disagreements around a range of political and economic policy issues between the two leaderships, and the two leaderships were not able to solve their differences peacefully. And they used Badme, which is really a desolate piece of land that is hardly good for anything, as a pretext to go to war. And it was one of the most senseless and meaningless wars, precisely because there was absolutely no justification for those two countries, two people, to go to war to resolve those disputes.

So, by the end of the war, the two countries agreed to settle their disputes peacefully. And one important component of that peace resolution was to submit their differences to a Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission, an independent boundary commission that would look at all the legal issues unsettled. And both countries agreed that the decision of the commission would be final and binding for both countries. And the commission looked at the matter and reached their conclusion, essentially giving Badme to Eritrea and some other territories, which were previously part of Eritrea, to Ethiopia. And then the Ethiopian government essentially refused to abide by the decision, citing a number of technicalities. And, obviously, what we had was a “no peace, no war” situation, both countries bent on destabilizing one another, not just these two countries, but also within the region. And I think the 2006 war between Ethiopia and Somalia, when Ethiopia entered Somalia, was very much a proxy war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. So, that destabilized the region. It also significantly affected the democratic landscape between—within both Ethiopia and Eritrea.

AMY GOODMAN: And where did the United States fit into this picture, in its relationships with Ethiopia and Eritrea?

AWOL ALLO: So, Ethiopia is a very large country, had very strong diplomatic clout. Ethiopia used the global “war on terror” very strategically. It deliberately manufactured a crisis in the region to get the United States and the Europeans on its side. It became almost one of the—almost the kind of policeman and a key counterterrorism ally of the United States in the Horn of Africa. And as a result, Ethiopia received financial and economic as well as technical support from the United States. But at the same time, there was a process of isolating and sidelining Eritrea by the Ethiopian government.

So, the United States’ role was not constructive at all. And the number of sanctions that were imposed against Eritrea, by and large, they were the concerted efforts of Ethiopia and the United States government. So, the Ethiopian government used the discourse and the language of the “war on terror” not just to isolate Eritrea by presenting itself as the only power that can provide stability in the Horn of Africa, but also to engage in plans of repression within Ethiopia itself. So, the U.S. role has not been constructive at all.

And I don’t think the U.S. actually played any part in the current rapprochement between the two countries. If the U.S. played any role, it was very, very marginal. This is, I think, the success of two countries, two African countries, without needing the support or babysitting of Western governments, sitting together, hammering out key issues. And they have reached, I think, a very important milestone. We’ll see where they can go from here. But I think everything, you know, from those clips that you played earlier, suggests that there is such a strong desire and a wish on the part of both countries to move forward.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaking earlier this month.

PRIME MINISTER ABIY AHMED: [translated] If there is peace between Ethiopian and Eritrean people, the Horn of Africa region will be a region of peace and development. Our people, who live scattered as refugees in humiliation, will come back with dignity. Our citizens will not be sold in exchange like commodities.

AMY GOODMAN: In addition to Awol Allo, the Ethiopian commentator and lecturer at Keele University School of Law in Britain, Vanessa Berhe is with us, Eritrean human rights activist, whose uncle, an Eritrean photojournalist, was imprisoned in 2001 and has been there ever since, close to—what?—17 years now. Vanessa, your thoughts on this historic moment?

VANESSA BERHE: For me, the war with Ethiopia or the situation with Ethiopia is only relevant in its relationship to the situation in Eritrea. Eritrea today is considered to be one of the worst dictatorships in the entire world. And the government has justified the situation in Eritrea by using this war. So, peace, for me, does not necessarily mean peace between Ethiopians and Eritreans. That’s not my main priority. My main priority is peace for the Eritrean people, peace in Eritrea in their lives, when it comes to education, when it comes to national service, when it comes to freedom of movement or comes to freedom of religion—peace for them. And to this extent, we haven’t seen any kind of remarks regarding the situation in Eritrea. And until that point has come, I can’t celebrate, and I can’t be optimistic about this peace.

AMY GOODMAN: Vanessa, can you talk about your uncle and what has happened to him?

VANESSA BERHE: So, following the war, in 2000—1998 to 2000, the Eritrean government decided to turn the country into a dictatorship. They shut down the free press, imprisoned dissident voices, journalists, politicians, who had been criticizing the government’s actions and their postponement of the elections. And my uncle was one of the journalists who was imprisoned then. None of the people have been released, but given a trial. Family members have not been able to visit them or get any information about their whereabouts. And he has been in prison, together with his colleagues, now for 17 years.

And I’ve been advocating for him from abroad for now five years, and we haven’t gotten any information from the government. Every time we’ve been submitting legal documents, we’ve been advocating for him and for his colleagues at forums, at conferences, at the U.N., at the African Union, the reply that we always get is that the second the war with Ethiopia ends, the second this conflict, the border dispute, is over, everything will go back to normal. Your uncle will be released. National service—indefinite national service will end. The free press will be opened again. Elections will happen. These are the promises that we’ve been given from the government in Eritrea, and these are the promises that we’re still waiting to be not only implemented, but even addressed.

AMY GOODMAN: Seyoum Tsehaye, your uncle, was the head of, one of the founders of Eritrean state television?

VANESSA BERHE: Yep. He was a—during the war, he was a war photographer, and he was one of the most prominent war photographers. He trained up a lot of the other war photographers and documented the war with Ethiopia. After the war, he became—like you said, founded and was the director of ERI-TV, the state television, and later became a documentary maker. A lot of his work is still being used by the Eritrean government, but his name is not being put there. His photographs are hanging up in the museums. They’re on television. They’re being sold as postcards. But his name has been deleted. And their attempt to erase him from the Eritrean memory has been very, very efficient, unfortunately. And that is why I campaign for him. That is why other people campaign for him and people like him in Eritrea.

AMY GOODMAN: A global survey released Thursday on conflict, government repression and modern slavery found North Korea and Eritrea have the world’s highest rates of enslaved people. The 2018 Global Slavery Index, published by the human rights group Walk Free Foundation, found the Eritrean government is a, quote, “repressive regime that the abuses its conscription system to hold its citizens in forced labor for decades.” Can you explain what this conscription system is? Describe its impact on people fleeing the country.

VANESSA BERHE: So, as I mentioned before, after the war ended, the government decided to use the war as justification for several of their policies—the shutdown of the free press, the fact that the National Assembly, the parliament, has been called. Another thing that they implemented then was indefinite national service. National service is supposed to be 18 months. But 'til this day, it's indefinite. People are enlisted, and then they’re never released. And they’re sent out to places in the country where they have no connection to, and on an indefinite basis. People have children, people have families, not only to be with, but also to feed. And the amount of money that they get is so limited that people are dependent on outside sources, so family members, friends from abroad. And this has been referred to as one of the main reasons why people leave the country. Over 5,000 people, according to UNHCR, leave Eritrea every month.

And a lot of them are young people, young people who were inscripted when they were extremely young, their last year of high school. And then, after that, they’re forced to stay, if they do not finish their tests—or, if they do not get their—file results for their tests where they can start colleges. But the university has been shut down. And they’ve been placed in colleges, if they receive the right marks. If they do not receive the right marks, they are enlisted into this national service program.

And it isn’t just the fact that it’s indefinite. It’s the fact that the conditions there are completely, completely horrible. Rape and all these different kind of human rights abuses have been documented and have also been, like you mentioned, criticized by foreign groups, because there are no NGOs in Eritrea right now. NGOs are forbidden by the government. So, the United Nations, for example, released a report likening this national service program to slavery.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to the story of Zeresenay Ermias Testfatsion, who sought asylum in the United States after fleeing his home country of Eritrea. He was detained here for more than a year. He was then deported back to Eritrea. And going through the Cairo airport in Egypt, he took his own life. He died by suicide. I spoke to Zeresenay’s friend Bereket Sibhatu, who would meet with him as a volunteer translator at the Broward Transitional Center in South Florida. It’s immigrant detention center.

AMY GOODMAN: Did he tell you what he most feared if he were deported to Eritrea?

BEREKET SIBHATU: What he said in his testimony is he said if he—they asked him, the lawyers, what would happen if he go back to Eritrea. He said, “I might go jail or tortured, might be even get killed.”

AMY GOODMAN: Do you believe that the U.S. deporting Zeresenay was a death sentence for him?

BEREKET SIBHATU: That’s what I believe, because if they know—if they know Eritrea is not the right place right now, you cannot deport to Eritrea, why Zeresenay has to get deported? For that situation, he ended up killing himself.

AMY GOODMAN: Bereket Sibhatu, the friend of Zeresenay, again, held in the U.S. He was applying for political asylum. He was denied. He was deported, and took his own life on his way back to Eritrea. I wanted to put that question to Awol Allo. What will happen to the situation in Eritrea that Vanessa has described?

AWOL ALLO: I think the dividends for peace are not just the economic and political security in relation to this areas. And I think there is also a human rights, democracy, rule of law-related dividend that comes out of this. And the reason is, as Vanessa indicated, the Eritrean government consistently used the security situation, this “no war, no peace” situation with Ethiopia, as a justification not only to keep such a large number of army, but also to completely repress the domestic political environment. Now, if the security situation with Ethiopia is no longer there, if the two countries could have a peaceful kind of relationship, the Eritrean government would have no justification whatsoever. And I think that, in and of itself, the fact that Eritrea would not have that kind of very clear, visible justification that it can point to, means that this is a political win for human rights and democracy in Eritrea, as well.

The second point is, even if Eritrea had a genuine concern that Ethiopia poses such a significant security threat, to the point that Eritrea has to keep such a large army and repressive domestic environment, then that genuine justification no longer exists, and I think all eyes would be on the Eritrean government to see what it would do in terms of opening up the political process. And I think some of the actions that we have already seen, within such a short span of time, which is releasing, for example, religious—members of religious, particular, certain religious communities which are persecuted in Eritrea, and I think that, in and of itself, is a very important step.

But, you know, at the end of the day, I think what would happen to the question of democracy and human rights within Eritrea is really up to the Eritrean people and the Eritrean government. The Ethiopian state had been in exactly the same situation until very recently. There are still—the changes that we see in Ethiopia are quite fragile, and there’s no guarantee that Ethiopia will be a democracy. But the Ethiopian people fought, they paid the price, to bring about the kind of change that we see now. So, the decision as to what the future will hold in Ethiopia is not entirely up to the government now. It’s also in the hands of the people. The people have clearly shown that they cannot tolerate a system that does not hear, that does not listen to the will of the people.

AMY GOODMAN: Vanessa Berhe, I’m going to give you the last word, Eritrean human rights activist whose own uncle, the Eritrean photojournalist Seyoum Tsehaye, imprisoned since 2001. So you have the U.S. deporting people applying for political asylum back to Eritrea. You have your uncle’s situation, other people in jail. Do you think the peace deal can improve the situation at all? And what are you calling for?

VANESSA BERHE: I call for the implementation of the constitution. Since the war ended, the Eritrean government has refused to implement the constitution and refused to implement the rule of law in Eritrea. The country is completely ruled by fear, not by law, as the U.N. report has said. And the people of Eritrea deserve so much better than this. Prisoners need to be released. The youth need to be, you know, taken out from the national service and getting autonomy over their own lives. And the Eritrean government has to step down, and power has to be transferred to the people. And that is what I call for.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Vanessa Berhe is an Eritrean human rights activist, whose uncle, an Eritrean photojournalist, has been in prison since 2001. Awol Allo is a commentator and teaches at Keele University in Britain, the University School of Law. As we report on the historic peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and we’ll continue to cover what happens there in East Africa.

When we come back, thousands and thousands of children remain separated from their parents. What is the U.S. government doing to reunite them—a government that separated them in the first place? Stay with us.

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