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'I Am Calling Randomly To Say Hi': Eritreans, Ethiopians Phone Each Other Amid Thaw

A public telephone booth in Asmara, Eritrea. Ethiopians and Eritreans are calling each other this week as phone lines that had been dormant for decades came to life.
Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
A public telephone booth in Asmara, Eritrea. Ethiopians and Eritreans are calling each other this week as phone lines that had been dormant for decades came to life.

At home in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, Frehiwot Negash was watching history unfold on television.

She watched Sunday as Abiy Ahmed, the young reformist prime minister of Ethiopia, stepped off a plane and hugged the longtime ruler of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, waiting on the tarmac in Eritrea's capital.

The two men would officially declare an end to a cold war sparked by one of the deadliest conflicts of the African continent. For two decades, the two countries, which share a border, a culture and a history, had been bitterly divided. Now, for the first time since that war erupted, its two leaders were meeting face to face.

At the end of their summit, the men promised a new spirit of cooperation. They said citizens of each other's countries could travel freely. Phone lines that had been dormant for decades came to life.

Feeling like she wanted to be part of history, Negash Googled Asmara, the Eritrean capital, and came up with the number for the Crystal Hotel.

"When I called," she said, "the receptionist answered, and I said, 'I am calling from Ethiopia to say congratulations.' And I told her, 'I am very happy.' "

The receptionist told her she was happy, too. Negash told her that someday she would fly to Asmara. And the receptionist replied, "We will welcome you."

"We were one people before," said Negash. "Just because of the politics and other things, we differed, but we were one."

"We've been cut off from each other"

A great majority of Eritreans voted to separate from Ethiopia in 1993, but shortly thereafter, border disputes erupted into a full-scale war with Ethiopia that left some 80,000 people dead on both sides.

Zecharias Zelalem, an Ethiopian journalist for the website OPride.com, says thousands of Eritreans and Ethiopians were expelled from each other's countries, phone lines went dead and the governments pushed suspicions between family.

He remembers when he was growing up in Addis Ababa, the most well-known pastry shop was owned by an Eritrean. The chef was deported and the pastry shop, a landmark, closed.

"So, we've been cut off from each other," he said.

For Zelalem, who lived between Canada and Ethiopia, it meant that he had to organize phone trees. He would call his Ethiopian family member and then his Eritrean family member and patch them together through him.

One of his cousins left for Ethiopia to escape compulsive military service in Eritrea. It was Zelalem who, two years later, was able to connect his cousin to his mother and father. It was the first time the parents had heard their son was OK, that he had made it across the border alive.

"It was ridiculous," Zelalem said. "So they are living literally next to each other, neighboring countries, and I was 5,000 kilometers [3,100 miles] away, arranging for them to contact each other."

"We will be family"

It took Selehadin Eshetu three days of dialing random numbers to connect with someone in Eritrea. On Wednesday, as he was getting dressed to go to work in Addis Ababa, someone picked up.

Eshetu said hello; they said hello. The person asked, "Who is this?"

Eshetu said: "I am Selehadin and I am calling from Ethiopia. And I am calling randomly to say hi and to tell you how happy I am."

Eshetu said he heard the same happiness from the voice at the other end of the line. He told Eshetu this was huge for him and he wanted this relationship to continue.

"And he said, 'I am going to save your number; I am going to call you regularly. We will be family,'" Eshetu said.

Eshetu doesn't have family in Eritrea. But his father died there, fighting in the war when Eshetu was just 12 years old.

"I don't know where his grave is," he said. "I just know the name of the place. I've never been there because of the political decisions."

Some of his family lived in Eritrea, but they were kicked out during the war. The same thing happened to some of his close friends. So when he heard that stranger on the other end of the line call him family, he wept.

A part of him always felt a part of Eritrea. And what that voice on the other side of the line told him was that a part of him would always be a part of Eritrea.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is an international correspondent for NPR. He was named NPR's Mexico City correspondent in 2022. Before that, he was based in Cape Town, South Africa.
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