ADDIS ABABA – The last time Ethiopian politician Beyene Petros knew for certain his brother Bezabih was alive was 20 years ago when neighbours alerted him to an Eritrean television broadcast about prisoners of war.
Anti-aircraft fire had just shot down Bezabih’s MiG 21 warplane while he was on a bombing sortie and he parachuted into Asmara, Eritrea’s capital.
The decorated Ethiopian air force pilot had already spent eight years in captivity in Eritrea after secessionist rebels shot down his jet in 1984.
So elated was Asmara about his second capture that it paraded him in the streets of the capital, airing footage of their prisoner on state TV. He was handcuffed and paraded to cheering crowds in his flight suit.
Since then: silence.
“This is not only personal, it is a national issue … there has been nothing. Zero – no information,” Beyene, a leading dissident, told Reuters in an interview.
The leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea are pursuing a rapprochement.
They speak of love and brotherhood and on Monday announced an end to their nations’ “state of war”. But the Bezabih’s case is a reminder of the animosity and hatred that prevailed between the neighbour states for decades.
It also points to the difficulty of overcoming this legacy.
On Saturday, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki arrives in the Ethiopian capital for a three-day visit during which he will re-open his country’s embassy, closed since war broke out in 1998. [L8N1U914Z]
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a peace initiative last month. He visited Asmara last weekend and signed a pact with Isaias on resuming ties, a move that ended a near 20-year military standoff after a border war in which estimated 80,000 people died in the war.
Around 70,000 Ethiopians of Eritrean origin were expelled from Ethiopia and both nations took prisoners.
On Monday, Abiy and Isaias announced joint development of Eritrea’s sea ports and the reopening of roads and other links between the two nations. It is not clear whether thorny issues such as border demarcation were discussed during the visit.
After Addis Ababa announced that Prime Minister Abiy was due to visit Asmara, elders from Bezabih’s home town of Hossana in southern Ethiopia sought to meet the leader to urge him to secure the release of prisoners including Bezabih.
A day after Abiy returned from Asmara a demonstration was held in Hossana demanding details of Bezabih’s whereabouts. But Beyene says the Ethiopian government is unfazed.
“My frustration has been that the Ethiopian side did not take this up. The prisoners of war whom this very government sent on missions at the most defining of moments to defend the nation – bad fate befell them and they are forgotten.”
In May 1998, Bezabih was plucked out of semi-retirement to lead combat missions as conflict broke out over their disputed frontier, only five years after the Red Sea state formally gained its independence from Ethiopia.
“It is not only my brother, but all prisoners of war. There has to be an exchange of prisoners of war consistent with international law,” Beyene told Reuters, saying an unknown number continue to remain in custody.
Ethiopian government spokesman Ahmed Shide did not answer a phone call requesting comment but Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu said a committee will be created, comprised of officials from both nations, to discuss prisoners of war.