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As Ethiopia’s “Wall” comes down, exiles dream of going home

JOHANNESBURG, – First came the shock, then the tears of joy, then the dreams of home.

As a three-month-old political revolution sparked by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has gathered pace, Ethiopians forced into exile by decades of war, repression and economic stagnation are thinking the unthinkable – it’s time to go back.

“When you have this kind of change, out of the blue, it’s time: I’m going back,” said Kassahun Gebrehana, barely able to contain his excitement as he sat in the sunshine outside his restaurant, Little Addis, in downtown Johannesburg.

The 39-year-old left Ethiopia 17 years ago after running into “political problems” with the government, a common refrain among the million or more Ethiopians who have left to build new lives in Africa, Europe or the United States.

Many departed in the 1980s, fleeing the brutal “Derg” military dictatorship that ruled Ethiopia from the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 until the late in the following decade.

Others followed later as the Horn of Africa nation was riven by ethnic conflict, culminating in a brutal 1998-2000 border war with neighbouring Eritrea in which an estimated 80,000 people were killed.

Even after the guns fell silent, others – Kassahun included – fled the pervasive authoritarianism of the ruling EPRDF coalition, which recently detained around 30,000 people, including students, journalists and bloggers, in response to protests against economic mismanagement and inequality.

With exile groups routinely denounced by Addis as “terrorist organisations”, he has been too scared to set foot in his home country since his departure.

In just three months, the 41-year-old Abiy has changed all that. He ended a state of emergency, freed political prisoners and made peace with Addis’ sworn enemy Eritrea, once a part of Ethiopia before it split in 1993 after a long independence war.

For Africans, it was the equivalent of bringing down the Berlin Wall.

“I’m not going to Ethiopia on holiday,” Kassahun said. “I’m going home.”

“OUR DREAM IS NOW”

Members of the diaspora coming back with their skills and dollars could provide a big fillip to an economy starved of foreign exchange and hobbled by the legacy of decades of Soviet-style central planning.

Peace with Eritrea should also allow both sides to spend less on weapons and more on health and education, while giving landlocked Ethiopia access to the ports it needs to make its dreams of export-led growth come to fruition.

The crowning moment of a rapprochement unthinkable only three months ago was the Ethiopian Airways Boeing 787 Dreamliner that touched down in Asmara this week, the first direct commercial flight in 20 years between the two countries.

The “bird of peace”, as the airline called the flight, ended a generation of hostility that defied the two countries’ centuries of common culture, language and religion.

“To see an Ethiopian plane land in Eritrea, with an Ethiopian flag, it was absolutely fantastic,” said Ayalkibet Tesfaye, a 42-year-old academic and deacon in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church who has been in South Africa since 2010.

“People were very, very emotional and very, very happy because Ethiopia and Eritrea were one community,” he said, scooping up a mouthful of lamb stew with a piece of traditional Ethiopian injera. “This is like the end of the Berlin Wall.”

The hugs and expressions of friendship between Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, first in Asmara, then Addis, have even led to speculation that Eritrea might end up reuniting with its much larger giant neighbour.

In a run-down building in downtown Johannesburg that feels more like Addis Ababa than South Africa’s commercial capital, Eritreans and Ethiopians work cheek by jowl in shops selling everything from coffee and spice to music and clothes.

In the door of one Ethiopian coffee shop is a wall-hanging declaring “Eritrea”. In the next-door outlet, T-shirts of Abiy adorn the walls alongside images of Jesus Christ.

“Ethiopians and Eritreans, we are all brothers and sisters,” shop-owner Nesanet Abera Tumssa said. “We are organising a big party to celebrate together.”

In the barbers’ shop on the floor above, Temesgen Assefa, a 36-year-old Ethiopian who has been in South Africa for 15 years, shed the habitual caution that has seen him introduce himself to strangers as a Zimbabwean.

“Now we can even have the freedom to talk. Before it was so difficult,” he told Reuters. “Our dream is now.”

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