Seattle Ethiopians and Eritreans react to their home countries’ new peace

The Eritrean Association in Seattle invited Ethiopians to a meal to discuss the peace treaty signed by leadership in their home countries that ended decades of cold war. (Photo courtesy Ethiopia Alemneh)

For Faskia Getahun, Ethiopian who spent most of her life in Eritrea, the news that the two countries had officially ended the decades of war in July gave her a positive feeling she couldn’t put into words.

“It is different for me,” she said.

Though she originated from Ethiopia, her five children were born in Eritrea. When she returned to Ethiopia, only one of the five came with her.

“My kids couldn’t see each other because of the war,” said Getahun, whose children are now grown. “Now, finally after 25 years, they saw each other back home and will be coming [to Seattle] to live with me.”

The peace agreement reached in July marked end of the decades of tense relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Ethiopians and Eritreans who are now living in Seattle are happy to see the end of the two-decade cold war that separated families and friends. But the tensions that have existed in both countries for decades are causing a mixed reaction to the political news — while some people have a wait-and-see reaction to the peace agreement, others are ready to celebrate.

Faskia Getahun, sitting on the far right of the table, is originally from Ethiopia but her children were born in Eritrea. They have been separated for decades. She is helping to organize a celebration marking the peace agreement between the two countries. (Photo by Rahwa Hailemariam.)

Peace after decades of conflict

Eritrea fought for its independence for 30 years, until it officially seceded from Ethiopia in 1993. The two countries fought over the border region of Badme, and at least 70,000 people died. Despite an attempted peace agreement in 2000, called the Algiers Agreement, tensions continued in a cold war.

“The war was not about Badme, but Badme was the center of the conflict,” said Bereket Kiros, editor of the Seattle-based Ethiopian Observer.

Many Eritreans saw something more in Ethiopia’s intentions.

“The excuse for the war was border issues, and almost all Eritreans know that it was an excuse (for Ethiopia) to take Eritrea back,” said Isaac Araya, president of the Eritrean Association of Greater Seattle. “It was not about a border, it is a defined border and everyone knows it.”

But in March, Abiy Ahmed was named Ethiopia prime minister, and called for peace with Eritrea. Both leaders visited each others’ countries where they were each received warmly with citizens showing up on the streets to welcome them.

In July, Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki agreed to abide by the peace deal signed in 2000, ending the two-decade cold war. However, there are residents of both countries, including Ethiopians in Badme, who disapproved of the new agreement.

Differing local reactions

Araya said he was impressed by Ahmed’s visit to Eritrea, which was when he realized that the prime minister was serious about his promise on peace with Eritrea.

“To make peace you need two parties, and for Eritrean side, someone has always been there for a long time,” Araya said. “For the Ethiopian side, Prime Minister Abiy came like magic.”

Abenezer Yishak, Ethiopian human rights activist, said he supports the peace but he thinks details of the negotiation aren’t clear and should be explained (Photo by Rahwa Hailemariam.)

The Eritrean Association and the Ethiopian Community Center joined together to put on the celebration event in Seattle on Sept. 9, according to Araya. The two organizations appointed six people from each community to plan the celebration event.

Ethiopia Alemneh, member of Ethiopian Community Center and part of the event planning committee, said many Ethiopians have been hoping that their government would call for peace.

“The past leader didn’t consult the Ethiopian people and that was why we didn’t have peace,” Alemneh said. “Thank God we have a good leader now.”

Alemneh said she is not concerned about the border dispute as long as there is peace. She said the Ethiopian people have love for the Eritrean people, which was why so many people showed up to welcome Afwerki when he visited Ethiopia.

“We don’t need to pay lives anymore, we have tried to solve this using war,” said Teklesenbet Zerioum, member of Eritrean Association and part of the event planning committee. “This is the first time we tried it peacefully and the most effective way.”

But others in the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities are skeptical of the agreement.

Abenezer Yishak, Ethiopian human rights activist, said he supports the peace but he thinks details of the negotiation aren’t clear and should be explained.

“From the Ethiopian side, a lot of people don’t want to see the border given to Eritrea even if it means peace because 70,000 people died for it,” Yishak said. “How will they implement it? It’s still a pending issue.”

He also worries about what would happen if either country — which both have been ruled by one leader or one party for decades — changes leaders.

Yordanos Teferi is the board chair of the Eritrean Community Center in Seattle & Vicinity — which is unaffiliated with the Eritrean Association — said that some Eritreans are uneasy with the lack of information.

The Eritrean Community Center declined to take part in organizing the upcoming celebration event, Teferi said, because the group worried that support for the celebration would be taking a “political stance.”

Afwerki’s government sent directives to various cities to have celebrations like these to encourage support among Eritreans all over the world, according to Teferi.

“If you have enough people saying ‘this is great’ around the world showing that Eritreans are happy, then you legitimize the government’s decision to doing this,” Teferi said.

Teferi also thought it was inappropriate that the local celebration planning did not include representatives from the Tigray and Oromo, two ethnic groups in Ethiopia.

She said there are reasons to be skeptical, including questioning how Eritrea will be affected economically and politically by Ethiopia — which has a larger population and a stronger economy. Ahmed has expressed interest in increasing investment and trade.

Some Eritreans wonder if their independence is at stake again, she said.

“Many Eritreans are not getting what is happening, it is one thing to celebrate saying ‘peace,’ but what are the specifics of this plan,” Teferi said. “We are not getting that.”

Kiros also had questions. He said while the peace declaration was a joy for most Ethiopians, he wonders how the two governments reached an agreement so quickly. He said the details need to be disclosed to the people of both countries.

Kiros said any agreement that does not include the interests of the people in those regions, “would not be good.”

He believes that the countries should have settled it in the International Court of Justice instead of signing an agreement on their own.

“I felt the agreement didn’t bring peace and stability for our region because we wouldn’t have lasted 18 years to settle this,” Kiros said.

Kiros also said while the Algiers agreement ended up awarding Badme to Eritrea, he hoped both countries would commit to implementing the other borders that were awarded to Ethiopia.

Despite the questions that remain, all the local Eritreans and Ethiopians who spoke to The Seattle Globalist hoped that peace would continue.

Yishak said the war was never between the people but each country’s ruling parties and their interests.

“It should have never happened in the first place,” Yishak said.

“I want the whole Horn of Africa…to live in peace,” Araya said. “More than anything else, I don’t want to see any interruption in the peace process between Eritrea and Ethiopia.”

Seattle’s Ethiopia-Eritrea peace celebration event will be on Sept. 9 starting noon at Seward Park Amphitheater.