After 20 Years of Silence, Strangers in Ethiopia and Eritrea Call to Say Hello

By Megan Specia | NYT

“I don’t know you, you don’t know me, but I am from Ethiopia and I am so excited to talk to you.”

That was the message Roman Tafessework Gomeju had for the stranger on the other end of the phone line when she called a hotel in neighboring Eritrea this week from her home in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

For 20 years, this phone call would have been impossible.

Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990s, but then a border war broke out between them later that decade, locking the two countries in hostilities and leaving tens of thousands dead.

Cross-border travel was banned, the embassies were closed, flights were canceled and phone calls on landlines and cellphone networks were not permitted between the two countries. Then this week, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea announced a formal declaration of peace between the two nations. Economic, cultural and diplomatic ties can be forged again.

And now with phone services restored, some people have begun calling strangers, just to say hello.

Ms. Gomeju, 32, remembered hearing stories from her father about the beauty of Eritrea. He had lived in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, for five years and would tell her about the good food, the clean streets and the friendly people.

“I used to think, ‘Wow, this is a place I want to see once in my life,’ and this couldn’t happen for the past 20 years because of the war,” Ms. Gomeju said.

When she heard the news that a peace agreement had been reached, she was eager to share her excitement with Eritreans.

“It was like a dream come true, and when I saw that the land line was working, I said, O.K., who should I call?” Ms. Gomeju said. “I don’t know anyone there, and I’m not from that area. I don’t know the language, but I felt I should call someone.”

So she searched online for hotels in Asmara and dialed one of the numbers.

The woman on the other end of the line spoke another language — Tigrinya, a language spoken by many in Eritrea — but Ms. Gomeju handed the phone to a friend who translated. The woman at the hotel in Asmara said that she, too, was excited and happy to be speaking with someone in Ethiopia.

“When someone answered my call, I couldn’t believe it, did I really call Asmara?” Ms. Gomeju said. “It is a moment I won’t forget in my life.”

Article first published here

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