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

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

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Megan Specia
, New York Times

“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.

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,” 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 landline was working, I said, OK, who should I call?” 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 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?” Gomeju said. “It is a moment I won’t forget in my life.”

After the call, she posted a message about it on her Facebook page, where dozens of friends responded by saying they planned to make their own calls.

But the desire to connect extends beyond Gomeju’s social circle.

“I just called and said in Tigrinya, Hello I am calling from Ethiopia to say congratulations and I am very happy,” wrote Frehiwot Negash, who also lives in Addis Ababa. She had looked up a telephone number for a hotel in Eritrea after a friend encouraged Ethiopians to call and suggested phrases in Tigrinya.

Negash posted a message on Twitter about the experience of calling a neighboring nation that has been cut off from her own for decades. “Just made my night,” she wrote. “I called Crystal hotel in #Eriteria and talked with the reception. We are very happy.”

“I made the call because I was extremely happy because of the new beginning of Ethiopia and Eritrea,” Negash said. “Our countries have seen each other as an enemy for so long, and many have lost their lives. But now they made peace, which surprised me and the whole world.”

In another Twitter message, Natan Belachew, also from Addis Ababa, detailed a similar experience after dialing a random number and speaking with a woman in Asmara.

“I’m way too excited over this new Ethiopian Eritrean relationship going on, I just called a random number in Eritrea and this lady named tsebalem from Asmara answered the call, we had a nice chat and she even spoke Amharic!!!!” Belachew wrote.

And strangers were not the only ones taking advantage of the restored lines of communication. Family members and friends who had been separated by the years of war also scrambled to call one another.

The agreements the leaders signed are also due to reopen the two embassies and restore flights between the capitals of the two nations.

Ethiopian Airlines will again fly from Addis Ababa to Asmara, beginning on July 18, according to Fitsum Arega, the chief of staff of the Ethiopian prime minister’s office.

All Ethiopian and Eritrean passport holders will be able to travel across the border and will be granted entry visas, officials said.

Gomeju said she planned to visit Asmara as soon as possible to see for herself the sights her father once described.

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.