“My dad and most of my family are really, you know, doing okay, during the Haile Selassie [period], so they called them adhari,” he said, referring to the derogatory Derg-era term used for people of status who were sometimes seen as Marxist reactionaries. “I don’t have anything to do with that, but during the Derg time I was in prison for three months.”
“My dad, he was a military officer during Haile Selassie’s [rule], and he was retired and he was sick,” Negussie continued. “So for three months he was in [a] military hospital, and I was in prison so I didn’t see him. And I was released [on a] Wednesday, I saw him only one day—Thursday—and he died Saturday.”
Negussie left home following the death of his father, with the assistance of a brother who’d come to Colorado years earlier. Eventually settling in Atlanta, he started a family and became disconnected from Ethiopia for fear of having his heart broken once more. These kinds of ruptures often extend intergenerationally. Girma, for her part, doesn’t speak Amharic. She has lamented not knowing her parents’ mother tongue for years, an anxiety that initially stayed with her ahead of the gathering.
“I’ve always been so proud of my heritage and like listening to my parents’ stories of Ethiopia, how much—just, like, the look in their eyes when they talk about back home, it’s as if I feel homesick for a place that I’ve never even been,” she said. “But at the same time, I wonder, I love Ethiopia, will Ethiopia love me back? Am I habesha enough?” she added, using the common (if also historically complicated) term that can refer to people of Ethiopian or Eritrean descent.
Negussie and Girma’s overlapping stories of separation—their fraught relationships to the country of Negussie’s birth and of Girma’s heart—are just one example of how political violence in and around Ethiopia has severed human ties along with ideological ones. The last several months have brought with them a swell of hope tinged with the residual effects of melancholy. Every newly freed political prisoner still carries the trauma of their unjust incarceration. Every recent photo of teary-eyed Ethiopians and Eritreans, most often family, embracing one another as they reunite is a reminder of the pain they felt while separate. Every feel-good story about Ethiopians calling random Eritreans just to test the newly reinstated telecom lines is a tale of prior disconnection.
For Solomon Ayalew, a recent D.C. transplant of both Ethiopian and Eritrean heritage, “the change that’s happened over the past couple months that [Ahmed] has brought through different reforms and stuff is … monumental for my family.” Ayalew said no one in his family had been to Eritrea in over 20 years; both Ayalew and his father, an Ethiopian, had never seen the country at all.
“I never planned to go back to Eritrea, I never thought I’d be able to see Eritrea at all,” Ayalew said. “I would go on Google Maps and sometimes just look at everything like that. I started letting it go. But then as soon as [Ahmed] came, he opened it up, the borders and everything, and worked with [Afwerki], it just … it’s a miracle, really.”