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Exiled Eritrean editor reunites with family

The Berhane family, together in Toronto after eight years apart. From left are Mussie, Aaron, Miliete, Frieta, and Eiven. (Family photo)Eight years ago, Aaron Berhane left his wife and three children behind as he fled his native Eritrea, a fugitive wanted by authorities because his newspaper had dared criticize the government of revered independence leader Isaias Afewerki. In May 2009, Berhane's family managed to escape to Sudan. This month, at last, they joined him in Canada.

“It doesn’t seem like reality. I had several good dreams like this,” the former editor-in-chief and co-founder of Setit, once Eritrea’s largest circulation newspaper, told me when I spoke to him on May 6,  shortly after his family arrived in Toronto. I cannot possibly imagine the thoughts racing through Berhane's mind, but I wanted to find out how he and his family endured years of separation.

For a while, as Berhane successfully pressed on with journalism in Canada, the odds of reuniting with his distant family appeared insurmountable. “When I left, I never expected to see them again. I wasn’t sure whether I was going to make it or not,” Berhane told me, referring to the perils of crossing the Eritrean border.

It was late night on January 5, 2002, and after more than 100 days in hiding, Berhane had decided it was time to leave the Eritrean capital, Asmara. Before setting out on the dangerous journey, he had one more wrenching thing to do: Bid his family goodbye, or even farewell.  “My youngest son was only 6 months old. I had to go home to say goodbye when they were sleeping. I thought I was going to disappear forever.”

It was only the beginning of a harrowing separation the family would endure for eight long years. “It was very tough for me and my wife. Her activities were being monitored.” With his wife under constant surveillance, Berhane developed a coded language to communicate with her. “For example, if I want her to go to the Internet café, I tell her, 'You have to visit my mom.’” The conversations were difficult. “My kids always asked, 'Are you coming this year? Are you going to finish your school?' They only knew that I was away to study for my master's degree. It was painful to hear them saying, 'My birthday is next month. Are you coming?’ It killed me.” For some time, the government denied Berhane's wife, Miliete, food ration cards; officials often harassed her or frustrated her efforts to get public services. 

To escape from Eritrea, Berhane's wife had to elude the people the government assigned to monitor her. “Even to travel from Asmara to any neighboring city, she was being followed. She was scared,” Berhane told me, adding that his wife passed through about 20 security checkpoints in order to leave. 

This spring—with the help of Massey College, where Berhane had earned a fellowship, and support organizations such as the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression—the family was finally able to secure travel arrangements from Sudan to Toronto.

“My kids are grown up. They are with me—it is unbelievable,” Berhane said with evident relief. His oldest, 17-year-old Frieta, would have been enlisted in Eritrea's mandatory military service this summer. “Indeed it is the greatest relief to see my daughter escape from the trap of the endless military service.”

Despite the good news, Berhane is unsatisfied. “I am really happy that finally my despair is over, but my happiness will only be fulfilled when I see the same reunions between my colleagues in jail and in exile and their loved ones.” CPJ research shows 19 journalists are imprisoned in Eritrea, many of them held in secret locations without due process or evident medical attention.

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Comments

I never thought another generation of Eritreans would have to go through this kind of ordeal. Best wishes to the family in their new home.

What a touching story. I will distribute a copy of it to the Eritreans who are studying in our English-language classes.

The world is reallly not a very nice place for millions and millions of people. Jancie B

Janice Brunson May 18, 2010 12:14:48 PM ET

Eritrea, will we see the light of the day. Generations after generations suffer from any and every government who ruled that land. The Italians persecuted our grand parents and they made them run away to Ethiopia. Then came the Brits who were not of great help but placed some rule of law in their own way. Then comes the manupulative Emperor, in less than ten years of their rule, imprisoning of civilians began, revolting students were imprisoned without a day in court. In those days it was called "Articolo 10". Houses were searched, people were followed like Miliete. Late 60th Asmara became the Military Base of Ethiopia. The largest number of the Imperial Military, naval, air force, defence was in Eritrea. And some Eritreans were used as instruments of evil.

The above was followed by a worst regime of the Communist Mengistu. Women and children were slaughtered, people left their country, on foot on bus, on donkey on horse back, on camel.
Now, one of our own, with his generals, is persecuting, killing, imprisoning, with no food, no education, no research, University closed which was built by the older powers. This is an exception.
Since we hate guns - will say - May Lord shorten his/their days.

Congratulation Aron,what a happy moment it is to reunite with your beloved family after such a long time.It would have been more blessing to reunite with your family at your home country but that is not because of the mafia,illegal regime of the PFDJ.The days will not be long where we will be free to live in peace and freedom where we are supposed to be.I pledge u to fight restlessly with your mighty pen the dictator as usual.

Congratulation Aron, My advice to you is, to stay out of trouble, take it easy, avoid mistakes while you are in Canada and you will be fine with your family.

CONGRATULATION ARON AND YOUR FAMILY IT IS THE GREATE AND WONDERFUL DAY TO ALL PEACE LOVING ERITREANS GOD BLESS YOU .

Aron,

Conguratulations. I also hope your friends in jail will be free in the near future.

I would like to thank you on behalf of my family from the bottom of my heart for sharing our happiness. That means a lot to us. I hope my colleagues will get chance to reunite with their family in a very very near future. That will definitely fill the other half of our joy. I believe the doomsday of the dictatorial regime is just at the corner.
So, let's coordinate our efforts.
Thank you again
Aaron

This report not only it is crooked to ones eye, but also it’s clear to all that its analysis and substance is tilted towards one side only. It should be pointed out that the silent majority Eritreans support and will continue to support the, one-and-only, hero and Issayas Afoworki. These so-called Eritreans who pose as asylum seekers and claim that they have been politically prosecuted in Eritrea is nothing but fabrication and lies.


Long Live President His Excellency Issayas Afeworki

I am so happy for u brother Berhane at the end u been reunited with your beloved one. As you know more than dosen Eritrean journalisty arrested eight years ago, some of them has died in person of the crule treatment. Kalsena merer eyou gen awetna naygeden his days numbered. God Bless ur family. Dont mind people like Asmerom their waste of space.

Congratulations Aaron, I feel so happy when I read of Eritrean families finally being reunited.
Eritrea is a country full of great, great people. I was lucky enough to spend a year living in Eritrea and was always touched by the generosity and kindness shown to me from people who had nothing. I have many friends who are living in terrible situations, families torn apart by endless military service and poverty.
I disagree with Asmerom, I have met many Eritreans who are persecuted, some of whom were arrested and imprisoned and still remain so without trial. It is a real shame that a beautiful country is being ruined by the fears of a small number of people who are committing the worst kind of betrayal towards a people that gave everything in the hope of achieving freedom.
I hope that a time will come when Eritreans do not have to risk their lives escaping in order to live free and happy lives and will finally be able to create the Great Eritrea they deserve.

Congra Aaron, on the family re-union. I hope other people will get the same fate. freedom and peace.

Congra Aaron nebsi, cant tell u how happy i'm and i'm sure all those interested in peace, freedom and justice in our country are expriencin the same feelin as mine. God bless u and ur family.

keepsafe!

congra aron am so glad to see u like that with your family.i wish you all the best. hope other people will get like yours. stay blessed.
freedom & peace

Congratulations Aaron. It warms my heart to hear that you have been reunited with your family here in Canada. What an incredible story of such bravery!

Carolyn, a Canadian May 27, 2010 9:03:23 PM ET

Congratulation Aaron, on the family re-union. I hope other people will get the same fate. freedom and peace.God bless Eritrea.
Gob bless you with your family.

I am really happy for your reunion, and really glad to see you together. i can feel the pain you had specially during the time of crossing the border. as i was with your family during that terrible time in the neighbor country!

congra dadi aron i'm really happy on the family re uion to canada .i hope ather familyto get same us u.enkon hagoseka mis sidraka biselam amlak arakebeka amen .say congra to your family

It is nice to see this family unity. you have been weat long, hard and patient. congratulation Arron.

What a touching story.
Aaron, I am so happy for you and your family. What happened to you is what a typical Eritrean is going through or has been going through. No body thought all these crimes will be committed by fellow Eritreans, who are so merciless and who brought nothing but shame and suffering to us. What can we say, May God bring peace to our country and people. I wish you and your family all the best in whatever you do. Stay happy and safe

I heard this journalist on BBC and i felt that i must see hin on The screen.

God bless Berhane.
You are lovely