My father knew we were next. “They’re going to come for us,” he’d say, after Meles Zenawi, then the prime minister of Ethiopia, told the country on national television in July 1998 that Eritreans weren’t welcome. “If the Ethiopian government says, ‘We don’t like the color of their eyes, and get out,’ ” Zenawi said, “then they should get out.”
That year, my family and I were among the estimated 75,000 Eritreans who were deported from Ethiopia at the start of a two-year border war, followed by a protracted cold war that ended this year in a formal declaration of peace. Twenty years have passed since that conflict uprooted thousands of families like mine. But the costly antipathy between Eritrea and Ethiopia goes back much further. During World War II, both states became battlegrounds in the fight against Italian imperial rule. After the war, the United Nations passed a United States-backed resolution to form a federation between the two countries. In 1962, however, Ethiopia annexed Eritrea, stripping its language, culture and ability to self-govern. A decades-long armed struggle for independence followed, and tens of thousands of men and women, including my uncle, lost their lives as resistance fighters to win back Eritrea’s sovereignty.
I would learn these things much later in life. Born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I attended a Catholic school and was sheltered from politics. I overheard bits and pieces about the war, but I was more concerned with the latest fashion trends and my first crush. Politics became unavoidable when Eritrea gained independence in 1993. Once, when I returned to Ethiopia from visiting my grandparents in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, a classmate thrust a Nakfa bill, the new Eritrean currency, in my face and told me it was worthless. Another time, I saw a magazine cover with a painting of a woman wearing a traditional scarf in the shape of an old Ethiopian map. A noose around her neck suggested Eritrea’s independence had strangled “Mother Ethiopia.” Friends singled me out to explain political developments because I was Eritrean, but I didn’t know how to answer. After the Ethiopian government announced plans to deport people of Eritrean origin, neighbors began eyeing our property and belongings as if they were creating an inventory before an auction. Some we had known for as long as I could remember; my parents, a surgeon and a nurse, had treated them when they needed care. We felt helpless and betrayed, suddenly isolated in a community we had considered home.
I was a teenager when a loud knock at our door at 4 a.m. upended our lives. One of my brothers and I looked through our front door’s thick glazed glass onto the dimly lit porch. Two men and a woman stood there holding AK-47s. We opened the door, and the armed agents asked for Dr. Solomon. My father, still in his pajamas, appeared. They gave him a few minutes to change. My mom handed him his coat and a gabi — a traditional wrap — to keep warm, but he wasn’t allowed to collect other belongings. I asked the soldiers what was happening. “Where are you guys taking him? Why are you here?” They ignored my questions and took my father away.