Aaron Berhane (1969–2021) was an Eritrean Canadian journalist. Co-founder and former editor-in-chief of Eritrea’s now banned largest independent newspaper, Setit, he escaped arrest in 2001 by fleeing to Sudan, then Kenya, and subsequently settled in Canada. The Burden of Exile is his story of bravery amid complicated international geopolitics, of spies, guns, and betrayal, and — ultimately — of triumph and the piecing together of family in a cold new country.
It was around 1 a.m. when I heard a car pull up outside the compound. Then its engine cut. I slipped out of the room I’d been pacing in and went to the gate to see who had arrived. Flat on the ground, I peered through a gap between the iron gatepost and the concrete wall that surrounded the compound. I couldn’t see the car or the people inside it, but I could make out the voices of two people, a man and a woman.
Were they lovers, stealing away to this desolate part of Mai-Chihot, a district on the outskirts of Asmara, or something much worse?
I shifted and strained to see further and was able to make out a small car, a Fiat 600, parked in front of the gate, but I still couldn’t see the people inside. I crept to the other side of the gate but could see no better. All I heard were unintelligible voices. Were there more than two people in the car? Had they finally come for me?
It was the night of January 6, 2002, and I had been in hiding in this remote part of Asmara for 103 days. This night was meant to be my last. Arrangements had been made for me to slip across the border to Sudan, away from the government agents who were hunting me.
The compound I was staying in belonged to a relative. It was only partially built, like many in Mai-Chihot. The main house, a type of villa, would eventually have three bedrooms, a large living room, two bathrooms, and a kitchen. There was also an outbuilding that contained two small rooms plus a bathroom and a modest kitchen — the only rooms in the compound that were fully completed. One of these was my makeshift bedroom, outfitted with a single bed and a small table. The other room was a storage room accessible through a door in my bedroom. It was piled with bags of cement, cans of paint, and stacks of broken tile. In the event that someone came into the compound, I’d made a hiding spot for myself among the bags of cement. A high concrete wall separated “my” compound from the neighbouring houses. An iron gate, much taller than a man and wide enough to admit a car, faced the street.
I was the only person living in the neighbourhood.
That night, I was waiting for my cousin Petros to arrive and take me to say my final farewell to my wife and children. Petros was one of the few people with whom I had contact while I was in hiding. He was over six feet tall but walked with a stoop, and that, along with his bald head, made him seem older than his thirty-two years. When circumstances dictated, he could disguise himself as an old man by draping a shroud about his shoulders and walking with a cane. He was my connection with the outside world and took me out to meet with my sources, the people who could smuggle me out of the country or forge false papers.
When Petros would come to see me, he always parked seven hundred metres from the compound, so as not to draw any attention to my location. Whoever it was in the Fiat, it wasn’t Petros. To calm myself, I told myself that the people in the car were there by chance and weren’t interested in me. But it did no good. I was restless. Had my escape plan been foiled?
In the unfinished living room of the villa was the backpack I had prepared for my escape. I slipped inside the villa and shouldered my pack, not sure what I should do next. I opened the back door of the villa so that I could easily cover the few metres to my hiding place in the dusty storage room. If the people outside did try to breach the compound, at least they would be slowed down by the shards of glass that protruded from the top of the wall. That was some small comfort. The delay would grant me a few precious seconds to reach my hiding place.
The engine of the car came to life and the headlights turned on. I had my face pressed up against the bars of a glassless window and I jumped at the sudden sound of the engine and the bright lights. I retreated several steps and gripped the straps of my bag tightly. Headlight beams shot through the gate and seemed to rake across the vacant yard. The car backed up in line with the gate. It struck me that perhaps they intended to drive straight through the gate. The engine kept running and the sharp smell of petrol wafted across the yard. My pulse raced, and my breath came rapidly. I wanted to run to the storage room, but also wanted to see precisely who had come for me. I remained by the window, feeling the coldness of the night and listening to the rattle of the Fiat’s engine. Then, with a lurch, the car was thrown into gear and it pulled away.
Once the Fiat had gone, I took my backpack off and set it down on the floor. My heart was still racing and I sat on the steps at the rear of the villa to be soothed by the night’s chill.
I jumped, startled, when a pebble landed in the front yard. I sprang to my feet and primed myself for whatever might come next. A second pebble landed. I stole along the wall and peeked through the gap between it and the iron gate. I saw Petros’s familiar shape.
“Did you see the car?” I asked Petros.
“Yes, I was waiting for it to leave,” he said.
I opened the gate to allow him in and shut it behind him.
“Did you see their faces?” I asked.
“No, but I don’t think we have anything to worry about. If they tried to chase us with a Fiat 600 you could outrun them on foot,” he laughed. “Everything is clear now. Let’s go.”
“What took you so long?” I asked, trying to read his expression.
“I had to wait until the maid left,” said Petros, holding the door for me. “Your wife wanted her to finish washing clothes before the water was cut off.”
“Oh, I see, today is Friday,” I said. The authorities distributed water to different areas of the city on different days, but it didn’t flow all day even on the designated days. That was one of the main complaints we used to hear from people whenever we went to cover stories. Despite that, improving the availability of water never seemed to be a high priority for the government.
The moon was full and lit our way. Apart from some dogs scavenging through a pile of garbage beside Petros’s car, nothing else stirred. We climbed into the car and drove along the narrow, unpaved roads of Mai-Chihot. The streetlamps that lined the road were out. We crossed street after street before we reached a paved road that led to the centre of Asmara.
Asmara looked peaceful, especially now that the soldiers who had menaced the population for months had withdrawn. They had been deployed in September 2001 when the authorities cracked down on the press and arrested their political rivals. The office buildings glowed with the diffuse yellow light of the streetlamps. Behind the palm trees that lined the boulevards, they gave the impression of sharp dressers heading out for an evening. I felt obliged to commit to memory these last impressions of my city before I left it, my family, and everyone I loved.
Petros was driving fast, past Fiat Talegro, Gejeret, Bar-Jima, Godaif, and Kahawta, while checking the rearview mirror to see if we were being followed. I had the window open and was enjoying the feel of the wind blowing through the beard I had grown over my months in hiding.
“No one will recognize you with your long beard, including your wife,” Petros said.
I looked at my face in the side mirror. I was thirty-two, but the beard made me look older.
Petros slowed to turn onto my street. My heart beat faster as we got closer to my house. The streetlights were on and the streets were starkly lit. You could recognize a person from half a kilometre away. Petros parked the car and surveyed the street before crossing the hundred metres to my house. We were the only people out.
Petros knocked on the gate twice, while I watched anxiously.
My wife appeared and unlocked the gate. “Mielat, my love,” I whispered. I stepped inside and drew her to me. Petros took a last look up and down the street before locking the gate behind him.
We crossed the yard that fronted my house. Frieta’s bicycle and Mussie’s toys — a helicopter, a car, and soccer balls — were scattered in the yard. Petros remained in the yard as a sentry while I went inside the house, holding my wife’s hand. I led us to the children’s bedroom where I found all three of them sleeping peacefully. Frieta, my beautiful, energetic eight-year-old daughter, the boss of the house, lay diagonally across her bed, her blanket bunched up around her feet. Mussie, my chubby four-year-old, slept on his belly, and Evan, still only six months old, lay in his cradle. I watched them and listened to the sounds of their breathing. I wondered if I would ever see them again or if they too would have to be raised without a father, as I had been. What a miserable legacy that would be.
I kissed my children on their foreheads, careful not to wake them. My eyes filled with tears and I averted my face so my wife wouldn’t see. She, however, did not conceal her tears from me. She stood by Evan’s cradle, watching me kiss our children, her tears streaming down.
“Do you think we will see each other again?”
I put my left hand on her shoulder and wiped her tears with my right.
“Yes, Mielat. I will reunite us in a peaceful country.”
“I don’t know, Aaron,” she said and looked up to meet my eyes.
“If they catch you while you’re trying to escape, the punishment will be worse. Isn’t it better to stay in your hiding place for a while longer? Things may change.”
We had discussed this topic whenever she came to visit me in my hiding place. My wife is very persistent; she returns to an issue until she gets the answer she wants. But this time the matter was settled.
“Mielat,” I said, “my hiding place will not remain secret for long. The security agents are still sniffing around after me, but I have great people who will help me escape. Don’t worry. I’m sure I will make it.”
The truth was that I didn’t know if I would make it or not. The dangers were many. But for my wife’s sake, I projected confidence. I held her in my arms and gazed at her.
“You remember how I escaped from the Ethiopian soldiers in Kisad Molekseyto? You know how fast I can run.”
“That’s different, my love,” she cried. “This is more dangerous. They have distributed your picture at every checkpoint. They will catch you before you even reach the border with Sudan.”
Petros interrupted. “Come,” he said.
I followed him outside and told Mielat to stay where she was. Through the fence we saw a green military vehicle, parked near Petros’s Land Cruiser.
“They just came?” I asked.
“Yes, just now. No one has left the car yet,” Petros said.
The full moon and the streetlights allowed us to see what was going on. Two soldiers came out of the car with a small ladder and rested it against the wall of my neighbour’s house. They climbed over the wall and dropped down into the compound.
“Does that family have a son or daughter who might be evading national service?” Petros asked.
My neighbours’ four children lived abroad and they didn’t have anyone in the national service. I didn’t know why the soldiers had targeted their house. Petros and I watched to see what would happen. After about five minutes, the gate opened and the soldiers came out leading a young man in handcuffs.
“Do you know him?” Petros asked.
“I don’t think so. He could be a relative hiding from the hunters, like me.” I put myself in the poor man’s shoes and felt terrible.
“Someone must have betrayed him,” I said.
The soldiers drove off quickly and disappeared. I was gripped with apprehension. What were the chances that I too would be betrayed by the people who had promised to help me? None of them were being paid. They were doing it because they believed in me as the editor-in-chief of our country’s first independent newspaper, who had tried to bring freedom and change to our country. They were ready to sacrifice themselves to save my life. I had no choice but to trust them.
“We should go,” Petros said.
I went back inside my house. Mielat was still standing in the children’s room, gazing upon them as if she were seeing them for the first time. Tears still streamed from her eyes. They landed on her pink pyjamas and left dark splotches. I stood next to her, embraced her, and cast a final look at my children. Mielat buried her head in my chest and sobbed. After a time, she calmed down, and I kissed her lips softly.
“I have to go now, Mielat,” I said. “Please, be strong, and believe we will meet again.”
We held each other tightly.
“Please, tell our kids how much I love them,” I said.
She nodded silently.
Petros returned. “We should go, Aaron. It’s almost three.”
Mielat grabbed me again and kissed me fiercely. “I love you very much. Don’t forget us, please. You have to survive for us, for your children,” she said, and released me.
I fought back my own tears and followed Petros toward the gate, Mielat trailing after us. In the yard, I picked up Frieta’s bicycle and leaned it gently against the wall. Then Petros and I went through the gate and hurried into his car.