The “fasten seatbelt” sign had barely pinged off when passengers on a historic flight between Ethiopia and Eritrea began singing and dancing in the aisle.
Beaming and overwhelmed, flight attendants struggled to contain the joy of passengers on one of two inaugural flights that linked the countries for the first time in two decades on Wednesday.
“I’m super excited. You have no idea,” said Izana Abraham, an Eritrean who was born in Addis Ababa — a fact that saw him deported from his home country during a bloody two year war between 1998 and 2000.
“This is history in the making.”
Izana, 33, was going to visit his father. The two had been separated ever since his deportation until finally meeting in Dubai last year.
The emotion-filled Ethiopian Airlines flight took off less than two weeks after the neighbouring countries declared an end to two decades of bloodshed and animosity, sealing a breakneck peace process that begun last month.
In Addis Ababa, passengers in all classes were given Champagne and fresh roses before the plane, which Ethiopian Airlines dubbed “the bird of peace”, soared into the sky.
At cruising altitude, passengers began singing, clapping and embracing each other, with one musician playing a traditional string instrument known as a kirar.
Tearful reunions –
Tariq Sabt, a 41-year-old businessman, told AFP he was hoping to reconnect with his cousin Daniel Alemu who grew up alongside him as a brother before moving to Eritrea in 1995 where he was stranded after the border shut several years later.
He managed to speak to Daniel on Sunday for the first time since losing touch after telecommunications links were restored between the two countries as part of the swift rapprochement.
“The whole family, they said he’d already died. No one expected he was alive,” said Tariq, who wants to bring his cousin back to Ethiopia.
As the plane landed he said the peace process was “good for the Eritreans because their economy is not very good. Now we can build our economies together”.
On the descent into Asmara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site renowned for its colonial Italian modernist architecture, a musician leapt into the aisle and began dancing until a flight attendant ushered him back into his seat.
Passengers poured onto the tarmac in Asmara where they danced together with a cheering crowd who welcomed them, each waving the flag of their home country.
As the Ethiopians left the airport, they exchanged tearful hugs with long-lost family members.
An Ethiopian journalist — one of a large contingent of press permitted to visit the isolated nation — was reunited with his two daughters who were so overwhelmed they sat sobbing on the curb of the airport car park.
Nearby, Eritrean Kahsay Negusse watched his weeping wife embrace Yemane, a long-separated cousin who had just arrived from Addis Ababa.
“This is really wonderful,” he said.
Asked how they were separated, he said: “They were in Addis, we were here. The war started, there was no communication.”
“You can see how the family, how happy they are,” he said. He also carried with him a school yearbook to show that he was in the same class as the former Ethiopian PM Hailemariam Desalegn, who he was hoping to greet when he got off the plane.
However not all were happy.
On the tarmac, Addisalem Taye Bekele fell into the arms of a stranger, sobbing.
She had desperately hoped someone would bring a message from her father, a soldier from whom she was separated when the border closed. But no message came.
Tedros Tsegaye, who had fought for the Eritreans before being captured and deported from Ethiopia, also waited in vain hoping that family members who had stayed behind would be on the flight.
“It’s been 20 years. Still no communication with my family,” he said. “This time I don’t think my family will come.”
However he vowed to wait at the airport “every day until they arrive”. — AFP