'It Has Been A Dream': Ethiopians Are Adjusting To Rapid Democratic Changes Ethiopia is going through a historic transformation. The country has welcomed a new reformist leader, forged peace with Eritrea and opened up a democratic space after decades of authoritarian rule.

'It Has Been A Dream': Ethiopians Are Adjusting To Rapid Democratic Changes

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We're going to go now to Ethiopia, a country that has been convulsing with change. What was once one of the most authoritarian countries on the globe is opening up, and NPR's Eyder Peralta has been traveling around Ethiopia to document that change. You'll be hearing his stories over the next couple of weeks.

Eyder, thanks for being here this morning.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Let's back up and just get big picture for a second. What precipitated this opening up?

PERALTA: There were mass protests for about three years. It was mostly young people who felt marginalized, and they were calling for democracy and an end to corruption. And the government did try to squash this. They killed more than a thousand people, and they arrested tens of thousands. But ultimately, these young guys - they were able to paralyze the country. And the old guard fell.

MARTIN: And then they got a new prime minister, right? What happened then?

PERALTA: They did. I mean, the ruling party basically accepted defeat, and they installed a new prime minister. And he has made huge changes. He ended the state of emergency. He made peace with Ethiopia's historic enemy Eritrea. He released all political prisoners, and he opened up the democratic space. And it's something you can really feel on the streets. I was in Ethiopia in January, and anyone who talked to me feared arrest. And this time, I was out in public with my microphone.



PERALTA: The Holy Trinity Church (ph) here in Addis Ababa is full of history. The thrones of the last emperor are still near the altar, and Ethiopians get here before dawn to pray among the historic relics. Adanech Woldermariam, who's in her 70s, stands outside, her head against the stone. And when she sees me with my microphone, she stops, and she begins to weep.


PERALTA: Adanech is from the northern part of Ethiopia. When the war against Eritrea began, she says she saw friends deported - their homes, their belongings taken away forcefully. It was so unfair. They had worked so hard, she says.

WOLDERMARIAM: (Speaking Amharic).

PERALTA: Today, she says, she can finally speak that truth right here in public, and that makes her happy.


PERALTA: Outside the church, I walk through the gardens amid the tombstones of Ethiopian heroes. Teshale Abebe is praying on the outskirts. He cherishes that he can talk to me about politics. But this is a country with a long history of authoritarianism, and he's doubtful these new freedoms, this new peace, are real.

TESHALE ABEBE: (Through interpreter) I cannot say this peace and this change is implemented in this year. It will take a long year. And it will take a lot of life.

PERALTA: More than four decades of oppressive regimes, he says, have left Ethiopia wounded and divided by ethnicity. So this change feels tenuous. At a coffee shop across town, I meet Atnaf Berhane and Befeqadu Hailu, bloggers who were imprisoned because of their antigovernment writings - Berhane.

ATNAF BERHANE: It has been a dream for us, what we are experiencing.

PERALTA: This meeting at a public place was unimaginable just a few months ago. Both Berhane and Hailu had intelligence agents tailing them. They were constantly in fear of getting picked up. Hailu, for example, was thrown in jail most recently after he gave an interview to Voice of America in 2016. This new Ethiopia is both exhilarating and disorienting.

BEFEQADU HAILU: One of the things we were struggling for was freedom from fear. So now we don't know what to do with it.

PERALTA: Berhane says just a few months ago, they knew they were against the government. Now the government has welcomed back all opposition figures who have returned with all kinds of ideas. Some have stoked ethnic divisions; others hint at secession. It's a brew that has caused consternation and in some cases erupted in violence.

BERHANE: All the extreme come together, and when you see it, you feel that you are not safe.

PERALTA: All that angst is on display at Ethiopia's National Theatre every Tuesday night.


PERALTA: Dr. Mehret Debebe, a psychiatrist, takes the stage to a full house and begins to unpack. He shows a video of a little kid who is startled by his own shadow.


MEHRET DEBEBE: (Speaking Amharic).

PERALTA: "Had that little kid understood what a shadow was, he could have controlled his emotions," he explains. After the show, he tells me that the problem in this country is that, for decades now, Ethiopians have lived in fear. But now they have the opportunity to explore that shadow.

DEBEBE: The way I see it is this nation is not only awakening but also it's kind of perplexed in a soul-searching process.

PERALTA: Right now, he says, Ethiopians are getting a lot of explanations for a lot of things that had been off-limits. It's a moment of rethinking everything, from the war with Eritrea to democracy to the legacies of certain emperors. And right now, says Debebe, it seems like everybody is right and everybody is wrong.

DEBEBE: You know, somebody would say this person is the hero of my life, and the next person would say this is a criminal. And they both can be right. And to tolerate that and to have that in the same country, it's just - for me, it's a very beautiful experience - I know dangerous somehow.

PERALTA: Hopefully, he says, it's a sign of a budding democracy, beautiful yet dangerous.

MARTIN: We're back now with NPR's Eyder Peralta.

Eyder, you could have ended that story a lot of different ways. You ended with the word dangerous. Why?

PERALTA: Because there's a lot of competing ideas, as you heard. And those are mixed with lots of ethnic tensions in the country. And this country doesn't have a history of negotiating its problems through dialogue. And we've already seen sparks. You know, there was an assassination attempt and a coup attempt against the new prime minister. And just this past month, as the government announced the arrest of former military and intelligence figures, a top official of the TPLF, which was the party that dominated Ethiopia for almost 30 years, said this was an ethnically driven hunt. And words like that unfortunately set up a potential for serious confrontations in Ethiopia.

MARTIN: NPR's Eyder Peralta. You can hear Eyder's reporting from Ethiopia over the next couple of weeks.

Eyder, thank you so much.

PERALTA: Thank you, Rachel.


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