Will Ethiopia's Democratic Awakening Catch On Next Door In Eritrea? Ethiopia has stunned the world with its reforms. Eritreans face steep challenges if they want to follow suit.

Will Ethiopia's Democratic Awakening Catch On Next Door In Eritrea?

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This week, we've been hearing about the changes underway in Ethiopia. One is that two traditional enemies - Ethiopia and Eritrea - have officially declared peace after decades of conflict. There is now free movement of people and goods between the two countries. But a question still hangs - will the change in Ethiopia, where there is more personal freedom these days, have an impact in Eritrea, which is often referred to as the North Korea of Africa? NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: About a mile from the Eritrean border in Zalambessa, there's a small building made of corrugated metal.


PERALTA: Inside, there are sleeping mats, clay pots for coffee, and dozens of Eritreans who had just crossed the newly open border wait there for the Red Cross to pick them up and take them to a refugee camp.


PERALTA: Whole families mill around. I meet Sirak, who's 17. He says he and his family fled Eritrea because their house was demolished by the government. He says police wanted to know why they had built the house without permission.

SIRAK: (Through interpreter) The police were coming every day, so everyone was hiding in the bush.

PERALTA: Human rights groups call Eritrea one of the most repressive countries in the world. Forced evictions and the demolition of homes have been well-documented forms of political retribution. I ask Sirak if he has any hope that things will change back home.

SIRAK: (Through interpreter) It is impossible. It won't change.

PERALTA: These Eritreans appear meek and fearful compared to today's Ethiopians, who are celebrating their new-found freedoms with swagger. Now they can gather to talk freely. Many I spoke to say Eritrea has to change also. They say when Eritreans come to Ethiopia, they will experience a freer society. And they will demand the same at home.

SALEM SOLOMON: It's not fair to make that comparison because they have two different - completely different political systems.

PERALTA: That's Salem Solomon, an Eritrean journalist for Voice of America. She went through military training and worked for the information ministry until she left the country in 2007. In Eritrea, says Salem, the government is omnipresent. They have a command economy. And compulsory military service means they can literally control people's lives. Salem says they also create intense fear by being unpredictable.

SOLOMON: The level of unpredictability about repercussions is very important to understand. Even those who feel like they are so loyal and vocal to support the government doesn't mean that they're safe.

PERALTA: Eritreans have been leaving their country by the thousands since it gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Scholars estimate that a third of Eritreans live outside the country. And since the borders with Ethiopia reopened in September, more than 10,000 Eritreans have sought asylum in Ethiopia.

AWET WELDEMICHAEL: And so in light of that, and also in light of the almost two decade of youth hemorrhaging out of the country, the agents of change are not there.

PERALTA: That's Awet Weldemichael, who studies Eritrea at Queen's University in Canada. He says if change is to come, it likely won't happen like in Ethiopia. Instead, change will likely come from the top. But he warns that Eritrea is such a closed country it's hard to make predictions.

WELDEMICHAEL: But what I can tell you confidently is that the current course is unsustainable for Eritrea.

PERALTA: At another border post in Ethiopia, I meet an Eritrean mother and her 9-year-old boy. She's too afraid of the government to share her name. But she says seven months ago, when she was cooking, this little boy fled to Ethiopia. Now that she could, she came to find him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Tigrinya).

PERALTA: She says, her boy was not the only kid fleeing. They're too young, she says, to know anything about the government or democracy. But what they know is that there is a better life outside Eritrea. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, along the Eritrean border in Ethiopia.

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