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The heart of democracy

Peace, after more than 20 years of horrible warfare

Driver shows scenes in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when Eritrean leader arrives
Driver shows scenes in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when Eritrean leader arrives

The one thing you notice about these taxi drivers is they’re always talking. Laughing, shouting, arguing, confiding. They’ll stop only if a passenger comes trundling across from the Santa Fe Depot to their Kettner Boulevard taxi rank.

I had to come by here to see what they think of the news, that Ethiopia and Eritrea, where they’re all from, have declared peace, after more than 20 years of horrible warfare.

Santa Fe Depot taxi stand, Kettner Boulevard. Most drivers are Ethiopian or Eritrean

“You should see the celebrations!” says Eyob, who’s Eritrean. His Ethiopian friend shows me a video on his smart phone. It’s the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, packed with rapturous throngs as cars carrying the two countries’ leaders sweep towards a signing ceremony. It looks like Paris after France won the World Cup.

They’re all at least cautiously happy. The young ones say only the older guys are still suspicious of the peace.

Me, I’m a bit cautious, too. I have a dog in this game. I was there, during Eritrea’s war for independence from Ethiopia, making a television documentary. I have blurred memories of body-bashing travels in an old Land Cruiser by night (because the Ethiopian Migs bombed by day), of thousands of Ethiopian POW’s repairing roads in the dark, of refueling via diesel pumps hidden in baobab tree trunks, of entire hospitals built underground, of afternoon conversations at safe houses with young members of the EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front), talking of their idealism for a democratic future. These, to me, were a heroic people.

Then, the EPLF won, and for the last decades, not democracy but dictatorship. Terrible human rights record, ranked last in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. And people, in their thousands, fleeing to escape.

These guys I’m talking to now on Kettner are part of that diaspora. “This peace is beautiful,” says Michael. “We’re not going to argue over details. The telephone line has been connected again. We haven’t seen relatives for years, but planes are flying again.”

It turns out many came to San Diego because it reminds them of Asmara, Eritrea’s capital. “It has the same climate, and like here, it has beautiful architecture. The Italians call Asmara ‘Piccola Roma,’” one guy says, Little Rome.

Do their cab passengers ask them about their homeland? “Oh yes,” says Sam. “Military people have an idea about us, but mostly, we have to explain where Eritrea is. They have never heard of it. But America is such a large country. People have enough on their minds.”

Alem Zebib: keep talking

At the line of Prius taxis outside the Manchester Grand Hyatt, Alem Zebib sounds a cautionary note. “Do not take your democracy for granted. We Eritreans showed how easily it can slip away. Tyrants will steal it. It has to come from within you. I love San Diego, but you don’t give yourselves enough time to talk. We Eritreans and Ethiopians, we talk, a lot. We have been shut down for so long back there, we value talk above just about everything. That is the one gift we can give. It is the heart of democracy.”

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Driver shows scenes in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when Eritrean leader arrives
Driver shows scenes in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when Eritrean leader arrives

The one thing you notice about these taxi drivers is they’re always talking. Laughing, shouting, arguing, confiding. They’ll stop only if a passenger comes trundling across from the Santa Fe Depot to their Kettner Boulevard taxi rank.

I had to come by here to see what they think of the news, that Ethiopia and Eritrea, where they’re all from, have declared peace, after more than 20 years of horrible warfare.

Santa Fe Depot taxi stand, Kettner Boulevard. Most drivers are Ethiopian or Eritrean

“You should see the celebrations!” says Eyob, who’s Eritrean. His Ethiopian friend shows me a video on his smart phone. It’s the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, packed with rapturous throngs as cars carrying the two countries’ leaders sweep towards a signing ceremony. It looks like Paris after France won the World Cup.

They’re all at least cautiously happy. The young ones say only the older guys are still suspicious of the peace.

Me, I’m a bit cautious, too. I have a dog in this game. I was there, during Eritrea’s war for independence from Ethiopia, making a television documentary. I have blurred memories of body-bashing travels in an old Land Cruiser by night (because the Ethiopian Migs bombed by day), of thousands of Ethiopian POW’s repairing roads in the dark, of refueling via diesel pumps hidden in baobab tree trunks, of entire hospitals built underground, of afternoon conversations at safe houses with young members of the EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front), talking of their idealism for a democratic future. These, to me, were a heroic people.

Then, the EPLF won, and for the last decades, not democracy but dictatorship. Terrible human rights record, ranked last in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. And people, in their thousands, fleeing to escape.

These guys I’m talking to now on Kettner are part of that diaspora. “This peace is beautiful,” says Michael. “We’re not going to argue over details. The telephone line has been connected again. We haven’t seen relatives for years, but planes are flying again.”

It turns out many came to San Diego because it reminds them of Asmara, Eritrea’s capital. “It has the same climate, and like here, it has beautiful architecture. The Italians call Asmara ‘Piccola Roma,’” one guy says, Little Rome.

Do their cab passengers ask them about their homeland? “Oh yes,” says Sam. “Military people have an idea about us, but mostly, we have to explain where Eritrea is. They have never heard of it. But America is such a large country. People have enough on their minds.”

Alem Zebib: keep talking

At the line of Prius taxis outside the Manchester Grand Hyatt, Alem Zebib sounds a cautionary note. “Do not take your democracy for granted. We Eritreans showed how easily it can slip away. Tyrants will steal it. It has to come from within you. I love San Diego, but you don’t give yourselves enough time to talk. We Eritreans and Ethiopians, we talk, a lot. We have been shut down for so long back there, we value talk above just about everything. That is the one gift we can give. It is the heart of democracy.”

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