The much anticipated Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa to the Eritrean capital Asmara took off on Wednesday morning and was greeted by traditional dancers waving flags and flowers, cementing a stunning reconciliation between the Horn of Africa foes.
Ethiopian Airlines Chief Executive Tewolde GebreMariam took to the on-board intercom as the flight crossed into Eritrean airspace.
“This is the first time that this is happening in twenty years,” he said, to applause from the 315 passengers on board, who included former Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn and his wife.
#Ethiopia #Eritrea: Inaugural flight by @flyethiopian to #Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, departing this morning with 456 passengers including former PM Hailemariam & his wife Roman as well as ambassadors, civil society org reps, & journos. Pics: @MaggieFick & @Andreas_Gaarder pic.twitter.com/jIJAKRiv6C
— Addis Standard (@addisstandard) July 18, 2018
According to news agency, AFP, demand for the trip to Asmara was so popular that the airline company scheduled a second flight that took off 15 minutes later.
Champagne and selfies aboard first commercial flight in a generation between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Demand so great that Ethiopian Airlines scheduled a 2nd flight that took off just 15 mins later. @AFP pic.twitter.com/2KZRhECP6bLoading...
— AFP Africa (@AFPAfrica) July 18, 2018
The two 90-minute flights were the icing on the cake of a peace push by new Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed, whose three months in office have turned politics in his country – Africa’s most populous after Nigeria – and the wider East African region on its head.
Peace brings families together
Families separated from loved ones since the start of a brutal 1998-2000 border war sat next to dignitaries on the flight, one of two that took off from Ethiopia on Wednesday morning.
Passenger Senait Tesfaye told Reuters she had not seen her grandmother Abrehet for more than two decades. Abrehet, she said, was deported to Eritrea alongside tens of thousands of Ethiopian residents of Eritrean origin at the start of the conflict.
“We have been longing to see her for all these years,” the 37-year-old said as she cradled her three-month-old son Naby. “He will now get to spend time with her more than I ever did as a child. Words cannot express the joy we feel as a family.”
On Tuesday, the spokesperson of Ethiopia’s foreign affairs ministry, Meles Alem told state broadcaster Fana BC that in addition to resuming flights and setting up an office in Asmara, Ethiopia Airlines will have a 20% share of Eritrean Airlines.
Eritrea-Ethiopia peace deal
The development follows the historic normalisation of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea, after the neighbours and longtime foes declared their “state of war” over.
The restoration of diplomatic ties and trade links was agreed last week after a historic day in Asmara of talks between the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The nations went to war in 1998 and cut ties then, but last month Ethiopia’s new reformist prime minister offered an olive branch to Eritrea, kicking off a rapid rapprochement that has stunned the region and delighted many citizens in both states.