Day 6

How a diplomatic flight from Ethiopia to Eritrea became a surprise reunion between a mother and son

When flight crew member Henok Berhane left Addis Ababa on a VIP flight, he thought they were heading to Sudan. They were actually en route to Eritrea, where Henok's mother lives, separated from him for the past 20 years.

'Maybe for you guys it will be a historical flight, but for me ... I'm going to meet my mom'

Ethiopia's and Eritrea's flags are displayed on the street ahead of Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki's visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia July 13, 2018. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)
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Last Sunday was supposed to be an ordinary work day for Henok Berhane, who works as a flight technician with Ethiopian Airlines.

When he reported for duty in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, he and other crew members were told they would be on board a VIP flight to Khartoum, Sudan.

But once the aircraft carrying Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and other government officials took off, the captain announced their destination was, in fact, somewhere an Ethiopian carrier hasn't travelled in nearly 20 years — neighbouring Eritrea.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed welcomes Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh and his delegation at the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia June 26, 2018. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)

Crew members erupted into cheers, happy to be a part of a historic diplomatic trip to Ethiopia's longtime rival.

But Berhane couldn't speak.

"I was shocked," said Berhane, who was born in Eritrea's capital, Asmara.

A fellow crew member approached him and asked him why he was so quiet.

"I told her, 'Maybe for you guys it will be a historical flight, but for me ... I'm going to meet my Mom,'" Berhane said.

"My Mom lives in Asmara."

Henok Berhane (middle) with family after a surprising landing in Asmara, Eritrea- somewhere he could never have imagined going 20 years ago. (Henok Berhane/Faceboook)

Berhane, who has an Eritrean mother and an Ethiopian father, left Asmara when was 17 to study in Addis Ababa.

Before he could return home to his mother, a bitter war broke out between the two countries, leaving tens of thousands of people dead in battles between 1998 and 2000

Eritrea and Ethiopia had remained in a stalemate since then. Until last week, travel between the two countries was banned and phone connections were cut off.

On the airplane, Berhane was overwhelmed.

"My internal emotion was uncontrollable," he said, adding he had only seen his mother once in the past 20 years, when she came to Ethiopia via Sudan to visit him.

"I just start crying, but no one saw me that I was crying in the aircraft."

When the aircraft touched down in Asmara, Berhane said he completed his task of securing the aircraft and then asked a woman if he could use her phone to call his mother.

Happy to make the connection, the woman dialed his mother's number and passed the phone to Berhane.

"I said, 'Hello Mom, this is your son Henok. I am in Asmara.'"

After a few moments of disbelief, Berhane's mother broke out in ululation, a howling or wailing sound, full of emotion.

"She couldn't say a word," he said.

Once he arrived in his hotel, Berhane asked the Eritrean authorities who accompanied the VIP team on the plane to take him to his mother's house.

"Everybody was waiting for me ... all my family, neighbours," he said. "I was so excited."

He had tearful reunion with his mother, Berhane also said, adding it was "a special moment."

On that trip, Ethiopia's new reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki called an official end of war between their countries, and agreed to resume economic and diplomatic ties.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, background centre, is welcomed by Erirea's President Isaias Afwerki as he disembarks the plane, in Asmara, Eritrea, Sunday, July 8, 2018. (ERITV/Associated Press)

"I can say that this a time of blessing from God," Berhane said, adding that there are many other families like his who have been ripped apart by the war between the two countries.

"I'm the luckiest one that I met my mother on the first flight," he said.

On July 18, Ethiopian Airlines will resume daily flights between Addis Ababa and Asmara.

According to Berhane, all seats on the first flight next week were booked in a flash.


To hear more from Henok Berhane, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.