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Long Review | The Burden of Exile: A Banned Journalist’s Flight from Dictatorship, by Aaron Berhane

Journalists are important in newly developing countries because they contribute to promoting a strong foundation for democracy and good governance. Journalists provide a platform to marginalized communities, shed light on economic and political issues in society, and promote transparency and accountability in state institutions. Through reporting on the challenges, progress, and aspirations of the country, journalists provide beneficial contributions to national development. Nevertheless, journalists in this environment can often get in trouble with the government due to restrictive press laws and limited freedom of expression. Reporting on sensitive topics such as corruption, or challenging the government’s narrative can lead to harassment, threats, legal prosecution, or even imprisonment, as the authorities may view journalists as a threat to their power. The Burden of Exile tells the story of one such journalist who becomes aware of the consequences of writing and publishing work critical of the government during times of political repression in Eritrea in the early 2000s.

Summary

Aaron Berhane was a co-founder and the former editor-in-chief of Eritrea’s first and largest independent newspaper called “Setit”. Berhane describes that his inspiration for journalism initially came from a need to explain how the Eritrean government, led by the unelected president Isaias Afwerki (1991-present day), was failing to acknowledge issues the country was going through following independence from Ethiopia in 1991. Berhane describes how he started “Setit”, the challenges of initiating mass distribution of the newspaper, and the mixed responses he received from people in the country regarding his work. Berhane narrates this period with short anecdotes about the unexpected challenges of maintaining “Setit” through the period of the border conflict with Ethiopia between 1998-2000.

In response to increasing political pressure in the country following the border conflict, the Eritrean government announced that all private news organizations in the country would be forced to immediately suspend their operations in September 2001. What followed this announcement was an extensive crackdown on journalists who wrote articles critical of the government’s authoritarian policies, as well as mass arrests of high-ranking politicians and dissidents in the country who were perceived as a threat to the government’s power. Berhane describes how he planned his escape from Eritrea and narrowly evaded arrest multiple times just to get to the Eritrea-Sudan border crossing. Berhane later explains the difficulty of being in Sudan and Kenya, for fear of government spies within the Eritrean communities in both these countries. As he recounts these travels, Berhane shares his thoughts on why the government chose to end press freedom in Eritrea, the fate of the people he personally knew who were imprisoned, and how it affected his relationship with his family.

Eventually, Berhane is presented with the opportunity to seek asylum in Canada. Berhane contrasts lifestyle and language differences between Eritrea and Canada, and later describes the positive and negative encounters he made with the Eritrean community in Regina, Saskatchewan and later in his permanent residence of Toronto, Ontario. Throughout this time, Berhane also describes how he responded to issues such as racism and xenophobia that most asylum seekers and migrants are confronted with when they come to new countries. Berhane first dealt with this by seeking out opportunities where he could interact with people in social settings, but later found his niche by being involved in Canadian academia. Berhane appreciates the receptivity of some within Canadian society whom he meets through both the Parliament of Canada and Canadian-based non-governmental organizations. Berhane committed himself to contribute positively to society by enrolling in (and later teaching at) local Toronto colleges as well as reaching out to other organizations to continue his personal and professional development.

Throughout the narration his life after leaving Eritrea, Berhane gives thanks to all the people and organizations who helped getting him to Canada and attributes their faith in him as the motivating force for continuing his work as an exiled journalist.

Before he could write the last chapter of The Burden of Exile, Aaron Berhane died in May 2021 due to COVID-19.

The last chapter was instead written by Berhane’s eldest daughter, Freweini. According to Freweini, the last chapter was originally intended to describe how Berhane was reunited with his family in Canada in May 2010. Although Freweini does describe the family reunion (as well as how she and the rest of her family escaped Eritrea), she also takes the time to discuss her father’s deteriorating health as a result of COVID-19, and reflect on her father’s legacy.

Opinion

Cons

  • The book has a conversational tone, and Berhane is sometimes unable to convey the seriousness of the situation he is in.
  • Berhane includes unnecessary anecdotes that are not fully explained or are not completely relevant to anyone he mentions. These anecdotes do not contribute to the plot development, and it is unclear what purpose they serve other than being stories from previous parts of Berhane’s life. These anecdotes also interrupt the flow of the story at times, and at times detract away from the main storyline.
  • Berhane assumes that the reader has a fair amount of background knowledge on Eritrean history, and some references made during the time when Eritrea is the main setting are not clear. It would have been helpful to include a map of Eritrea and/or Eastern Africa in the book.

Pros

  • The book demonstrates how determination and passion for an idea can facilitate the growth of a movement. Although Berhane’s response to the challenges of trying to get “Setit” printed and distributed is an impressive feat, “Setit” as a newspaper publication alone was not as significant as the opportunity the newspaper brought for the Eritrean society to criticize the government’s mismanagement of domestic affairs leading up to and after the border conflict with Ethiopia between 1998-2000. The idea that Berhane aspired was that of an outlet which would allow the Eritrean society to meaningfully engage with the government and hold people in power accountable to the promises made after independence.
  • The personal growth Berhane goes through just to get to Canada is incredible, and his description of the lessons learned from the many challenges in Sudan and Kenya demonstrate his resilience and ability to adapt to the environment which he found himself in, which helped him be successful in Canada.
  • The book is easy to read, and the action is started relatively early and carries a consistent urgency (at least until Berhane reaches Kenya where life is more “normal” or “less unpredictable”).

By George Kidane

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