The flow of Eritrean refugees pouring into Ethiopia has peaked recently, as the Horn of Africa rivals prepare for what could be their second war in a decade. Last month, as border tensions escalated, 700 new arrivals were registered at the Shimelba Camp, about 25 kilometers inside Ethiopia. Among the camp's inmates is VOA Tigrignia Service reporter Aklilu Solomon, who fled Eritrea last December after being imprisoned for a year and a half. VOA's Peter Heinlein visited Shimelba, where he found Aklilu hopeful of early resettlement to another location, far from the tense border.
Aklilu Solomon is wafer-thin, with dark piercing eyes that don't begin to reveal the suffering he has experienced. The voice that once broadcast VOA news dispatches from Eritrea is barely a whisper as he tells about his fear for his safety at the Shimelba refugee camp. Aklilu has been living at Shimelba for almost 11 months. He says some of the camp residents have accused him of being an American spy.
"Ever since I came here, this is challenge for me," said Aklilu Solomon. "If you know this area, many Eritrean people are here. Among them are some opposition party members. Among them there are some soldiers. It's difficult for me to stay here. "
Aklilu says life in Shimelba is made more difficult because of his chronic health problems, aggravated during 18 months in prison before he escaped across the border.
He was arrested by Eritrean authorities in 2003 and confined in a metal shipping container after VOA broadcast his report telling how relatives of Eritrean soldiers broke down and cried when they learned their loved ones had been killed in the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia.
That story contradicted state media reports that the families cheered when the names of their deceased relatives were read out.
After being freed from his prison container, Aklilu was placed under house arrest until his release in June last year. Then, last December, he made his way through the heavily militarized border to Shimelba, where he was registered by the United Nations refugee agency and placed on a track for resettlement in a third country. The line of applicants is long, though, and the process takes time.
While some in the camp view him as a spy, others see him as a hero. Solomon Kidane, who fled Eritrea to escape military conscription four years ago, says Aklilu is one of the fortunate ones. He was well-known for his reporting. Kidane says other less prominent journalists were not so lucky.
"…and when he was arrested, everyone heard the bad news," said Solomon Kidane. "He was not the only journalist arrested, but a number of journalists are still in jail. He's lucky to be here, a number of people, of anti-[government] groups are still detained in a prison for a number of years. No one knows them. No one knows them."
Aklilu's case has been closely followed by free press advocacy groups. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called his arrest "outrageous." Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said Aklilu's case illustrates how difficult it is for the press to operate freely in Eritrea.
Speaking to visiting reporters outside the Shimelba camp headquarters, Aklilu unfolds a worn piece of paper he keeps in his pocket. It is a letter from the head of Reporters Without Borders, asking the U.N. refugee agency to resettle him far from the Eritrea/Ethiopia border because his work for a U.S. public news agency exposes him to constant harassment and bullying.
Speaking in Amharic, Aklilu says he filed his news reports in the interest of good journalism, and is not asking for special favors in return.
He says, "I practiced journalism, and did what I did for the sake of my profession. The difficulty came as a result of that process. This is something the profession demands. So I don't consider it a favor, and I ask no favor for myself."
A U.N. refugee agency official in Addis Ababa said the organization does not reveal information about whether individual refugees have been referred for resettlement. But he said Aklilu's exposure to harassment and bullying could be reason to expedite his case.
Meanwhile, Aklilu waits quietly at Shimelba, with one eye always open for danger, and a heart half-filled with hope for the day when he can resume a life that has been on hold for more than four years.