On 21 May 2018, Ermias Tekie disappeared. Tekie, an Eritrean-born Swedish citizen and prominent member of a refugee-led movement against the Eritrean regime of President Isaias Afwerki, went missing more than two years ago while visiting family in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
Tekie, who was 38 at the time of his disappearance, had visited Ethiopia a few times before. But this time, he would not return to his wife and their home in the Värmdö Municipality of Stockholm. He would not be heard from again.
Ephrem Fikru, Tekie’s nephew, walks through the streets of the Saris Addisu Sefer neighbourhood in Addis Ababa and into a shared concrete living compound. Ducking under lines of damp laundry, he strolls into the home of his mother, Teberih, Tekie’s half-sister.
Teberih, 55, cannot speak about Tekie without her eyes immediately becoming blurred with tears. “I lost my senses when he disappeared. We were very close to one another,” Teberih tells New Frame. “I’ve been sick since that day. I cry every day and night. Ermias [Tekie] is a family lover. He’s a very special person. Every time I hear the sound of a car outside, my heart drops. I’m always hoping that it will be Ermias, and he will walk inside and show us that he is alive.”
Tekie, who had lived in Sweden for more than a decade, traveled to Addis Ababa on 4 May 2018 and soon after checked into the Ark Hotel close to the Bole International Airport.
Fikru was the last family member to see Tekie before his disappearance. “We were calling each other every day,” Fikru says. On the night that Tekie went missing, Fikru called him several times, as the two had plans to meet in the morning. He was unable to reach Tekie.
When he was not able to get through to Tekie the next day either, Fikru went to the Ark Hotel to check on him. Tekie was not in his hotel room, but all of his belongings, including his passport and money, were still there. Fikru, along with Teberih, then went to the police in Addis Ababa to report Tekie missing.
Frehiwot Ashagre, a 21-year-old who worked as the hotel’s receptionist and was on duty at the time of Tekie’s disappearance, recounts what she saw that night. At around 9pm, a friend of Tekie’s, Dahlak Efrem, who is also of Eritrean origin, arrived at the hotel and asked Ashagre to call Tekie down.
“I saw this man with Ermias [Tekie] a few times before, so I knew they were friends,” Ashagre says. “So I called Ermias and told him his friend was here. He came down and they went outside together.”
Fikru came to the hotel the following day to inquire about Tekie’s whereabouts and paid the rest of what was owed on Tekie’s hotel room, she says. A few days later, the Ethiopian police visited the hotel, accompanied by Teberih, and questioned her about what she had seen.
The family’s Stockholm-based lawyer Mussie Ephrem, also an Eritrean-born Swedish citizen who has worked on Tekie’s case pro bono since March 2019, says that what followed was a “totally incompetent” police investigation.
Fikru says he and his mother often visited the police station to inquire about developments in the case. “We would be there every day,” Fikru says. “We didn’t have any sleep, but they never had any updates. They would just always tell us, ‘We’ll call you.’ But they never did.”
According to Ephrem, the police report on Tekie’s disappearance is “not more than one sentence”. They did, however, obtain still shots of footage from the hotel’s security cameras that show a silver Toyota Vitz waiting outside the hotel, Ephrem says, and Dahlak in the hotel’s lobby. But, according to Ephrem, the rest of the footage from that night was not included in the police file.
A few weeks after Tekie went missing, the police found the Toyota Vitz in Addis Ababa and traced it back to its owner, who manages a rental car garage in the city, Ephrem notes. The car’s owner told the police that Dahlak had rented the car, but that another individual returned the car to the garage.
The police did not take this lead any further, Ephrem says. They also did not bother to collect any items from Tekie’s hotel room for evidence. According to Ashagre, Tekie’s items remained in a storage room until the family came to retrieve them when the Ark Hotel closed down.
Ephrem says a week before Tekie’s disappearance, he told friends and family his laptop had been taken from his hotel room.
Dahlak went missing a week after Tekie and has similarly not been heard from since. Despite knowing that Dahlak had left with Tekie that night, Ephrem says the police did not question or get a statement from Dahlak before he went missing. “Everything was done improperly during the police investigation,” Ephrem says.
A victim of politics?
Tekie’s older brother, Issayas, 44, travelled to Addis Ababa from Stockholm on 28 July 2018 to carry out his own investigation.
Issayas was in Addis Ababa for two months and met with individuals at the Swedish embassy and several high-level Ethiopian officials. According to Issayas, he was told by several officials and a former UN diplomat that Tekie was detained and is currently being held by security officials in the semi-autonomous Tigray Region in northern Ethiopia, which borders Eritrea.
Issayas was also told that Tekie’s missing laptop was confiscated by Ethiopian security officials.
New Frame was told not to publish the names of the officials owing to concerns that disclosure may negatively affect the case, but we can confirm that at least one of the sources is closely connected to former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died in 2012. He was a leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated Ethiopian politics before the rise of Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s current prime minister, in 2018.
“I have no idea why he would be arrested,” Issayas says from Stockholm. “He is an Eritrean activist. He’s not Ethiopian, and he doesn’t have interest in Ethiopian politics.”
Ephrem, however, says that Tekie could have become an unsuspecting victim of Ethiopia’s changing political landscape. Abiy, the country’s first prime minister of Oromo ethnicity, rose to power in April 2018, about two months before Tekie went missing, and unravelled a series of democratic reforms in the country.
Before Abiy, the TPLF had consolidated power in Ethiopia following its 1991 overthrow of the government of Mengistu Haile Mariam, a former member of the Derg military dictatorship. The insurrection was part of a coalition consisting of the TPLF and other ethnic groups that made up the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, during Ethiopia’s almost 20 year civil war.
The TPLF and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front worked closely during the war. In 1993, Eritrea officially declared its independence from Ethiopia. The nascent TPLF-led Ethiopian government was among the first entities to recognise Eritrea as an independent and sovereign nation, according to Awol Allo, a senior lecturer who specialises in Ethiopian politics at Keele University in the United Kingdom.
After a few years, however, relations between Zenawi and Afwerki, Eritrea’s president, turned sour and a bloody war broke out between 1998 and 2000. Hostilities continued between the countries for the next two decades.
Afwerki capitalised on the security threat from Ethiopia to implement a system of totalitarian rule, which has prompted human rights groups to refer to Eritrea as the “North Korea of Africa”. The nucleus of Afwerki’s system of control is the country’s compulsory and indefinite national service, which the United Nations has equated to mass “enslavement”.
According to Human Rights Watch, at least 15% of the Eritrean population has fled the country over the past two decades – and hundreds continue to flee each month. Tekie fled his post in the national service in 2005, making the perilous journey into Sudan and across the Sahara Desert. He then boarded a boat travelling from Libya to Italy before arriving in Sweden in 2007, says Minassie Habte, a longtime friend of Tekie’s.
Afwerki’s brutality in Eritrea has prompted Eritrean refugees and those in the diaspora to launch social media campaigns over the years to raise awareness and speak out against his abuses. Last year, all the various organisations, individuals and groups in the movement united under the hashtag #yiakl, or “Enough” in Tigrinya, a language widely spoken in Eritrea.
Tekie was a prominent member of this movement. He was also one of the main organisers of the historic 2016 demonstration in Geneva in which thousands of Eritreans from the diaspora rallied in support of a UN commission report that accused Afwerki’s regime of committing “crimes against humanity”.
The TPLF has long supported the Eritrean opposition against Afwerki, including with financial, logistical and military assistance. Under the TPLF, Eritrean opposition radio stations were permitted to broadcast freely in Ethiopia, while state-owned television provided airtime slots for the opposition. It is important to note, however, that many Eritrean activists in the movement, including Tekie, are against receiving support from the TPLF.
It was not until Abiy’s rise to power that these political dynamics changed. Afwerki felt “very bitter” towards the TPLF following the war, Allo tells New Frame, “so when he found a new prime minister who comes from a very different political perspective and political contingency, he saw an opportunity to undermine the TPLF”.
In July 2018, Abiy signed a peace deal with Afwerki, bringing an end to decades of animosity between the countries. Soon after, Abiy ordered all Eritrean opposition parties in Ethiopia to cease their activities and shuttered opposition radio stations.
Last year, Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize partly for his role in the deal – to the disdain of many Eritrean activists. But hostility remains between the TPLF, which governs the northern Tigray Region bordering Eritrea, and Afwerki’s administration.
“Both the Ethiopian government, led by Abiy, and the Afwerki government see the TPLF as aggressors,” Allo says. “Abiy sees Afwerki as more friendly than a region that is part of the Ethiopian state and that he himself leads as prime minister.”
It is possible that Tekie became a casualty of these political shifts, Ephrem says. Tekie disappeared almost two months after Abiy was appointed prime minister and about a month and a half before Abiy’s peace deal with Afwerki. At the time of his disappearance, the head of the Ethiopian National Intelligence and Security Services was still Getachew Assefa, a high-ranking official of the TPLF.
It was only in June, about two weeks after Tekie’s disappearance, that Abiy replaced Assefa with Adem Mohammed, which was part of a housecleaning of government officials accused of rights violations and senior leaders loyal to the TPLF in the security and military sectors.
Ephrem says Tekie could have been mistaken for an Eritrean collaborator while the country’s security apparatus was still headed by TPLF members. “It must have been a simple mistake,” Ephrem says. “They must have suspected him by mistake as a collaborator with the Eritrean regime.”
“It could be that [security forces] were under stress at the time while Abiy was coming into power,” Ephrem adds. “We’re talking about a country of more than 100 million people. It’s not democratic, and it has a fragmented ethnic makeup. Members of the Ethiopian intelligence were not supporters of Abiy. There are these political games in all of these institutions.”
The same Ethiopian officials who informed Issayas that Tekie had been detained by Ethiopian security forces also said Tekie was being held in the Tigray Region. But the escalating bitterness between Abiy’s government and TPLF leaders, in which the TPLF often refuses to cooperate with the central government, has meant they have still not been able to locate Tekie’s exact whereabouts.
Debretsion Gebremichael, the chairperson of TPLF and president of the Tigray Region, tells New Frame he was made aware of Tekie’s case a few months ago, but that “it has nothing to do with Tigray”.
“Ethiopian intelligence has gone through several internal changes and those who were on duty are no longer in office,” he says.
Allo adds that since Tekie was an anti-Afwerki campaigner, he would be considered an ally for the TPLF. It is hard to believe the TPLF would have detained an Eritrean activist by mistake, particularly since the group was already losing power in the government at the time, and then extended this detention for more than two years.
“If they did arrest him by mistake, it’s inexplicable that the TPLF would find him so valuable to take him to Tigray,” Allo says. Allo did say, however, that the Tigray Region is in a “unique position” in Ethiopia, as it is the only “genuinely autonomous region today that does not receive instruction from the central government”.
The central government, for instance, has accused Tigray of shielding Assefa, the former head of Ethiopian intelligence, from arrest after he was formally charged with rights abuses during his tenure. According to Allo, there have also long been allegations among families that individuals associated with the Oromo Liberation Front who disappeared decades ago are still being held incommunicado in the Tigray Region.
But the TPLF erroneously detained an Eritrean activist, transferring him to the Tigray state, and then continuing to hold him for years “just doesn’t add up”, Allo says.
Ephrem, however, is convinced and says he is “very sure” Tekie is being held in Tigray by security forces. “I’m quite certain he is alive. He has not just disappeared. He is under detention illegally, and they need to bring him to a competent court of law,” Ephrem says.
A beloved activist
Ephrem has visited Addis Ababa several times to discuss Tekie’s case with the Swedish embassy and says he has regular meetings with members of the Swedish government, including those in the foreign ministry and parliamentarians.
In a statement sent to New Frame, the Swedish ministry of foreign affairs said it was “aware” of Tekie’s case and that the Swedish embassy in Addis Ababa was in touch with local authorities. It would not provide any further details.
Ephrem and his legal team also began petitioning Geleta Seyoum, Ethiopia’s deputy attorney general, to take over Tekie’s case, arguing that Ethiopia had “violated Tekie’s fundamental rights” by failing to adequately investigate his disappearance.
In December last year, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven also raised Tekie’s case with Abiy during his visit to Sweden en route to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Ephrem says. Several weeks later, Seyoum ordered the police in Addis Ababa to assemble a team of specialists to begin a new investigation into Tekie’s disappearance.
But months have passed without updates on the progress of the investigation. “We’re still just waiting for news,” Issayas says. “It’s been really painful. Every day I think about Ermias and at night I dream about him.
“I’m constantly wondering what happened and where he is. My life has been consumed with Ermias’ case. Our mother and father call me several times a week from Eritrea and ask me for new information. But I never have anything new to tell them.”
But it is not just Tekie’s family that is grieving. Scores of Eritrean activists in Sweden are also facing the anguish of losing their friend and a beloved leader in the Eritrean opposition movement.
“We lost an activist that never sleeps,” says Habte, 45, Tekie’s close friend in the movement who also came to Sweden as a refugee. “We would always use Ermias as an example. When things were rough, we would say, ‘Look at Ermias. Ermias would never give up.’ He had a fire inside him to organise and do something to change the regime.
“Ermias was a man of action. He showed us what could be done. He would always say that we should show people what we can do and then they would follow us. Let’s not waste our time discussing and talking. Let’s lead by example. He used to say that he would fight for Eritrea until he only had his T-shirt left. And then he would sell that T-shirt so he could continue the fight.”
Habte describes Tekie as the “core motor” of the Eritrean activist community in Sweden. He had a particular impact on Eritrean youth. “He’s a kind person. He’s quiet, too. He liked to listen more than talking,” Habte says. “His presence made everyone very comfortable to talk and be open. He could even sit with [Afwerki] regime supporters and discuss the issues in an amicable way.”
On top of his political organising, Tekie headed trips to what the activists call “refugee camps”, which are buildings located far outside cities in Sweden where the government places refugee newcomers. He launched clothing donation drives to assist the new refugees in preparing for the winters and helped provide them with essential information on living in Sweden. He also visited the “camps” on Christmas, preparing food and spending time with the Eritrean refugees, many of whom arrived in the country alone.
“He helped boost the confidence of the newcomers,” Habte says. “The language, culture and the whole way of life in Sweden are different from what we know back in Eritrea. When refugees first arrive, it can be very depressing. Ermias gave the refugees comfort and support. Ermias was the light for people in a dark place. He gave our people hope.”
Since Tekie’s disappearance, Habte has ceased his activism in Sweden. “I keep imagining myself in Ermias’ shoes,” he explains. “What if I was him? He was such a vibrant and loved person – yet no one seems to care about him.”
Habte believes that if Tekie had been born a Swedish citizen and had not arrived into the country as an Eritrean refugee, the authorities would have found him by now. “I also have Swedish citizenship,” Habte says. “But this tells me that this isn’t enough to ensure my safety. What if I was Ermias? What if the same thing happens to me tomorrow? Would the Swedish government even look for me? There’s a shadow of worry that’s always following me since Ermias disappeared.”
Back in Addis Ababa, Teberih sits silently. With eyes clouded by tears, she stares at her son sitting on a couch across from her and scrolling through old photos of Tekie on his cellphone.
“When Ermias went missing I thought many things,” Teberih says. “I was thinking that maybe he was dead. Maybe he had gotten into an accident. I was feeling very bad. I can’t even describe that feeling.
“When I heard he was being held by Ethiopian intelligence, I felt some relief. But I can’t believe anything until I see him and hear his voice. Whether it’s true or not, the news gave me some hope. Ermias was the heart of this family, so hope is our only medicine.
“I pray that my brother comes back alive. I pray for this day and night. I wait here every day hoping that he walks through that door.” Teberih gestures to the front door. A ray of sunshine splashes onto the pink walls in her living room. “And I will continue to wait here until the day comes when he finally comes back, and I can see him again.”