By Peter Riddell
He trained in marine firefighting and learnt to roll off rafts into the sea. He was involved in the rescue of hundreds of refugees. His Save the Children team leader said, “Berhane was by far the oldest member of our team, but he left most of us for dust when it came to energy!”
Berhane in fire-fighting kit, S.S. Vos Hestia, 2017
I had the privilege of working closely with Berhane in the context of IofC UK’s Agenda for Reconciliation (AfR) programme from the early 2000s until his death in 2020. But there was much I did not know about his earlier life. Joining the editing team for a book of reminisces from his friends, and samples of his journalism, was an education.
He was born in 1946 near what is now the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia. During his childhood, Eritrea was a province of Ethiopia, though it had become a British protectorate after the Italians were defeated in WW2. As his father was a policeman, he grew up in a police compound near Asmara, capital of Eritrea, in a poor but happy home.
His father ensured that he received a good education, and Berhane eventually featured in a list of the top 200 school students in Eritrea and Ethiopia. On leaving school in 1967, he first took a Teaching Diploma and then a BA in History from the Haile Selassie University in Addis Ababa, while simultaneously teaching in schools in different parts of Eritrea and Ethiopia.
While at university, he became politically engaged and took part in demonstrations against the imperial regime. However, when Mengistu’s Dergue regime overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie, Berhane had to flee to Sudan, largely on foot.
On arrival in Port Sudan in 1975, he quickly got a teaching job. He also began to mix this with journalism, in particular by reporting for the English-language magazine Sudanow on the plight of Eritrean refugees in camps in eastern Sudan. He became well-known as a journalist, however in 1990 the newly-installed Islamist government took offence at one of his articles, and again Berhane had to flee – this time to the UK.
During his time in Sudan, he had struck-up a friendship with full-time MRA (IofC) worker Jim Baynard-Smith, who was visiting Khartoum. They met again by chance in London and Jim invited Berhane to various MRA (IofC) events, including to Caux in 2000, and he subsequently began to join the weekly AfR meetings at Greencoat Place.
Berhane with students, Shawa Gimira, south-west Ethiopia.
Berhane (backrow 2nd from left) with Somali alumni of an IofC Dialogue Facilitation course (2013).
At the time, Osman Jama Ali, a former deputy prime minister of Somalia, was using the AfR meetings to promote reconciliation within the Somali community. Berhane took his cue from him, building a network through inviting leading Eritreans to the meetings, to conferences at Caux and occasionally to IofC National Fellowship Weekends.
Berhane in Caux, Switzerland (IofC Conference Centre)
Berhane, taken by Amanda Woolley at Riverside Studios, July 2020
Berhane had a genius for bringing people together, including leaders of the Eritrean political factions. His dream was to unite the factions, and in his last months he hosted online meetings among the principal leaders who finally issued a common declaration in June 2020 – just three months before Berhane died of a brain tumour.
On 26 October 2023, the third anniversary of Berhane’s death, over 80 attendees gathered in IofC’s London centre for the book launch of Berhane, The Peace Messenger. Several of the authors read extracts from their contributions to the book. One of the attendees from the Ugandan community commented, ‘It brought Berhane alive for us again!’
Working with Berhane helped me understand what Jesus might have meant by ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers’. He brought people together. He kept hope alive, that enemies could become friends.
You can purchase the book Berhane The Peace Messenger HERE.
Peter Riddell is Convenor of IofC UK’s Agenda for Reconciliation programme, Co-Facilitator for our Qualities and Strategies of Peacemakers course, and Co-Editor of Berhane, The Peace Messenger.