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The Ethiopian government has jailed tens of thousands in a countrywide crackdown

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Not long ago, Ethiopia's government was promising a more democratic future. Now, things have taken a turn. Amid a civil war, the government has launched a wide crackdown, jailing tens of thousands across the country. And fear has crept back into the lives of regular Ethiopians. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: If you want to find out what Ethiopians are thinking, you go to Meskel Square in the capital, Addis Ababa. This is where emperors, dictators and patriarchs have celebrated with the people. So here, you find Ethiopians from everywhere.

SOLOMON FISSEHA, BYLINE: (Speaking Amharic).

PERALTA: But on a recent sunny afternoon, my producer, Solomon Fisseha, and I have little luck getting anyone to talk.

FISSEHA: (Speaking Amharic).

PERALTA: Not the ladies coming back from church.

FISSEHA: (Speaking Amharic).

PERALTA: Not the guy selling freshly picked bananas. Eventually, a group of young women in bright clothes, big sunglasses approach. Like everyone, they don't give their names, but they're curious enough to chat. Things are great in Ethiopia, they say. They're even peaceful.

Do you feel like you could say what you want to say?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes.

PERALTA: Yeah?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We are free in Ethiopia. Hey.

PERALTA: I feel some hesitancy.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They are tired. That's why. Yeah, I think that's it.

PERALTA: But, I mean, the truth is, everything is not normal here, right?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It is normal. It is OK to be abnormal, right? It's normal, no?

PERALTA: It wasn't long ago that I sat in a cafe not far from here with the human rights activist Atnaf Berhane. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had just come to power. And we marveled at how, in 2018, we were suddenly able to talk critically of the government in public. Atnaf told me it was like living a dream.

This time, we meet in his office.

ATNAF BERHANE: Abiy shattered all of the dreams, I think.

PERALTA: In a lot of ways, the new Ethiopia is a lot like the old one. After all, this is a country that has careened from one scary authoritarian government to another. During the previous regime, Atnaf was thrown in jail for his critical words. But as Prime Minister Abiy came to power, Atnaf says Ethiopia seemed gentler.

BERHANE: During the euphoria time in 2018, '19, that fear was gone.

PERALTA: But in late 2020, the country plunged into civil war, and violence spread to nearly every corner of Ethiopia. Atnaf helps to run the Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy. In the last few days, he's been visiting journalists in jail. Suddenly, he says, that fear that anything you say can land you in trouble has returned.

BERHANE: We don't know where the threat comes from. But there is a threat from every actor - the nationalist group, the government, the armed group, the informal groups in this country.

PERALTA: In Meskel Square, we continue our task. Many don't talk. One man offers effusive praise of Prime Minister Abiy. One young man says hello. So I ask what should be an easy question.

How are you feeling?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm not safe to talk about right now.

PERALTA: But obviously, something is on his mind. And after a pause, he says he's from the war-torn region of Tigray. His people have been systematically targeted by this government, and the government has also blockaded Tigray, cutting even the phone lines.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: My family are there, including my mother. Still now I have no full information about her, about all my family. So I have no idea.

PERALTA: Their fate haunts him every day. And all he can say, he tells me, is that in this new Ethiopia, he can't even sleep.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Addis Ababa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.