Aaron Berhane’s sudden passing from Covid-19 on May 1st was a devastating blow to PEN’s Writers-in-Exile group, which he chaired. Aaron, 51, was an award-winning journalist and a co-founder of Eritrea’s first independent newspaper, which was shut down with other media in 2001 by the country’s oppressive regime. Journalists were jailed, some died in custody.
Aaron fled to Sudan, then Canada, and was separated from his family for eight years before they were allowed to join him. He earned a Master’s degree, taught at George Brown College, published a newsletter about Eritrean issues, and volunteered with PEN Canada for 15 years. In 2019, he won a PEN Canada-Humber College scholarship to write his memoirs.
In the days following Aaron’s death, members of the Writers-in-Exile group shared their grief and love for him. He was remembered as an inspiring leader with quiet grace and a brilliant smile.
“Aaron took a piece of us all when he left,” said Turkish journalist Arzu Yildiz. “We are people who risk their own peace for the peace of others … Freedom is our passion, our pain is common, our aim is the same, and our hearts are together. We will always remember him with respect and longing.” Arzu remembers Aaron explaining the name of his newspaper. “‘Setit was Eritrea’s only river, and we named the newspaper after it … because we’re like a river, we meant you can’t stop us,’ he told me. I hope he sees that river from where he is now.”
Syrian writer and human rights activist, Abdulrahman Matar said, “Aaron, the writer and journalist, died in exile, far from his homeland, and from his extended family. He fought for freedom of expression until the last day of his life. Aaron was an important example, so that we can continue the struggle for freedom. Our message is one, our goal is the same: freedom of expression, and the right to life without dictatorship and tyranny.”
Refugee advocate and cofounder of the Writers in Exile committee, Mary Jo Leddy, referred to Aaron as a great spirit. “I remember one evening during what was then the supper club, when we were discussing the right to freedom of expression. Aaron stood up and said we should spend more time talking about our responsibility for freedom of expression. ‘We have this privilege,’ he said, ‘we have the freedom to express our responsibility.’ We took this to heart. Aaron had this effect. He spoke with integrity … human rights were not a hobby for Aaron, they were a personal responsibility, a passion, and a purpose.”
Ethiopian Gezahegn Demissie honoured Aaron with the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.
The Writers-in-Exile extend their deepest condolences to Aaron’s family and pledge to continue his work. May he rest in peace.