Thursday, December 18, 2014

A tree at Kagnew Station Asmara in 1968 - my time in Eritrea and Ethiopia | Caperi

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Skip Dahlgren 1968

This is the first of what I intend to be a series of personal reminiscences from the years I spent at Kagnew Station in Asmara, a well as my experience in Eritrea and parts of Ethiopia. My experiences may not be representative of the majority of those who were stationed there, but to the best of my ability I’ll endeavor to present an accurate & interesting picture of one man’s enduring memories of a very special time.
The arrival of the Christmas season in 1968 led to a flurry of activity on Kagnew Station a U.S. military base in Asmara capital city of Eritrea, which was at that time was considered a province of Ethiopia. There was no perceptible seasonal change to suggest the arrival of winter, but once Thanksgiving had come and gone on the calendar the preparations began. Garlands of evergreen and holly appeared, holiday music began to dominate the radio waves, and people commenced their feverish annual competition for the best decorations.
As it happened, in addition to the celebration of Western Christmas which falls on 25 December, the difference between the Gregorian & Julian calendars meant that the large percentage of Asmara’s population who adhered to the Orthodox Tewahedo Church observed the holiday two weeks later, generally on 7 January. This led to my observation paraphrasing an old saying: “Christmas comes but twice a year in Eritrea!”
One of my classmates from the Arabic program at Monterey, dissatisfied with his situation, had decided to apply for a direct commission. On his successful attainment of this promotion, he suddenly changed from the enlisted U.S. Army specialist rank 4 (SP4) to the introductory officer grade of 2nd lieutenant. This was accompanied by a change of uniform and insignia. He now wore the gold lieutenant’s bar on his collar instead of the SP4’s patch on his sleeve. Immensely pleased with his promotion, he would half-jokingly lord it over us, pointing first to his now bare sleeve & then to his newly adorned collar, proudly declaring “I don’t have it here – I’ve got it here!”
Simultaneously with his promotion, his duties also changed. He no longer worked with the rest of us as an Arabic linguist, but rather was assigned a series of command duties of questionable significance, marking time while awaiting the orders for his transfer to a unit in Vietnam.
The growing bustle of preparations for Christmas gave him the idea for a project that would keep him busy for a day or so while accomplishing a practical & enjoyable result. The idea involved the tall, shapely evergreen tree that stood beside the door of the concrete block operations building at Tract C, the secure site where we worked. His plan was to adorn this tree with lights and other Christmas decorations, a concept so unusual as to be almost outrageous, and highly unlikely to be authorized.
Tract C was a top secret secure operations site, and anything as frivolous as decoration was strongly discouraged. The building on the outskirts of Asmara was a solid, windowless structure, surrounded by a double security fence whose single entrance was guarded by military police. Security was taken so seriously that the various operations performed in the site were in separate areas, some of which were behind locked doors preventing access by any but those personnel who were cleared for that particular duty location. Any paperwork to be moved from one location to another was put in brown paper bags to keep them safe from view by any but those with the need to know. On the rare occasions when uncleared personnel entered the facility, such as when some of the Eritrean employees from the physical plant were admitted to assist performing maintenance on electrical wiring or plumbing, red lights in the ceilings would flash and an alarm klaxon was repeatedly sounded throughout the building until the all clear signal was given when these personnel had left the building.
As previously stated, this somber setting was unrelieved by ornamental material of any kind. However, while the senior officers and enlisted staff were rigidly committed to this status quo, those of us who were linguists, analysts, or other junior enlisted not likely to make a career of the military had a much more casual, informal attitude, and were much like the doctors on the television show M*A*S*H in our willingness to find unusual or unorthodox means of relieving the boredom or frustration of working in a concrete box.
Once a small group of such miscreants managed during a midnight work shift to smuggle into the site some curtains and curtain rods, along with a number of large tourist posters they had obtained from a travel agency in Asmara. Through the night, when no senior staff were present, they managed to hang the curtains on the bare concrete block walls, with the posters located behind the curtains, sufficiently visible as to simulate windows onto the outside world. Predictably, the command staff were highly distressed in the morning by this extreme breach of protocol, and the simulated windows were immediately ordered taken down – as if people could view the classified activities from the outside! Of course, even the commotion of their dismantling provided a welcome change from the usual drab duty.
Despite all expectations, the plan to adorn the tree was authorized.
The size of the tree we planned to decorate and the risk of falling precluded the use of ladders to complete its decoration. Instead, the new lieutenant arranged with the motor pool to requisition a cherry picker for the project – a truck with a man-sized bucket on the end of an articulated mechanical arm intended for use in servicing power or telephone lines. He then approached his former colleagues, asking if any of us would like a reprieve from our regular duties to help with this unusual project of decorating a Christmas tree.
Without hesitation, I volunteered. Unlike several others, whose inchoate acrophobia made them unwilling to take the risk, I had no such reservations. From early childhood, I had enjoyed being hoisted to the masthead of our family sailboat on the bo’s’n’s seat, a wooden plank suspended from the halyard that would swing back and forth as the boat rocked, so the far more stable cherry picker, anchored and braced as it was on terra firma, held no peril for me. Besides, any opportunity to escape the ennui of our regular duties was always welcome.
The cherry picker was brought inside the security fence and securely positioned next to the tree. Boxes filled with strings of lights & decorations were piled beneath the tree. When all was ready, I climbed into the bucket, taking with me the first string of lights. The operator raised the mechanical arm, moving the bucket next to the top of the tree, where I fastened one end of the string of lights. Then the operator would adjust the position of the arm, bringing me to another part of the tree where again I hung the light string on a branch. Slowly the operator and I coordinated to move the bucket around the tree so I could continue stringing the lights from branch to branch, moving lower on the tree. When one set of lights was completely strung, I would be lowered and handed more lights, then raised again to the spot where I had left off, until the tree was well covered with colored lights. The same slow process was used to hang decorations on the tree, and several carefree hours were spent completing the project. Finally the lights were connected to a power outlet, illuminating the tree in a rainbow of colors.
The festive yule tree welcomed all who entered Tract C, and stood as a beacon of color and light for the surrounding countryside. Sadly, I wasn’t invited to get back in the cherry picker when the time came to take the decorations down, and the young lieutenant who arranged this change of pace from regular duty was soon deployed to Vietnam. But for a brief time, the holiday season provided an excuse for a pleasant diversion which brought enjoyment to an otherwise somber location in the heart of Eritrea.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Tragedy in Eritrea, Grosseto professor dies in a fire

GROSSETO. Eritrea had moved with his wife and two daughters to teach Italian. His passion for the arts and the debate about, traditions and music, had brought up in Asmara. And here he found death in an atrocious, in the fire of his home. Andrea Valle, born in 1952, Professor of Italian, intellectual, songwriter known as "elsewhere", the indefatigable Word popular ditties, keeper of the traditions of the Maremma, has died on the evening of Sunday, December 7. According to information arriving from Africa, it would have been a short circuit in his home in Asmara, which would have caused a fire. Valli would have tried to escape, but was poisoned by carbon monoxide, with no chance to save. At that time it was only in the House. His wife, Nevia Grazzini, the historical archive of folk customs of Grosseto, and two daughters _ a child and a teenager _ were out. Valli has taught for a long time the pastures. He was then asked to teach abroad and was assigned to Marseilles, France. After a period back in Grosseto, had left for Eritrea, where from December 2013 taught Italian at junior high schools of the Italian school of the capital Asmara. The school, in shock, Monday remained closed for mourning. General Services Director, Leonarda Rondino, contact from the Tyrrhenian Sea, tells the story of a mild-mannered teacher and well liked by the boys. "Had an excellent relationship with the boys _ explains Rondino _ his death is terrible. We have communicated to the students and today (Tuesday, 9 December, ndr) here in Asmara will be celebrated a mass in his memory, which will be attended by colleagues, teachers and students in addition to his wife and daughters. During the week, processed the paperwork, the body will return to Italy, accompanied by his family and a school teacher ". Roberto Ferretti generation _ he died abroad _ Valli, sensitive personality and immense culture, well-known in Grosseto, with him disappears a most important intellectuals of the province. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Italy police bust Eritrean people trafficking ring - The Local

Italy police bust Eritrean people trafficking ring

Migrants arriving in Sicily, where the people trafficking investigation was launched in May. Photo: Giovanni Isolino/AFP

Police arrested ten Eritreans after an investigation uncovered "existence of a transnational organization, operating in Italy, Libya, Eritrea, and other North-African states," according to a statement released by police in Catania, Sicily, where the investigation was launched in May.
The group organized boat departures from Libya to Italy, with "footsoldiers" in the Lazio and Lombardy regions who provided "logistical support to migrants and help them from Sicily to Italy, then on to other countries in Europe," Antontio Salvago of Catania police told AFP.
Nine of those taken into custody were arrested on November 25th in Italy, while the tenth - named as Measho Tesfamariam and accused of being one of the ringleaders - was arrested on Tuesday in Germany.
The group is accused of organizing 23 trips from Libya to Italy between May and September, while Tesfamariam is alleged to have personally overseen in Libya the departure of an overcrowded vessel which sank off the North African coast between June 27th and 28th, killing all 224 people on board.
During a raid in Catania, police also arrested an 11th Eritrean accused of harbouring nine Somalians, eight of whom were minors, in a small locked room. 
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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Danish report on Eritrea faces heavy criticism - The Local

Danish report on Eritrea faces heavy criticism

Gaim Kibreab, a professor at London South Bank University, was featured heavily in the Danish Immigration Service’s report on Eritreabut has now stepped forward to say that he feels “betrayed”. 
“I was shocked and very surprised. They quote me out of context. They include me in a context with their anonymous sources in order to strengthen their viewpoints. They have completely ignored facts and just hand-plucked certain information,” Kibreab told Berlingske.
Kibreab sent a sharply-worded letter to Immigration Service asking to be "dissociated" with the report's findings and saying that the Danish officials ignored a "heavily edited" document that he said he provided in order to clear up misunderstandings from earlier conversations. 
"Instead of doing that [using the edited version, ed.] you either used my name generally to lend credibility to your anonymized sources, or picked words of half sentences to fit into your account," Kibreab's' letter, which was shared with Berlingske, read. 
The Immigration Service’s 79-page report indicates that the human rights situation in Eritrea may not be as bad as rumoured and that Denmark should no longer offer blanket asylum to Eritreans fleeing compulsory – and often time indefinite – military service. 
Using mostly anonymous sources, the report calls into question previous claims that Eritreans can face retribution or even possible death if they flee the country. The fact finding report instead says that Eritreans who have tried to avoid military service can merely sign a repentance letter and agree to pay an extra two percent ‘Diaspora tax’. 
The report thus recommends that Denmark only provide asylum to Eritreans who can show that they face a personal threat.  
Even before Kibreab stepped forward, many in both Denmark and Eritrea were expressing their doubts about the fact-finding report. 
Danish NGOs including the Danish Refugee Council and Amnesty International have advised against using the findings in the report and a campaign group run by former recruits of the Eritrean National Servicereleased a lengthy rebuttal to the Danish report that accuses it of having “looked hard for unlikely pieces of ‘evidence’ (needle in a haystack style) that could be used to support a policy move away from blanket protection.”
The Stop National Service Slavery in Eritrea campaign said the Danish report ignored the “vast and well established” human rights violations and instead focused too much on the military service. 
“We are… adamant that ignoring the host of other human rights violations being perpetrated  in Eritrea and focusing on ‘absconding’ in isolation will not curb the flow of refugees from Eritrea nor will it reduce the numbers coming to Denmark (or any other country),” the campaign writes. 
Denmark called for the fact-finding mission after the number of Eritrean refugees exploded in July

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Denmark tightens restrictions on Eritreans - The Local

Denmark tightens restrictions on Eritreans

The Danish Immigration Service spent over two weeks in Eritrea on a fact finding mission. Photo:David Stanley/Flickr

A massive increase in refugees from Eritrea earlier this year led Denmark to put a halt to asylum for Eritreans until the Danish Immigration Service (Udlændingestyrelsen) could evaluate the reason for the sharp uptick. 
The results of the Immigration Service’s investigation have now been delivered to the Justice Ministry and Eritreans will once again be eligible for asylum in Denmark – but under much tougher criteria than before. 
The Justice Ministry said in a press release on Tuesday that Eritreans will no longer be automatically granted asylum if they came to Denmark to flee their home country’s authoritarian rule and compulsory military service. 
Instead, Eritreans will need to show that they face a personal threat in order to be granted asylum in Denmark. 
The UN reported in 2013 that Eritreans subject to conscription into national service risked retribution and even possible death if they fled the country. But the Immigration Service’s three-week fact finding mission concluded that an alleged shoot-to-kill policy targeting Eritreans who illegally leave the country “might have been party true previously but … people are no longer being shot at just because they try to cross the border into Ethiopia”. 
Immigration Service also said that international reports of up to 10,000 political prisoners in Eritrea “is difficult to harmonize with the reality on the ground”. 
The extensive fact finding report indicates that the human rights situation in Eritrea may not be as bad as rumoured, thus Denmark will no longer give blanket asylum to Eritreans. 
“The report gives new and relevant information on the asylum situation in relation to Eritrea. The report shows that there was a need for updated information and that it was necessary for Immigration Service to carry out a fact finding mission,” Justice Minister Mette Frederiksen said. 
Frederiksen wouldn’t comment directly on what would happen to the some 1,400 Eritreans who have been waiting in Danish asylum centres for their cases to be processed. 
“As justice minister, I don’t have the competence to rule on concrete asylum cases. At the end of the day it will be Flygtningenævnet [the Danish Refugee Appeals Board, ed.] that will apply the meaning of this new information on Eritrea to the actual asylum cases,” Frederiksen said. 
Throughout the first quarter of 2014, roughly ten Eritrean asylum seekers arrived in Denmark each month. In July, that number jumped to 510, leading the then justice minister, Karen Hækkerup, to put asylum for Eritreans on hold pending the Immigration Service’s findings. 
According to Politiken, Eritreans make up the second-largest group of refugees in Denmark this year behind Syrians. 
The Danish Immigration Service's fact finding report on Eritrea is available here (in English)
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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Eritreans 'fleeing conscription drive' for Ethiopia in 37 days 6000 fleed- UNHCR

Eritrean Army parades during the country's independence anniversary celebrations attended by a 13,000-strong crowd 24 May 2003, at Asmara main squareEritrea's army fought a border with Ethiopia more than a decade ago

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A renewed conscription drive in Eritrea has led to a sharp increase in the number of youths fleeing to neighbouring Ethiopia, a UN refugee agency spokeswoman has told the BBC.
More than 6,000 Eritreans had claimed asylum in Ethiopia in the past 37 days, double the rate seen in previous months, Karin de Gruijl said.
There has also been a rise in the number of Eritreans reaching Italy.
Eritrea says conscription is needed because of tension with Ethiopia.
About 100,000 people died in the 1998-2000 border war between the two countries.
Eritrea became independent after breaking away from Ethiopia.
The refugees, most of whom were between 18 and 24 years old, reported an "intensification" of efforts to conscript them into the army, Ms De Gruijl told the BBC's Newsday programme.
"We know that officially national services are for about four and a half years but quite often they're open-ended," she said.
"This intensification of recruitment has sparked fear among young people in this age group who don't want to have this perspective of not knowing how long they will have to serve."

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

6,200 Eritreans cross into Ethiopia in 37 days: UNHCR

6,200 Eritreans cross into Ethiopia in 37 days: UNHCR

According to a UNHCR report last July, there are a total of 629,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Ethiopia.

Over 6,200 Eritreans have crossed into Ethiopia over the past 37 days, an official with the UN refugee agency said Monday.
"More than 5,000 Eritrean asylum seekers crossed into the Ethiopian territory in October alone," spokesperson for the UNHCR office in Ethiopia Kisut Gebregziabher told Anadolu Agency.
"In the first week of November, more than 1,200 Eritreans have arrived in Ethiopia," he added.
Among those who managed to cross into Ethiopia, he said, were some 78 children.
According to a UNHCR report last July, there are a total of 629,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Ethiopia.
Some 99,000 of them are Eritreans. Most of them fled their country due to oppression and forced military service, Gebregziabher told AA earlier. 
Eritrea and Ethiopia used to be a single country, but a 1993 referendum saw Eritreans vote for independence.
Tension between Addis Ababa and Asmara and has persisted since a bloody two-year border war, in which tens of thousands were killed, ended in 2000.
There are four refugee camps in northern Ethiopia's Tigray Regional State that cater to Eritrean refugees: Shimelba (set up in 2004), May Ayni (2008), Adiharush (2010) and Hitsats (2013).

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

UN Security Council Monitoring Group Report on Eritrea


Pete Souza/White House

Pete Souza/White House
The UN Security Council has released its 116 page Monitoring Group report on Eritrea dated 13 October 2014.
The Monitoring Group found no evidence of Eritrean support to al-Shabaab during the reporting period. It did not, however, rule out the possibility that Eritrea may have provided some asistance to elements within al-Shabaab without detection. In any event, Eritrea is a marginal actor in Somalia.
Eritrea continued to violate a UN resolution by importing weapons and ammunition from eastern Sudan on a regular basis and with the knowledge and direction of Eritrean officials affiliated with the President’s Office.
The Monitoring Group could not substantiate or confirm allegations made by the government of South Sudan that Eritrea had violated a UN resolution by providing military and logistical support to armed rebel groups in South Sudan.
Eritrean support for regional armed groups continued to be linked primarily to the larger context of Ethiopian-Eritrean rivalry in the Horn of Africa, the unsettled border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the way in which that rivalry shapes Eritrean foreign policy. There is evidence that Eritrea supports the Ogaden National Liberation Front, the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement, and Ginbot Seven.
It is the assessment of the Monitoring Group that senior Eritrean officials continue to collect millions of dollars per year through unofficial revenues by means of private business arrangements involving PFDJ-run companies domestically and abroad.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Eritrean mother lives on €300 a month - 'I can't afford to send my children to school' - The Malta Independent

26-year-old Semihar and her three children live in a room the size of an average living room, equipped with the bare minimum necessities. The room is in a deteriorating state- there's peeling paint on the ceiling, broken tiles and doorways. The stench is almost unbearable. The sink in the toilet is hardly large enough to wash your hands, let alone a baby. Bugs walk leisurely on the plates of food, placed on the small fridge, near the sofa.  The building in Msida is a property belonging to the church, which had been left abandoned for several years.
Semihar, from Eritrea, arrived in Malta from Sudan in 2012. The journey was rough. First she crossed the desert and then she crossed the Mediterranean Sea by boat.  "The storm during the trip was terrifying, but Sudan was no place to live, there's no peace," she says, in an interview with The Malta Independent.
Semihar was only eight when her mother passed away. Her father remarried, but his new wife did not get along with her step children. So Semihar decided to leave with her two children, one aged four, and the other eight. Upon her arrival in Malta, she was placed at the detention centre for twelve days, and then moved to the tent village in Hal Far. It was there she became pregnant with her third child. "Bringing up the children at Hal Far was very challenging - the weather, the facilities, it's no home."  While at the tent village, children played on the dirty floors, water gathered in the gutters. Hundreds of individuals shared a bathroom and a kitchen, with sinks often clogged or overflowing.
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When she moved into the room in Msida, the room had no stove fridge or washing machine but volunteers at Help the Children at Hal Far helped her out. Maltese people donate clothes for Semihar's children. The Eritrean woman gets €300 allowance a month for herself and her children. But to be eligible for the allowance, she needs to travel to Floriana three times a week to sign papers, proving she's unemployed. The bus ride for herself and her children already takes up a sixth of her monthly allowance.

Semihar has no family in Malta; both her siblings are now living in Sweden, after fleeing Sudan. "I have no husband, no family, but I am grateful for the Maltese volunteers at Hal Far, who truly help us out. I would work if I could, but I need to look after the children. I wanted them to go to school, but I have no money to buy their uniforms or other materials they require."
"I am being forced to move out from Msida in January, and start looking for my own place. But the €300 allowance would barely cover the rent. I would need to leave this country, and try to start a life for my family. My sister is in Sweden, she can help out. I miss my family every day, and to make things worse, I have no friends here," she says.
Semihar and her family are under subsidiary protection, which means she is granted a residence permit, free state education until the age of 16, access to health care and a work permit. Residency and work permits need to be renewed each year.
Those interested in helping Semihar can contact the organisation Help the Children at Hal Far.
Video and photo Paul Jones

Sunridge Gold reports fieldwork proceeding apace in Eritrea

TORONTO ( – Canadian projectdeveloper Sunridge Gold, which is developing the Asmaracopper/zinc/gold/silver project, in Eritrea, in the Horn ofAfrica, says fieldwork is proceeding apace on several fronts.
The Asmara project consists of six defined deposits, four of which are the subject of a feasibility study, completed in May 2013, and are in the permitting process.
Sunridge reported on Wednesday that work was currently focused on the two ‘pipeline’ deposits on the Asmara project – the Kodadu volcanogenic-massive-sulphide (VMS) deposit and the Adi Rassi copper/gold deposit – to define new areas of mineralisation and direct additional expansion drilling planned for next year.
Both deposits had inferred mineral resources and were open for expansion.
At Kodadu, Sunridge was busy with channel and trench sampling of the VMSgold oxide and gold shear zones at surface. It was also undertaking detailed geological and structural mapping over the current VMS resource and the goldshear zone that was recently identified to the west.
The team was also conducting geophysical work consisting of an audi-magneto-telluric (AMT) survey to define the massive sulphide at depth below the known VMS gossans exposed at surface, as well as other identified VMS-style targets to the north-east, which both showed high gravity anomalies and strong electromagnetic conductors.
At Adi Rassi, Sunridge was progressing with detailed geological and structural mapping at 1:500 scale and trenching and channel sampling of outcropping mineralisation to the south of the existing resource.
The geological team was also undertaking AMT survey lines to define the VMS-style mineralisation to the west of Adi Rassi.
Meanwhile, Sunridge reported that early development work to build an abstraction weir on the nearby Mai Bela river, which would provide water to the centralised processing facility near the large Emba Derho deposit, was currently proceeding with geotechnical fieldwork involving geotechnical and geological mapping, geotechnical sample collection for laboratory testing and surveying of an access road and staging area.
The Asmara Mining Share Corporation (AMSC) holds the Asmara project, a joint venture (JV) company in which Sunridge has a 60% stake and the Eritrean National Mining Company owns 40%.
The JV was last month formalised and was focused on rapidly pushing theproject toward the first phase of production next year.
The Asmara project has demonstrated that mining the four advanced deposits – Emba Derho, Adi Nefas, Gupo Gold and Debarwa –  and processing the ore near the large Emba Derho deposit, was economically robust, with a net present value of $692-million.
Average yearly metal output in the first eight years is estimated at 65-million pounds (29 000 t) of copper, 184-million pounds (83 000 t) of zinc, 42 000 oz ofgold and one-million ounces of silver.
Total metal production is estimated at 841-million pounds (381 000 t) of copper, 1.874-billion pounds (850 000 t) of zinc, 436 000 oz of gold and 11-million ounces of silver.
The project has a life-of-mine of 15.3 years. The feasibility study had indicated that full production at Asmara could be achieved by 2018. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

19 Ethiopian Aliens Arrested In Kenya - Citizen News

19 Ethiopian Aliens Arrested In Kenya
Police in Kirinyaga have today arrested 19 aliens of Ethiopian origin at the Mwea Makutano junction.

According to sources,the aliens who are being held at Sagana Police Station cannot speak English or Swahili.
While addressing the press, Mwea West Sub County Police Boss Paul Odede said that the driver was a Kenyan .
Odede added that stern action will be taken against Kenyan drivers who are caught transporting aliens along the road.
This comes just a few days after twelve other Ethiopians were arrested hiding in a house at Kahawa area.
It is reported that some unscrupulous Kenyans are now doing lucrative business of helping aliens especially from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia to enter the country illegally.
There has been an influx of Ethiopian aliens into the country who later head to South Africa in search of employment.
The Kenyan authorities are however blaming the vastness of the region for the influx of foreigners into Kenya through Moyale on Kenya-Ethiopia borders.
They added that the huge supply of labour both skilled and unskilled makes them vulnerable to criminal syndicates.
By Rehema Juma.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Eritrean resistance steps up pressure on President Isaias Afewerki | Global development |

Two opposition members tell the Guardian how Eritreans are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the repressive regime

MDG : Eritrea 's President Isaias Afwerki
Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afewerki, runs a one-party state and brooks no opposition.Photograph: James Akena/Reuters
Eritrea is the most closed and repressive country in Africa, routinely denying access to the international media. No foreign journalists are based in the country and there is no independent local press. However, in a rare and courageous breach of the wall of silence, members of the internal opposition spoke to the Guardian and Radio France International last weekend.
Since independence from Ethiopia in 1993 Eritrea has been ruled by as a one-party state by President Isaias Afewerki, who brooks no opposition.
Two members of the Eritrean resistance, speaking via a secure connection, described conditions inside the country. “Essentials like water, electricity or petrol have disappeared,” they said. Food is so expensive that even middle-class families find it difficult to find enough to eat.
They said tension in the capital, Asmara, is high, with reports of trucks filled with Ethiopian “mercenaries” – from the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement (TPDM), known locally as Demhit, which Eritrea supports – ringing the city. The last round of compulsory military service failed, with only around 50 of the expected 400 conscripts reporting for duty. “We think it is highly likely that Demhit will carry out a door to door sweep to round up recruits,” said Sami (not his real name).
The TPDM, drawn from the ethnic group that now rules Ethiopia, has been given sanctuary, arms and training by Afewerki. Eritrea and Ethiopia have a long-standing border dispute, which has resulted in tens of thousands of troops confronting one another in the bleak, mountainous border region. Supporting Demhit is Eritrea’s means of maintaining pressure on the Ethiopian government.
UN report published this month estimated that some 20,000 TPDM fighters are based in Eritrea, bolstering the president’s security. The report described them as having “a dual function as an Ethiopian armed opposition group and a protector of the Afewerki regime. Its fighters, who are from the same ethnic group as Afewerki, are seen to be personally loyal to him, unlike the defence forces whose loyalties have been questioned by the president in recent years.”
Since a failed army mutiny against the Eritrean regime in January 2013, the TPDM has become central to Afewerki’s survival. This reliance on foreign forces is deeply resented by the Eritrean population. “They demanded the identity documents of a friend of mine and I,” Sami said. “When this happened earlier this year there was a riot. People really hate them.”
Despite the intense security, the resistance is finding new ways of getting its message across. The group, which began over two years ago,started by helping organise phone calls from the diaspora abroad to Eritreans back home.
The resistance told the Guardian how it evaded tight security to put up posters protesting against conscription. “We lay on the streets, pretending to be homeless people,” said Sami. “It was freezing cold, but the security officials walked right over us. When they had gone we could put up our posters.
A smuggled video of “Freedom Friday”, now on YouTube, shows people in Asmara crowding round to read the posters.
Sami described the growing contempt for the regime. “In coffee bars you hear people talking – even high-ranking officials complain openly about the regime.” The government led the struggle for Eritrean independence, and for years relied on its legitimacy to demand the population’s support. “The movement was treated like a religion then, like the Bible or the Koran, and followed unquestioningly,” said Sami’s colleague, Temasgen. “Slowly, this has fallen away – and now it is gone.”
Both men know the risk they are taking in speaking to the international media. “I am willing to pay with my life,” Sami declared. “In history I would rather be remembered as someone who made the ultimate sacrifice rather than just sit and complain to my neighbours.”
They appealed for international pressure to be maintained on Afewerki: “Listen to our agony. We thank you for giving shelter to Eritrean refugees abroad, but if you are a decision-maker we beg you to keep up the pressure on the Eritrean regime.”
The opposition’s growing confidence and the fragility of the regime comes at a time when discussions are taking place about relaxing the sanctions against the Eritrean government. There are suggestions that the European Union is thinking about a new approach towards Asmara, and offering aid worth €200m (£158m) as a carrot for improved human rights.
Previous attempts by the former EU development commissioner Louis Michel to negotiate the release of the Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak in return for aid resulted in empty promises. Neither Dawit nor other political prisoners were freed. Instead, repression intensified, resulting in an exodus of refugees, who find their way across the Sahara and the Mediterranean to arrive at Calais in their hundreds.