Monday, March 30, 2015

Eritrea Denied Joining ‘Firmness Storm’ Military Operation

Eritrea Denied Joining ‘Firmness Storm’ Military Operation
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Asmara (HAN) March 29, 2015 – Public Diplomacy, Regional defense and Maritime security News. Eritrea rejected to participate military intervention in Yemen.
Eritrea rejected Arab league invitation about Yemen Crisis. Eritrean leader, Isyas Afwerki rejected military involvement in Yemen. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are asking military and logistic  support to their neighboring countries to stop Hezbollah style militants in Yemen.
Meanwhile, Sudan accepted to is provide ground troops as well as warplanes for a Saudi-led military intervention against Shiite rebels in Yemen, the defence minister said on Thursday.
Saudi warplanes launched strikes on the Houthi station in southern yemen to stop their advance on embattled President Abedrabbo Mansur Hadi’s headquarter in Aden.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had assembled a coalition of more than 10 countries for the operation it dubbed “Firmness Storm”, including Sudan Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti.
“We are taking part with air and land forces in the ‘Firmness Storm’ operations and our forces have now begun mechanised movement towards the sites of the operations,” Sudanese Defence Minister Abdelrahim Mohammed Hussein told a press conference.
The Sudanese defense minister gave no further details on the number of troops or aircraft involved, or what role they would play to facilitate operation “Firmness Storm”.
The Sudanese military spokesman Colonel Al-Sawarmy Khaled Saad said the goal of the operation was “protecting Islamic holy sites and protecting the Horn of Africa, Red sea and Maritime security”.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

"Houthis" sent a senior Yemeni delegation to Eritrea

The new Yemeni Shia known"Houthis" sent a senior Yemeni delegation to Eritrea. Yemen's Houthis Seek strategic and political allies with Djibouti, Somaliland (Somalia), Sudan and Eritrea. Houthis are minority Shia from the north.

The Houthi political bureau Abdul-Malik Al-Ajri said a delegation headed by Hussein Al-Izzi arrived in Asmara to meet with Eritrean leader to discuss the latest political developments in Yemen's red sea security and ways to enhance mutual security cooperation with Eritrean navy.
Houthi leaders are warning that anyone who deals with President Hadi in Aden as "head of state" will be prosecuted and brought to justice
According to Geeska Afrika Online security sources, Houthis' new tactics anger Gulf Countries (GCC). The Houthis' diplomatic strategy takes its inspiration from the previous Yemeni regime of former President Ali Abdullah salah.
Houthi leaders said they have approached Iranian government, their main Shiaa in Tehran to send gasoline to offset supplies cut off by neighbouting GCC led by Saudi Arabia.
Another delegation is planning to visit Ethiopia in the coming weeks, they said. Houthi leaders say their interim government is trying to gain legitimacy in Africa and Asia. (
In Search Of A Role
Since it became headline news, President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea has been trying to find a way to entangle himself in the Yemeni crisis, which basically has two dimensions: Internal Yemeni issue and Sunni-Shi’a rivalry. None of that concerns Eritrea, but the security of the Red Sea does.
On November 2014, Isaias Afwerki floated an initiative to discuss the security of the Red Sea with the countries of the region.
Though the Arab countries gave Isaias’ initiative a cold shoulder and politely hushed it, Fasil Gebreselasse, the Eritrean ambassador to Cairo explained that the failure of the initiative was due to the Arab concern about involving Israel in the security of the Red Sea.
In the same month, the Eritrean ambassador told that, “the Arab countries rejected Israel’s presence [in the meeting] but it is possible for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Yemen, Djibouti , and Sudan to meet and agree on a mechanism to protect peace and security in the Red Sea, without inviting foreign forces.”
Isaias has primarily invited Egypt and Saudi Arabia but he also sent feelers to several other countries along the Red Sea–none of them was interested.
A diplomat from the region informed Gedab News that the Eritrean president, “either thinks highly of himself or underestimates the Arab leaders to consider brokering any deal between the Arab countries and Israel, a feat countries with leverage failed to achieve.”
Djibouti has an unresolved border issue with Eritrea, and in December 1995, Eritrea and Yemen fought for three days over the Hanish Archipelago which three years later, the International Permanent Court of Arbitration awarded to Yemen. (
Eritrea’s Ministry of Information blamed intelligence agencies disguised as independent think tanks and elements of Ethiopia’s Government for running a disinformation campaign against Eritrea.
“Concerted and deliberate disinformation on Eritrea have ratcheted up these days for reasons that are not difficult to figure out. The main culprits are certain intelligence agencies masquerading as independent think tanks and their TPLF (Ethiopian) minions”, Shabait said.
According to the Ministry, the latest planted claim that a Houthi delegation visited Eritrea is a misinformation spread with the aim to imply links between Eritrea and Iran.
Iran has Embassies in Djibouti, Ethiopia and the Republic of Sudan. It has also considerable investments and trade relations with these countries.
“In Eritrea, Iran is represented by a non-resident Ambassador. But normative Eritrea-Iran ties are misconstrued for purposes of disinformation” , the Eritrean Ministry of Information said.
The old story revolved around non-existing Israeli and Iranian military bases in Eritrea – a truly explosive mix. This time, it is Iranian/Houthi dimension, according to the Ministry.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Canadian mine targeted in Eritrea: African media reports |

Media reports from East Africa on Saturday claimed that a gold mine partly owned by Canadian company Nevsun Resources (NYSE:NSU, TSX:NSU) was hit by Ethiopian fighter jets.
At least two media outlets confirmed the report, including Tigrai Online, an Ethiopian daily news site which stated that the Bisha mine, located 150 kilometres from Asmara, Eritrea, was a target of two bombing raids conducted on Friday. The other target was the military depot at Mai Edaga Tikul.
An attempt to contact Nevsun at their Vancouver office on Sunday, seeking the veracity of the media reports, was unsuccessful.
However in an operational update on Sunday, the company stated that "While there was an act of vandalism at the Bisha plant late last week, there was no significant impact to operations and no personnel were harmed.":
The Bisha Mine experienced an act of vandalism on March 20 during the nightshift in which minor damages were sustained to the base of the tailings thickener, resulting in the release of water into the plant area. The required repairs and cleanup from the incident were minor and are incorporated into the plant re-start later this week. Additional safeguards have been adopted to ensure site and personnel safety and security while the Eritrean and mine security forces undertake an investigation.
Eritrea is widely considered to be a state sponsor of terrorism, including planned attacks on its neighbours. The tiny Red Sea State won independence from Ethiopia in 1993. In 2012 the U.S. Treasury Department placed sanctions on several Eritrean government officials and froze their assets for supporting al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Somalia.
The Bisha mine is 60-percent owned by Nevsun and 40 percent by the government of Eritrea

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Eritrean rebels attack government facility in Asmara - Sudan Tribune: Plural news and views on Sudan

An Eritrean opposition group has reportedly raided a government owned garage facility in the capital Asmara.
Eritrean National Salvation Front (ENSF) in a statement said its armed wing has carried out the attack on Wednesday at the garage located in Qohawta neighbourhood in retaliation to the regime’s oppression against citizens including deny economic rights of the people.
The statement alleged leaders of the country are looting national resources and the regime has intensified repression against civilians living in Asmara particularly at Arbaate Asmera and Tselot neighbourhoods and recently to the people of Adi Keih town.
The statement didn’t disclose if there were causalities from government side following the attack but it admitted one of its fighters have sustained light wounds.
It said its fighters have retreated to their positions safely after destroying a number trucks and other government owned machineries.
The group said necessary preparations were made “to shift its activities and place of operation to confront the regime inside Eritrea.”
The statement said the attacks never intended to target the “helpless” Eritrean army but the regime and anyone who supports it.
Sudan Tribune couldn’t independently verify the group’s attack claims.
In the past, Asmara has repeatedly dismissed such attack claims by rebels operating in neighbouring Ethiopia.
The Eritrean opposition further said the attack was also in response to Eritrean leaders’ arranged deals with foreign companies aimed to exploit the county’s natural resources.
The attacked garage, had been serving to store, service and repair heavy trucks owned by the government’s land transport companies.
The trucks, according to the statement, mainly work at Bisha Gold-copper mine project which is owned by the Eritrean government and the Canadian Nevsun Resources.
The $350 million mine project is the largest foreign investment in Eritrea since the east African nation gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993.
ENSF called on the Eritrean Army to defend the people and protect the rich national resources of the country by standing up against President Issaias Afeworki led regime in Asmara.
The group had in the past carried out cross-border attacks against Asmara regime jointly with other Eritrean rebel groups based in Ethiopia.
The secretive red sea nation is one of the world’s politically repressive countries.
International human right organizations particularly the Human Rights watch has dubbed the country as the North Korea of Africa.

Eritrea: Ethiopian Planes Raided Bisha Goldmine 

Ethiopian fighter planes bombed the  site of Eritrea's Bisha goldmine, reported Al-Sahafa, a leading Sudanese Arab daily in its March 21 edition.
According to the newspaper, heavy plumes of smoke and fire bellowed from the mine located 150 kilometers from the capital city, Asmara. 
At $300-$400 in annual earnings, the goldmine is Eritrea's only source of revenue, the newspaper added. 
The paper speculated that the raid might have been intended to distract public attention from the upcoming Ethiopian elections.
In related developments, has reported that Bisha goldmine sustained damages. It did not provide information on the nature or cause.
Reached at its headquarters in Canada, Nevsun Mining Company asked to contact its local offices in Eritrea directly. They were not available for comment.
Reliable sources from inside Eritrea indicate that the Bisha Gold Mining in Gash Barka and the May‐Edaga Depot are destroyed. The sources further claim that the attack which started at 4:30 am on Friday March 2o,2015 and the huge fire caused thereof lasted well into the middle of the day. The attack is believed to have been carried out either by missile or sabotage by opponents of the regime. President Esayas travelled to the two sites to assess the extent of the damage caused by the attack. Opponents to the regime often accuse the regime to have utilized the huge revenue from the Bisha Gold Mining to bolster its ruthless rule against the people of Eritrea.

Two Danish officials resign over Eritrea fact finding report | Caperi

Jens Weise Olsen and Jan Olsen resign over Eritrea report. Credit: Lars Nørgaard Pedersen/PolitikoJens Weise Olsen and Jan Olsen resign over Eritrea report. Credit: Lars Nørgaard Pedersen/Politiko

Two officials who were part of the Danish fact finding mission to Eritrea last year and who criticized the final report and findings of the mission are leaving the Danish Immigration Service.
The report triggered an internal rift within Denmark’s Immigration Service, because the two key officials  disagreed with the head of the fact finding mission, Jakob Dam Glynstrup over the report’s findings and conclusion.
According to Danish daily newspaper Berlingske, senior consultant Jens Weise Olsen and special consultant Jan Olsen have been released from their jobs, in what is formally being called a voluntary resignation.
They are resigning from the Danish Immigration Service after a long negotiation between the service and the trade union Dansk Magisterforening, which is representing the officials.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Eritrea blighted by 'ruthless repression' and human rights violations, says UN | The Guardian

MDG : Eritrea's president Isaias Afewerki
 Human rights activists endorse the UN’s belief that abuses have occurred on the watch of Isaias Afewerki, the Eritrean president. Photograph: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images
he Eritrean government has been linked with “ruthless repression” and systemic human rights violations, including carrying out widespread detention and forcing citizens into indefinite military service, according to the UN’s first inquiry into human rights in the secretive country.
Rights abuses perpetuated by Eritrea’s government, coupled with dismal economic prospects, are driving hundreds of Eritreans out of the country every day, according to an interim report by the UN’s commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea.
“Most Eritreans have no hope for their future,” said Mike Smith, chairman of the commission, which was formed in June last year. “National service, whether in a military unit or in a civil assignment, is the only thing that from the age of 17 they can expect to spend their life doing – paid between less than $1 and a maximum of $2 a day.”
Describing Eritrea’s culture of “pervasive state control”, Smith said a network of spies had been created that permeated the basic fabric of everyday life. “A man employed by national security might not know that his daughter is similarly employed,” he said, noting that extra-judicial executions, enforced disappearances and incommunicado detentions were commonplace.
“Is it surprising that, faced with such challenges, Eritreans leave their country in their hundreds every day?”
As of July last year, more than 320,000 Eritreans had fled the country, according to the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). After Syrians, Eritreans are the second most common nationality to arrive on Italian shores.
The UN commission’s interim report, released on Monday, is based on interviews with about 400 people, including government officials, in five different countries. It incorporates 140 written statements relating to human rights abuses in Eritrea.
The commission expressed concern that Eritrea’s government had “so far not cooperated” with its investigation and did not respond to repeated requests to visit the country to carry out research.
But the commission said that Eritrea was making some progress in improving human rights, noting that it had ratified the UN’s convention against torture and promised to reduce national service to 18 months. The commission will deliver its final report on Eritrea’s human rights situation in June.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the interim report showed “that it is essential for Eritrea to remain on the Human Rights Council’s agenda for the foreseeable future”. In the past, HRW has urged the Eritrean government to release political prisoners, let independent monitors into the country, allow independent media and end indefinite national service. HRW said there is no indication of progress on any of these points.
Eritrea has long been regarded as one of the world’s most secretive states, even drawing comparisons with North Korea. It was ranked at the bottom of the 180 countries assessed in Reporters Without Borders’ (RWB) 2015 press freedom index.
“Eritrea systematically violates freedom of expression and information. It is Africa’s biggest prison for journalists, with at least 16 currently detained – some of them held incommunicado for years,” said RWB.
Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afewerki, who has been in power since de facto independence from Ethiopia in 1991, has for decades used the threat of an outbreak of war with Ethiopia as a means of keeping his people under tight authoritarian rule. 
In 1998, a brutal border war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia, killing an estimated 70,000 people on both sides. Despite agreeing to a new border under the 2000 Algiers agreement, which ended the conflict, Eritrea claims that Ethiopian forces continue to occupy positions in its territory.
The ensuing military stalemate between the two sides has led Eritrea to adopt a “no war, no peace” position with Ethiopia, according to the commission. “It is an expression abusively used by the Eritrean authorities to disregard international human rights law as if Eritrea was in a legal limbo,” Smith said.
Accusations that Eritrea was supporting the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab ledthe UN security council to impose an arms embargo on the country in 2009. The UN also levied asset freezes and travel bans on some officials.
Human rights activists are pushing for tighter sanctions against key figures in Eritrea’s government, saying they continue to commit crimes against humanity under the guise of protecting the country from Ethiopian aggression.
“If the UN inquiry concludes there is a situation of crimes against humanity in Eritrea, which I very much hope it will do, then we can say the international community is duty bound to respond with actions commensurate to that of crimes against humanity,” said Daniel Mekonnen of the Eritrean Law Society, who added that he is hoping Eritrean leaders would be referred to the International Criminal Court.
The Eritrean government responded to the UN’s inquiry by criticising its reporting methods. Tesfamicael Gerahtu, an Eritrean diplomat, said: “My delegation is dismayed at the protracted reliance on unreliable, unproven and sensational information and interactions. Preconceived ideas and conclusions on Eritrea have become rampant.”
Leslie Lefkow, HRW’s Africa director, said: “The [Eritrean] government’s refusal to cooperate with human rights investigators is symbolic of its broader rejection of essential human rights reforms. Until that stance changes it is impossible to have meaningful impact on the domestic crisis and the massive exodus of Eritreans provoked by the dire human rights situation.”
Eritreans protest for democratic change and human rights in Eritrea - Washington, DC US on 23May 2014

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Our World Inside Eritrea BBC News BBC Documentary 2015

Eritreans flee camps but find they’re in psychological prisons | News | Africa | Mail & Guardian

Eritrea is one of the most repressive states in the world and the refugee camps offer little freedom or safety, but enslavement and abuse instead.
Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somali's being detained. (Reuters)
Television journalist Temesghen Debesai had waited years for an opportunity to make his escape from Eritrea, so when the country’s ministry of information sent him on a journalism training course in Bahrain he was delighted, but fearful too.
On arrival in Bahrain, he quietly evaded the state officials who were following him and got in touch with Reporters Sans Frontières. Shortly after that he met officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who verified his details. He then went into hiding for two months so the Eritrean officials in Bahrain could not catch up with him and eventually he escaped to Britain.
Debesai told no one of his plans, not even his family. He was concerned he was being watched. He says a “state of paranoia was everywhere” and there was no freedom of expression. Life in Eritrea, he explains, had become a “psychological prison”.
Crackdown on dissent

After graduating top of his class from Eritrea’s Asmara University, Debesai became a well-known TV journalist for state-run news agency Erina Update. But from 2001, the real crackdown began and independent newspapers such as Setit, Tsigenai and Keste Debena, were shut down. In raids, journalists from these papers were arrested en masse. He suspects many of those arrested were tortured or killed, and many were never heard of again. No independent domestic news agency has operated in Eritrea since 2001, the same year the country’s last accredited foreign reporter was expelled.
The authorities became fearful of internal dissent. Debesai noticed this at close hand, having interviewed President Isaias Afwerki on several occasions. He describes these interviews as propaganda exercises because all questions were pre-agreed with the minister of information. As the situation worsened in Eritrea, the post-liberation haze of euphoria began to fade. Eritrea went into lockdown. Its borders were closed, communication with the outside world was forbidden, travel abroad without state approval was not allowed. Men and women between the ages of 18 and 40 could be called up for indefinite national service. A shoot-to-kill policy was imposedfor anyone crossing the border into Ethiopia.
Debesai felt he had no other choice but to leave Eritrea. As a well-known TV journalist he could not risk walking across into Sudan or Ethiopia, so he waited until he got the chance to leave for Bahrain.
The world’s most secretive state

Eritrea was once a colony of Italy. It came under British administrative control in 1941, before the UN “federated” Eritrea to Ethiopia in 1952. Nine years later Emperor Haile Selassie dissolved the federation and annexed Eritrea, sparking Africa’s longest war. This long, bitter war glued the Eritrean people to their struggle for independence from Ethiopia. Debesai, whose family went into exile in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, returned to Eritrea as a teenager in 1992, a year after the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) captured the capital Asmara.
For Debesai, returning to Asmara had been a “personal choice”. He wanted to be a part of rebuilding his nation after a 30-year conflict and, besides, he says, life in post-war Asmara was “socially free”, a welcome antidote to conservative Saudi life. Those heady days were electric, he says. 
An air of “patriotic nationalism” pervaded the country. Women danced in the streets for days to welcome back EPLF fighters. Asmara had remained largely unscathed during the war thanks to its high mountain elevation. Much of its beautiful 1930s Italian modernist architecture was intact, something Debesai was delighted to see.
But those early signs of hope that greeted independence quickly soured. By 1993 Eritreans overwhelmingly voted for independence and since then Eritrea has been run by Afwerki, the former rebel leader of the EPLF. Not a single election has been held since the country gained independence. 
Today Eritrea is one of the world’s most repressive and secretive states. There are no opposition parties and no independent media. No independent public gatherings or civil society organisations are permitted. Amnesty International estimates there are 10 000 prisoners of conscience in Eritrea, who include journalists, critics, dissidents, as well as men and women who have evaded conscription. Eritrea is ranked the worst country for press freedom in the world by Reporters Sans Frontières.
No way out but on foot

The only way for the vast majority of Eritreans to flee their isolated, closed-off country is on foot. They walk over the border to Sudan and Ethiopia. The UN says there are 216 000 Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan. By the end of October 2014, Sudan alone was home to 106?859 Eritrean refugees in camps at Gaderef and Kassala in the eastern, arid region of the country.
In Ethiopia, Eritrean refugees are found mostly in four refugee camps in the Tigray region, and two in the Afar region in northeastern Ethiopia.
During the first 10 months of 2014, 36 678 Eritreans sought refuge across Europe, compared with 12 960 during the same period in 2013. Most asylum requests were to Sweden (9 531), Germany (9 362) and Switzerland (5 652). The UN says the majority of these Eritrean refugees arrived by boat across the Mediterranean. Most are young men, who had been forced into military conscription. All conscripts have to go to Sawa, a desert town and home to a military camp, or what Human Rights Watch has called an open-air prison. 
Many young men see no way out but to leave Eritrea. For them, leaving on a perilous journey for a life outside their home country is better than staying. The Eritrean refugee crisis in Europe took a sharp upward turn in 2014, as the UNHCR numbers show. Tragedies like the drowning of hundreds of Eritrean refugees off the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013 demonstrate the perils of the journey west and how desperate these people are.
Frightened asylum seekers

Eritrean refugees who go no further than Sudan and Ethiopia face a grim situation. According to Lul Seyoum, director of International Centre for Eritrean Refugees and Asylum Seekers, Eritrean refugees in a number of isolated camps inside Sudan and Ethiopia face trafficking and other gross human rights violations. They are afraid to speak to, and meet, each other. She said the situation had worsened since Sudan and Eritrea became closer politically.
Eritrea had a hostile relationship with Sudan during the 1990s. It supported the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, much to the anger of President Omar al-Bashir who was locked in a bitter war with the people of now-independent South Sudan. Today tensions have eased and Afwerki has a much friendlier relationship with Sudan – to the detriment of the tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees in Sudan.
A former Eritrean ministry of education official, who is a refugee in the United Kingdom and who is afraid to be named, believes Eritreans have no freedom to speak out in Ethopian camps such as Shimelba.
The official says that in 2013 a group of Eritrean refugees came together at a camp to express their views about the boat sinking near Lampedusa and Ethiopian authorities fired live bullets at them.
Traffickers in cahoots with authorities

Seyoum believes the movement of Eritreans in camps in Ethiopia is restricted. “The Ethiopian government does not allow them to leave the camps without permission,” she says.
Very few of those who do get permission to leave end up in Ethiopia. Instead, through corrupt mechanisms, they are trafficked to Sudan.
According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of Eritreans have been enslaved in camps in Sudan and Egypt over the past 10 years, many enduring violence and rape at their hands of their traffickers in collusion with state authorities.
Eritreans who make it to the West are afraid to speak publicly and are fearful for their families back home.
Now based in London, Debesai is a TV presenter for Sports News Africa. As an exile who has taken a stance against the regime of Afwerki, he has faced harassment and threats. Over coffee, he shows me a tweet he’s just received from Tesfa News, a so-called “independent online magazine”, in which they accuse him of being a “backstabber” acting against the government and people of Eritrea.
Others face similar threats, including the former education ministry official. A number of Eritreans said they did not want to be interviewed by me because they were afraid of the consequences.
Debesai said: “It takes time to overcome the past, so that even for those in exile in the West the imprisonment continues.” He adds: “These refugees come out of a physical prison and go into psychological imprisonment.” 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Eritrea: Take me to prison –More than 300 000 citizens have fled- Guardian


More than 300 000 citizens have fled Eritrea's chaotic national service. This is the story of one conscript.
Great escape: Eritrea's repressive regime has sparked a mass exodus of its citizens. The country only has a population of about ­six million, making it one of the largest per capita producers of asylum ­seekers in the world. (AFP)
Binyam*, a refugee, lives in Kenya now, closing a circle that began with his birth. He’s making a new start with the help of relatives after escaping from Eritrea last year, just as his mother had to do three decades ago.
She eventually went home. Binyam hopes that one day he can, too.
His mother fled Ethiopian repression during Eritrea’s 30-year war for independence. Binyam fled Eritrean repression carried out in the name of national security and says Eritrea has become one of the most repressive states in Africa.
Binyam is the youngest of eight children. He was born in Nairobi after his father, an underground member of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), smuggled the family into Kenya in the 1980s when the Ethiopian authorities became suspicious of his activities. One of Binyam’s sisters was born in an Addis Ababa prison after his mother, also an activist, was arrested.
Binyam’s father had been running 12 clandestine cells, whose members gathered intelligence on Ethiopian operations and spread nationalist ­propaganda. He is still with the Eritrean government – the country achieved independence in 1991 – whose repressive rule his own son has now fled. This reflects how divided some families have become over post-liberation politics.
The family returned to Asmara, the capital of the newly independent Eritrea, in 1992. Binyam was a student when a border war broke out with Ethiopia in 1998. He was taken out of school for military training in 2000, but didn’t see combat. In 2003, after completing his 11th year of secondary school, he was called to the Sawa Defence Training Centre for his 12th, as has been the case for all who came of age since a truce that left both countries in a face-off that has yet to end.
Some within the liberation front’s leadership criticised how the war was conducted and the president refused to honour a Constitution that had been ratified before it began. This led to a massive crackdown in 2001 during which some leaders were imprisoned and private media outlets were shut down. Since then, all dissent has been labelled “treason” and thousands have been jailed.
Asylum seekersAs many as 300 000 people have fled the country over the past decade, making Eritrea, with a population of about six million, one of the largest per capita producers of asylum seekers in the world. Many are national service conscripts fleeing a programme initially set up for 18 months but extended indefinitely after the ­conflict with Ethiopia and now requiring up to 20 years at bare subsistence wages for a ­generation of soldiers, teachers, labourers and low-level administrators.
Binyam’s national service cohort was the 17th round – each “class” of conscripts is known by its place in the sequence since it was launched in 1994 with a term of 18 months –and it followed a particularly rebellious intake, so its members were kept at Sawa longer than usual, though neither Binyam nor his peers caused any problems.
“It was very tough, but we accepted it,” he said. He had expected that, once the training phase was done, he would go to college, get a good education and do well in life. He now knows how naive that was.
In 2004, he was sent to a new technical institute at Mai Nefhi, set up two years earlier when the University of Asmara, the scene of vigorous student protests, was broken up into smaller colleges dispersed around the country during a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent.
Military college“They turned it into a military college,” he said, describing a garrison surrounded by barbed wire that students could not leave without permission from the uniformed soldiers in charge of the campus.
“Mai Nefhi was a joke,” he went on.
The teachers, mostly young Indians imported for the task, were unfamiliar with Eritrea and not qualified in the subjects they were teaching; the administrators were disorganised and untrained. He said he had no Eritrean teachers during his two years and learned very little. But he was not prepared for what would come next: teaching mostly illiterate EPLF veterans in a small village outside the town of Mendefera.
Binyam had been studying fine art when school officials told him they couldn’t find his records, so he would have to take time off while they searched. This village is where they “parked” him under a ministry of defence programme staffed by national service conscripts.
For the next 10 months, he struggled to do the best he could, teaching two 45-minute classes each day. The classroom time was extremely stressful, he said, because he wasn’t sure what he was doing, but the hardest part was the downtime when he had nothing to do: “You lose your mind there.”
When he showed up at Mai Nefhi again at the end of 2008, he was told his grades had been lost so he would have to repeat a year, but he convinced his superiors to test him instead. When he passed, he was sent back to Mendefera to teach again, this time under the ministry of education.
“It was kids this time,” he said, “but I was still unqualified to teach.” No one was qualified, he added.
The national service teachers were paid 700 nakfa a month (roughly $12). Binyam rented a four-by-four-metre room with no furniture and no toilet for 400 nakfa a month. He, like most conscripts, had to rely on money from his parents for basic living costs.
The day he arrived in Mendefera he had to sleep on the street because he hadn’t been given proper identification documents and no hotel would take him. Nor did the school have quarters for teachers. The next day, the director placed him in a classroom and walked out without an explanation.
This time he had classes throughout the day attended by 70 fourth- or fifth-graders at a time, most of whom he was unable to control. Other instructors used abuse to get them in line, he said, but that was not his way, so he strove to get the pupils’ attention through patient dialogue.
Dysfunctional education systemBut the education system was structurally dysfunctional, according to Binyam. He said everyone under 18 was required to attend school, giving the country a high statistical enrolment figure that belied the fact that little actual education took place. The curricula were inappropriate, teaching was done by rote and the faculty and staff were poorly motivated and untrained – and were nearly all national service draftees. The result was chaos.
Many teachers failed to show up for classes once the semester was under way, but there was no attempt to reel them in or punish them because this would likely result in the teacher’s flight or arrest, leaving a classroom permanently empty. The upshot was untended classes in which the children went wild.
Binyam said that 12 of his pupils left for Ethiopia during this time. When one was caught, released and sent back, Binyam asked why he had fled. “If I stay here, I’m just going to turn out like you,” the youngster told him. “That was a blow to the face,” said Binyam.
After a while, the stress got to him. When he began to have fainting spells, he sought help. “It was a total breakdown,” he said.
Things got worse when food rations ran short and teachers turned up at school hungry. Finally, he said, he told the authorities he could no longer teach and started staying at home. When others joined him, he was accused of fomenting an uprising and threatened with prison.
“I told them to take me to prison,” he said. “They have food there. Here I am a slave.”
But the next day the school director, demoralised but determined to fulfil his nearly impossible mission, came with cooking fuel and food of his own so they could eat. From that day onward, said Binyam, it felt like “we started working for him, not the government”.
Nevertheless, by 2013, still under heavy stress and seeing no way out, Binyam went to Asmara to secure a sick leave pass. In the end he got one, but only after bribing a health worker with 2?000 nakfa. They, too, were conscripts earning between 700 and 1 000 nakfa per month.
He was released from national service that May, but it took him another 10 months to pay the bribes for an exit visa – 200 000 nakfa. Once he had it, he bought the first ticket to Nairobi and left Eritrea. “I was afraid to wait,” he said.
Today, Binyam is a first-year student at a Nairobi university studying computer technology and neuropsychology.
“It’s a new start,” he said with a shrug. He said he would go back to Eritrea, as his mother had done more than 20 years ago, but only if the government changed.
*Not his real name
Dan Connell, a visiting scholar at Boston University’s African Studies Centre, has covered events in Eritrea for more than 35 years. Visit his website for more information