Saturday, August 29, 2015

Veteran Eritrean freedom fighters launch underground opposition | World news | The Guardian

A man reads a book in Tigrinya, in Eritrea.

A man reads a book in Eritrea’s highlands, a place of intense fighting during the war for independence from Ethiopia. Photograph: Joseph Bautista/flickr

In the spring of 1976, two young Eritrean men walked into the glass-fronted United Nations building in downtown Geneva to make a desperate plea.
It was years into Eritrea’s struggle to break away from neighbouring Ethiopia, and occupying troops had recently shuttered schools across the country. With no outside help forthcoming, Habte Tesfamariam and Yusuf Berhanu, both fresh-faced university graduates, saw the UN refugee agency as a last resort.
“We explained to them the terrible situation concerning children in Eritrea and asked if they could help us to build a school in the liberated areas. They refused, saying that Eritrea wasn’t recognised by the UN,” said Tesfamariam, who was at the time a member of the independence fighters known as the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF).
When the two men persisted, officials eventually agreed to help set up a school in neighbouring Sudan, where thousands of refugees were camped at the time.

Eritrea opposition
 Habte Tesfamariam (right) in the field, in 1978. Photograph: Osman Salih Sabe

Their efforts encapsulate the fierce self-reliance – and sense of betrayal toward the international community – that held Eritrea together during its 30-year struggle for independence, and is arguably still strongly present today.
Around 6,000 students passed through the school they helped set up in Kassala, in eastern Sudan, many of whom went on to study abroad. “After the liberation of Eritrea, I was expecting them to return back and develop the country,” said Tesfamariam.
Instead, independence triggered a slow bleeding of the population. For a generation of opposition activists like Tesfamariam, who turned 70 this year, it marked the beginning of a period of exile from which few have returned.
The pressure of three decades of war prompted the ELF to splinter and from it emerged the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, whose tanks finally rolled to victory in the capital, Asmara, in 1991, after three decades of conflict. At their head was Isaias Afwerki, a charismatic, sandal-wearing soldier who idolised Marx, and who quickly turned on the other organisations that had fought for independence alongside him.
“We were demonstrating, having strikes, everything we could do in the face of a very punishing Ethiopian response. We thought that after independence there would be real democracy, but today it is absolutely impossible to return to Eritrea as an opposition member. If you do, they will pick you up upon arrival and you will disappear,” said Tesfamariam.
“It is the worst kind of dictatorship – it’s run as if it’s bandit country.”
For almost a quarter of a century, Eritrea has remained under the iron grip of Afwerki, its population of 6 million getting by with no constitution, no independent judiciary or media, and no opposition parties. Isolated and paranoid, Afwerki has declared the population is “not ready” for multi-party democracy.

Charm offensive

State repression coupled with very few jobs and indefinite national service made this tiny nation the third biggest source of migrants arriving on Europe’s shores last year. The UN believes up to 5,000 flee monthly, although some warn numbers may be inflated by others pretending to be Eritrean to boost their chances of gaining asylum.
Now though, the Horn of Africa nation appears to have launched a charm offensive as efforts to stem the flow of those fleeing coincide with Europe’s own struggle with the biggest refugee crisis since the second world war.

Tiburtina train station in Rome
 More than 165 migrants from Eritrea temporarily stationed at a camp beside Rome’s Tiburtina train station in August. Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

Senior Eritrean officials say those who flee the country are economic migrants, not refugees, but have nevertheless talked about scaling back indefinite national service, mentioned by many refugees as a main reason for fleeing the country.
report by the Danish government this year claimed that, for the first time, draft evaders are unlikely to face punishment on returning home, providing they sign a “letter of apology”. The report was a response to apparent overtures by Afwerki’s regime to lure back its much depleted generation of young people, needed to help rebuild its war-shattered economy.

There’s a grim running joke among exiled politicians that Afwerki controls both the government and opposition, as both sides are forced to dance to his tune, prompting the nickname “Africa’s North Korea”.
While there is little sign of the personality cult that defines everyday life in North Korea, a similar intolerance of public dissent prevails. Despite a middle class who are able to live peaceful lives, the political landscape is bleak.
Initially seen as a war hero who negotiated aid deals to uplift a crippled economy, Afwerki soon revealed an authoritarian streak. In 1993, two years after the conflict ended, he ordered the imprisonment of veterans protesting against harsh conscription conditions. Shortly after, all but a handful of state-sanctioned international development organisations were closed down.
But rumours of dissent at the highest level began to filter out. Years of increasing tension culminated in an open letter from around a dozen senior ranking officials in September 2001. With the world fixed on the 9/11 attacks in the US, Afwerki quietly rounded up 11 of the signees. They have been held incommunicado ever since. Independent journalists and writers were also carted away to undisclosed locations in the country that languishes at the bottom of media freedom rankings. Richard Reid, an academic who visited around the time of the arrests, recalled the capital’s once-sparkling nightlife suddenly dampened by a cloak of suspicion.

Habte Tesfamariam
 Habte Tesfamariam at an Eritrean festival in Kassel, Germany, this year. Photograph: Habte Tesfamariam

Underground movement

So how does an opposition operate in such circumstances? Tesfamariam, who is of the same generation of fighters as Afwerki, believes meaningful change is impossible so long as the president is in power. “Everyone in the civilian population understands this now. We have now managed to start an underground movement inside the country,” said Tesfamariam, who chairs theEritrean National Congress, an umbrella group of 10 other opposition groups also forced to operate from outside the country.
Tesfamariam, whose decades-long career as an independence fighter began with him delivering secret mail between members, said momentum was slowly growing inside Asmara, despite the risks.

Critics of Afwerki say he uses the apparently continued existential threat from Ethiopia to rollback democratic change. “Ethiopia in a way cooperates because they don’t want him causing trouble by supporting opposition groups in the region. It’s a stalemate nobody seems willing or able to break,” said Dan Connell, who has chronicled Eritrean history for 40 years and regularly visits its border towns, referring to claims, strongly denied, that Asmara supports Somali islamist group al-Shabaab and its incursions into Ethiopia.
A generational rupture means many still view Afwerki as a national hero, even if they hoped for more prosperity by now. Solomon Abraha, a 70-year-old birdwatcher who runs tourism trips into the country, often joins veterans to sip coffee in the city squares and is dismissive of international pressure helping after so many decades. “It’s a free country – I can come and go as I please. Eritrean eyes see the situation most clearly.

“Even if there are some things that need to change, it has to be done the Eritrean way.”
Although a strong sense of nationalism means Eritrea is unlikely to witness the implosions of regional neighbours like Somalia and Libya, the path ahead is likely to be rocky.
“If we’re talking about a western approach to democracy, it’s going to be very difficult to reach that stage because these are organisations that have been continuously under armed struggle. The [institutional] capacity is very weak, but there is no other way but forward,” Tesfamariam said.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Eritrea Opens its Doors to European Investigators

For more than two years, young unaccompanied Eritreans have escaped conscription to reach Ethiopia's Mai-Aini refugee camp to begin a migrant journey full of risks.
For more than two years, young unaccompanied Eritreans have escaped conscription to reach Ethiopia's Mai-Aini refugee camp to begin a migrant journey full of risks.
David Arnold
For many years Europe has welcomed refugees from Eritrea - a nation that has acquired a reputation among western powers as a totalitarian state - a hermit nation on the Horn of Africa.
But even after yet another United Nations charge of human right violations by Eritrea’s leaders, a high government official in the nation’s capital, Asmara, says a few European countries may be rethinking their blanket amnesties.
There may be several reasons why European Union immigration officials are re-assessing blanket asylum approvals for Eritreans. They may want to stop or reduce further Eritrean entries and  to stop other migrants who falsely claim Eritrean nationality to receive asylum.

Or, EU officials may think Eritrea is shedding some of its domestic policies, policies they believe lead to past abuse human rights abuse.
The UN refugee agency says youth conscription intensified last year, but the political advisor to President Isaias Afewerki says the E-U is sending officials to Eritrea to see if their justification for that asylum policy is based on facts on the ground.
Why are EU immigration officials visiting Asmara?
“Several European countries sent their immigration departments to come and look at the situation for themselves sin Eritrea,” Yemane Gebreab told the Voice of America recently. “The British have been here, the Danes have been here, and the Norwegians have been here several times, the Dutch have been here, the Swedes are here right now, and officials from Switzerland have been here.
Eritrean official presents a new image

“So, key European countries have sent their people to look at the situation on the ground,” Yemane says. “And I think that they have come to the realization that what is being said about Eritrea is not true, that there is no political persecution in this country, that national service is not indefinite, that it does not constitute slave labor.
“Those who are traveling to Europe are traveling there essentially for economic reasons,” Yemane argues.
Are they all really Eritreans?
Economic refugees from other African countries lie about their nationality to get fast-track approval of asylum. Yemane says many Ethiopian migrants falsely claim Eritrean citizenship to gain automatic asylum.
But the Ethiopian government has its own refugee problems to solve. Security officials in Addis Ababa have arrested 200 Ethiopians on charges of smuggling. They asked INTERPOL – the International Criminal Police Organization - to help extradite 80 more for prosecution in Ethiopian courts.
Yemane says some migrants bound for European asylum are imposters. “People in this neighborhood - Ethiopians, Sudanese, Somalis and others have claimed they are Eritrean to expedite their asylum procedures.
“As far as minors are concerned the same thing goes. You look at Ethiopia. Ethiopians are now at the heart of the human trafficking network. There are a lot of people in northern Ethiopia, minors who are going to Europe posing as Eritreans.”
Blaming conscription on a war economy
The Eritrean government’s view of its own recent history is that of a small country forced to become a war economy when they fought a two-year border war with Ethiopia. The war cost an estimated 100,000 lives and justified national service for anyone 18 or older.  Some refugees report that service lasted for many years and became the instrument of punishment for critics of the state. Some have also charged that those who serve their country become forced labor in Eritrean gold mines operated by foreign firms.
However, Yemane says current government policy requires that the 17 mining companies operating in Eritrea cannot hire an Eritrean unless he or she has a document proving they have been released from national service.
Besides, Yemane says, national service is not just a standing army.  
Teachers and nurses also serve
“National service doesn’t mean only people serving in the military. It means people swerving mainly in the civilian sectors. So as you go to our schools, our teachers – probably around 60 percent – are national service members. They fulfill their national service obligation in our educational system, teaching. If you go to our health system, our hospitals and clinics and health centers, again a significant percentage are national service members. If you look at our agriculture, the people who are providing extension services to farmers and giving them advice are national service people.”
An African affairs researcher who recently traveled to Asmara spoke with Mr. Isaias and others in the Asmara government. She described a “charm offensive” of officials looking to rid themselves of their old image.
Yemane says post-war Eritrea will be different.
Predicting a five-year economic transformation
“War and its pain are restrictions on the society and the economy because they, in a sense, take a priority at that time,” Yemane says. “Now, that phase is coming to an end. We are entering a new phase of growth and we believe that in the next three to five years the Eritrean economy will see a significant transformation.
“We believe that in three to five years we will be able to provide job opportunities for our young people.  We are getting more and more confident in the development prospects in Eritrea and that is leading to this change.”
For the sake of economic development, the Eritrean government now considers whether to give up its war economy and the longtime practice of jailing its dissenters and its journalists. Meanwhile, the leaders of the European Union struggle with the summer’s massive flow of migrants and whether to still welcome future Eritreans who claim political asylum.
Part 3 of a series on the risks of the dangerous trail to Europe, why Eritreans are leaving home and whether policies in Europe and Eritrea are changing.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

'If we don’t give them a voice, no one will': Eritrea's forgotten journalists, still jailed after 14 years | World news | The Guardian

Eritrea journalists

 Seyoum Tsehaye, who was imprisoned during a government crackdown in 2001. Photograph: Pen EritreaThose writers who remain face stringent censorship in a media climate characterised by the monotonous recycling of official information put out by a paranoid government.
In response to these conditions, Eritrean journalists in exile set up PEN Eritrea, an organisation to connect this inaccessible country and the outside world, and to campaign on behalf of the country’s imprisoned journalists, many of whom have been jailed for more than a decade without contact with their families.
President of the organisation, Ghirmai Negash, describes it as: “a small contribution in the long road towards liberty and democracy.”
Co-founder Dessale Berekhet said: “We aim to empower, connect and if possible to serve as an umbrella for the ‘destitute’ writers and journalists of the country wherever they are scattered.”
But repression has not always been the norm for the country’s writers. In 1996, soon after independence from Ethiopia was finally won after a 30-year war,the number of independent newspapers boomed, many founded by students or graduates of the University of Asmara and catering for a wide range of views.
But as the political climate began to change, so too did the state’s attitude towards its critics. In a climate of mounting repression led by president Isaias Afwerki, 15 members of the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice wrote an open letter denouncing Afwerki’s iron grip on power, calling his actions “illegal and unconstitutional”.
For this they were quickly jailed. Eleven of the men, who have become known as the G-15, remain incarcerated, incommunicado, without trial. On the same day, 18 September 2001, Afwerki cracked down on all dissent, banning private newspapers.
Eleven journalists were taken into custody that day, and remain in undisclosed locations. It is widely believed that at least four (and perhaps as many as nine) of the 11 journalists have since died, including Medhanie Haile and Fessahaye “Joshua” Yohannes, profiled below.

Fourteen years later the country remains in a state of anxiety: current estimates suggest there are at least 23 journalists in prison without due process. Only state owned media remains, and communication with outside world has become nearly impossible. Now, citizens must go to public spaces to share information amongst themselves, while young people are stuck watching European football, or dubbed Arabic-Turkish soap operas on TV.
Has Eritrea become Africa’s North Korea? Worse, perhaps: journalists routinely face arrest, intimidation, harassment and long-term detention without trial, their families unsure if they are still alive.
The following six writers have been held in undisclosed locations since September 2001, without trial.

Amanuel Asrat

Zemen editor-in-chief and award-winning poet

Amanuel Asrat
 Amanuel Asrat, former editor-in-chief of the newspaper Zemen. Photograph: PEN Eritrea

Amanuel Asrat was editor-in-chief of the newspaper ዘመን (Zemen, meaning The Times), and the man largely credited for the Eritrean poetry resurgence of the early 2000s.
The paper was known amongst readers for its special interest in arts and literature, and Asrat – himself a leading poet as well as a songwriter – was the most popular art critic of his time.
But his role was not limited to critique: he played a leading role in creating writers’ clubs across the country. With two friends he set up a grassroots literary club called ቍርሲ ቀዳም ኣብ ጠዓሞት (Saturday’s Supper) in 2001. Soon after, similar clubs were established in all major Eritrean towns.
Eventually, Zemen became the leading literary newspaper in the country, run by a circle of critics who helped shape the cultural landscape of the country.
Above all, Asrat was a talented poet. In his writing, he explored subjects ranging from the daily life of the underprivileged, to war and peace. Unlike much popular Eritrean wartime poetry, he portrayed the ugly side of conflict. His award-winning poem ኣበሳ ኲናት (The Scourge of War) alluded to the then ongoing border dispute with neighbouring Ethiopia, describing the blood shed by two brothers:
Where two brothers pass each other
Where two brothers meet each other
Where two brothers conjoin
In the piazza of life and death
In the gulf of calamity and cultivation
In the valley of fear and peace
Something resounded.
The ugliness of the thing of war
When its spring comes
When its ravaging echoes knock at your door
It is then that the scourge of war brews doom
You serve it willy-nilly
Unwillingly you keep it company
Still, for it to mute how hard you pray!
Asrat was arrested at his home on the morning of 23 September 2001, when the editors of all the country’s private newspapers were rounded up. Prior to his arrest, he was preparing to go to South Africa to continue his higher education.
From the limited information available, Asrat is still detained in the maximum security prison, Eiraeiro, north of Asmara.
(Translation by Tedros Abraham)

Seyoum Tsehaye

Freelance journalist and former TV director

Seyoum Tsehaye
 Seyoum Tsehaye. Photograph: PEN Eritrea

A former freedom fighter, the first director of the state-owned national TV channel, Eri-TV and a freelance photographer and journalist, Seyoum Tsehaye was arrested in his home after repeatedly publishing critical articles in the independent newspaper, Setit.
Tsehaye, still reportedly alive in Eiraeiro prison camp according to the latest limited information, was 49 at the time of his arrest.
After fighting as a foot soldier in the armed struggle, he was called back by the front to establish a department of photography for the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front party, archiving images and footage of the conflict that are still used by national TV today.
Former editor-in-chief of Setit, Aaron Berhane, describes him as “someone who always tried to have impact on Eritrean daily life”.
As many dreams for the country started to dissolve after independence, Tsehaye started to write regularly for Setit. According to Berhane, “his writings explored the challenges Eritrean former fighters faced in re-adjusting to civilian life and putting bread on the table.”
But as Tsehaye started to drift away from the preferred political line of the elites in power, he was targeted by the authorities.
Tsehaye always wanted to speak on behalf of the voiceless, Berhane recalls, who remembers that the journalists used to repeat the line: “If we don’t give them a voice, no one will.”
He is married with two daughters.

Medhanie Haile

Deputy editor of Keste-demena

Medhanie Haile
 Medhanie Haile. Photograph: PEN Eritrea

A former sports columnist, 
and a lawyer by profession, Haile was working at the Ministry of Justice at the time of his arrest. Today, Haile remains best known for his critical articles calling for the rule of law to be firmly established in the country post-independence.
As his friend, exiled lawyer and former Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights chairperson, Samuel Bizen, says, Haile: “was passionate about the rule of law and constitutional democracy. Most importantly he was concerned about the implementation of the new constitution ... and the free flow of information that empowers people and enables them to stand up for their rights.”
Haile often wrote editorials that addressed law and order. In one piece, he underlined the importance of a free press in building a vibrant and accountable society. Praising some of the steps taken towards opening up the press and democratisation, Haile called for a culture of tolerance.
Despite constant hostility from the government in the form of frequent arrests and intimidation, Haile was convinced that the rule of law would prevail. But this proved to be wishful thinking.
After all independent newspapers were banned in 2001, the editors joined together to write a letter to the Ministry of Information, asking for an explanation. Poet Saba Kidane, now in exile, was present at the meeting and recalls Haile’s reaction. On hearing how other editors were fleeing the country, Haile said: “We are in a country governed by the rule of law and we are asking for an explanation for these actions. We cannot flee in fear.”
Two days later, he was arrested at his home. Medhanie is reported to have died in detention, according to a former prison guard. His death was attributed to harsh conditions and a lack of medical attention. He leaves behind four brothers.

Fessahaye ‘Joshua’ Yohannes

Poet, playwright, journalist and co-owner of Setit

Fessahaye ‘Joshua’ Yohannes
 Fessahaye ‘Joshua’ Yohannes Photograph: PEN Eritrea

The country’s first independent newspaper, Setit was founded by Aaron Berhane, Simret Seyoum and Habtom Mihreteab in August 1997. The team was soon strengthened when Dawit Issac – a Swedish-Eritrean journalist also detained incommunicado since 2001 – and Fessaheye Yohannes joined too.
Starting out as a bi-monthly publication with a circulation of 5,000, the print run was soon increased to twice a week with a circulation of 40,000, according to Aaron Berhane, the former editor-in-chief. By way of comparison, the government-owned ሓዳስ ኤርትራ (Hadas Er’tra) then had a circulation of just 10,000, despite being distributed free.
A published poet, circus performer (with the Shewit Children’s Theatre) and short story writer, Yohannes was known as friendly, reliable – “a dedicated journalist who never missed deadlines. He had a great ability working in a very tight schedule. He was also passionate about life,” recalls Berhane.
“You’d always see him joking around and laughing loudly.”
Along with the other editors of Eritrea’s other private newspapers, Yohannes was rounded up on the morning of 23 September 2001 at his home. He is thought to have died in 2006 or 2007, due to poor health and mistreatment in prison.

Idris Abu’Are

Author and freelance journalist

Idris Abu’Are.
 Idris Abu’Are. Photograph: PEN Eritrea

Idris Abu’Are was known for his critical thinking, his public readings and his seminars on the history of the Eritrean independence struggle, says his friend and fellow journalist Stefanos G Temelso.
After freedom from Ethiopia finally came in 1991, Abu’Are was assigned to the newly established Ministry of Foreign Affairs and alongside his duties regularly contributed to the government-run Arabic daily newspaper, Eritrea al-Haditha.
But over time, Abu’are became increasingly critical of the ministry – and publicly called them out. In a February 2001 issue, he wrote:
The strange thing about the matter is that every time the discontent and contempt resurface, the stubbornness of the ministry grows
Abu’Are later freelanced for the independent newspaper ጽጌናይ (Tsigenay), and published a collection of short stories in Arabic in 1992.
But the writer was soon blacklisted for his ideas by the increasingly nervous government, and was arrested at his home in October 2001 after openly denouncing the arrest of the G-15 group.
Aba’Are is married and has one daughter. He remains in prison.

Dawit Habtemichael

Assistant editor of Meqalh
Among his students at Asmara’s secondary school, Dawit Habtemichael was known as an energetic physics teacher, who organised a literary club and also served as a volleyball coach.
His former colleagues at the newspaper መቓልሕ (Echo) describe him as a jovial and talented editor, a critical reader and a hard worker who would spend hours working on the newspaper after his classes at the school.

Dawit Habtemichael
 Dawit Habtemichael. Photograph: PEN Eritrea

Meqalh was co-founded by Habtemichael in 1998. The newspaper started life in a tiny office, equipped with one desktop computer, an old printer and a telephone, which served as their base right up until the ban on independent media, according to fellow exiled journalist Yebio Ghebremedhin.
In addition to editing, Habtemichael also wrote critical articles: his regular column, ክምብል በለ’ምበር (Never too late) scrutinised key issues in society and government on which, he assumed, it was never too late to improve.
Dawit was not arrested in the first dawn round-up of journalists in 2001. However, wrongly assuming that they would probably arrest him and release him shortly afterwards – as was common practice at the time – he went to work as usual. However, security police arrived at the Asmara comprehensive secondary school the next day, and detained him.
There are conflicting reports about Habtemichael’s whereabouts today: according to Reporters Without Borders, he died in Eiraeiro prison camp in the second half of 2010, along with his colleague and editor Matios Habteab.
Abraham Tesfalul Zere is Eritrean writer and journalist who is currently serving as executive director of PEN Eritrea in exile