A camel rider passes in front of a fenced mangrove plantation along Eritrea’s arid Red Sea coast. Photo: Getty
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Meet the three Eritrean women who are taking on the regime

Feruz Werede, Selam Kidane and Meron Estefanos are finding ways of challenging one of the most repressive states in Africa.

Eritrea – bordering on the Red Sea – is a land of extremes. The searing heat of its deserts and the harness of the mountains are softened by abundant valleys and a green, fertile plateau. Much the same can be said of its politics. Fierce and stubborn in their 30-year war of independence from Ethiopia that ended in May 1991, the Eritrean people briefly held the promise of a model state, with an open democracy and real hopes of prosperity.  

Yet today Eritrea is among the most repressive states in Africa. Thousands of its youth, desperate to escape interminable conscription, flee the country, running the risk of drowning in the Mediterranean or being sold to people-traffickers in the Sinai.

These tragic facts are never far from the minds of the Eritrean diaspora, some 17,000 of whom have made England and Wales their home, according to the most recent census. In a flat in central London, two bouncy little girls play on the family couch. Their elder sister, keen to get on with her homework, shoos them off to bed.

For their mother, Feruz Werede, it’s the end of a long day at work. With the supper cleared away, her campaigning begins. Feruz collates a lengthy report to be sent to British politicians. She’s campaigning against a tax imposed on the diaspora by the Eritrean government. “If you don’t pay the tax – 2 per cent of all your income, in addition to the tax you already pay to the British government – you can do nothing for your family back home,” she explains.

The tax is collected from the moment any Eritrean starts working. Even students must pay £50 a year. For many in this immigrant community, this means scraping together their meagre savings, or borrowing from friends. “Even if you want to send clothes home, you have to be ‘cleared’ by the Eritrean embassy,” says Feruz. “Want to register your child or get a passport? It’s just the same!”

The tax was outlawed by the UN Security Council and her campaign, launched last month, is beginning to pay dividends. In reply to a question from Lord Dubs – Alf Dubs – the government minister, Lord Dolar Popat replied that Britain had condemned the tax and called on the Eritrean ambassador in October last year to cease using illicit means to collect it. Answering Lady Dianne Hayter, the Foreign Office Minister, Baroness Warsi explained that Eritreans were “urged” to report “any use of coercion or other illicit means” of collecting the tax to the police.

But why does Feruz spend her few spare hours fighting the government of a country she no longer lives in? She was born “in the field,” as Eritreans say. Her parents were fighters during Eritrea’s long war of independence. She grew up in the liberated zone that was under rebel control. “My parents together gave 40 years of their life to the struggle and achieved the impossible. They - and so many other Eritreans – who fought for independence did not do so for tyranny, dictatorship and one man rule,” she says angily. “This was not our dream!”

Feruz is not alone. Across London, Selam Kidane has been running another, remarkable campaign. “Freedom Friday,” as it has been called, has been using phone-banks to get through to Eritreans back home. A group of Eritreans in the diaspora, armed with nothing more than phone cards, began dialling numbers at random to convince their compatriots that they were not alone in opposing the regime.

“Freedom Friday” then hit on the idea of using the technology developed by telemarketing – robocalls. These uses a computerised autodialer to deliver a pre-recorded message. Not wonderful but better than the isolation that has descended over a country that has absolutely no independent media.

Today the campaign has found means of smuggling posters and pamphlets back home. Local people paste them up whenever the regime is not looking.

In Sweden another Eritrean mother, Meron Estefanos, is probably the best-known of these feisty campaigners. She is a presenter with the Swedish-based Radio Erena, an opposition station broadcasting into Eritrea. It was while broadcasting back home that she was contacted by Eritreans attempting to find refuge in Israel. Travelling through Sudan and then into Egypt and the Sinai, they were easy pickings for people-smugglers.

Meron’s experience began with her family. In 2012, she received a phone call from her cousin, who had been kidnapped and taken into Sinai. Her captors were demanding $37,000 for her release and they didn’t just use threats. Their tactic was to put their victims on the phone to their relatives while they were being tortured.

“If you're listening to your cousin being gang-raped or burnt – the cries, the begging... you just want to end those phone calls,” said Meron. “So I collected the money [from friends and relatives] and borrowed some.” Her cousin finally ended up in an Ethiopian refugee camp, severely burnt and deeply traumatised.

Her cousin’s plight spurred Meron to action. She has been campaigning on the issue ever since, with increasing success. She teamed up with Professor Mirjam van Reisen, a foreign policy adviser to the European Commission. Together they produced a major report on the issue: “Human Trafficking in the Sinai”. The campaign has been a considerable embarrassment to the Eritrean authorities, who like to portray the country as being fully behind President Isaias Afeworki.

Together these women have begun to dent the Eritrean regime’s sense of invulnerability. A year ago there were disturbances that shook the regime to its core, with an armoured column seizing the television station. The coup was poorly planned and failed. But the president’s prestige was badly dented, making the activities of dissidents like Feruz, Selam and Meron increasingly important.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue