New media cracks Eritrea’s iron curtain

Isolated in exile, young Eritreans have developed new forms of resistance.

Young Eritreans, who have fled abroad to escape their government’s stifling repression and years of compulsory military service, have turned to new media to attack the regime. Over the last year they have used chat-rooms, phone messaging and flash-mobs to get their message across.

In the last decade, tens of thousands of Eritreans slipped across their country’s heavily guarded borders. After surviving shipwreck in the Mediterranean or banditry, torture and extortion in the Sinai, they are building new lives in Europe, the US and Israel. Many are deeply angry that they have had to flee from their homeland, and looking for a means of attacking President Isaias Afwerki grip on power. But Eritrea is – after North Korea – probably the most inaccessible of regimes.  It accepts almost no foreign aid, has expelled most United Nations agencies and forbids foreign ambassadors from travelling outside the capital, Asmara.

Since the early 1990s, all independent media have been silenced, critics jailed and the university closed. Isolated in exile, young Eritreans have developed new forms of resistance through a campaign group, Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change.

They began with phone numbers smuggled out of the country. Eritrean towns and villages were targeted for phone calls at random. "We wanted to show Eritreans that they were not isolated," explained Selam Kidane, one of the London organisers. "At first people were very frightened, but gradually that has faded," Selam told me. "Now, when I get through I get passed from person to person."

Next the group turned to robocalls to spread their message.  Automated messages recorded by a priest for use on 29 November, the feast of Saint Mary.  Five thousand calls were made, urging people to go to St Mary’s church in Asmara, to commemorate the disappearance in 2005 of the Patriach of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Patriach Abune Antonios. The organisers claim that around 5,000 of the 6,800 calls got through. Some were followed up by one to one conversations.

Since then there have been a series of concerted campaigns, focussing on smaller towns. The organising group, called Arbi Harnet or ‘Freedom Friday’, asks Eritreans to remain off the streets, as a mark of solidarity. "The main objective is to penetrate the government’s iron curtain, to reach our people and encourage them to take communal action and link the resistance," says Ahmed Abdelrahim from Melbourne, a singer and song writer who co-founded Arbi Harnet.

Other calls have been used to mark particular events. This month, the ninth anniversary of the detention of Astern Yohannes, a guerrilla fighter was marked with 10,000 calls. She is also the wife of one of Eritrea’s best known imprisoned politician and first minister of defence, Petros Solomon. A video has been produced, explaining how she returned home in December 2003, after studying for three years at University of Phoenix in Arizona, to be with her children. Posters have been sent over the internet, describing the plight of young Eritreans who become held to ransom in the Sinai by people smugglers. Some have been secretly put up in Asmara and covertly filmed on mobile phones.

But perhaps the most powerful weapon has been through chat-rooms like Paltalk. This has enabled young exiles, the majority of whom have few foreign languages and no experience of the outside world, to escape their isolation. Together they have become what they call "the team that never sleeps." Living across the globe, with members in Australia, Europe and California, they plan and co-ordinate their operations. Flash mobs from Switzerland to Scotland have broken up meetings organised by government supporters, and the Eritrean ambassadors now have few opportunities to openly push the official line.

Unlike the first generation of exiled Eritreans, who concentrated on formal organisational structures, the youth are keen to act rather than plot and plan. With no formal structure and no borders, these young men and women are challenging a regime that has been described by Human Rights Watch as one of the most repressive in the world.

Martin Plaut is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies

An Eritrean demonstrator waves his national flag whist taking part in a demonstration on Whitehall. Photograph: Getty Images.

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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Beyond terror: how are the Paris attack survivors healing their “invisible wounds”?

For many who were present at the attacks in Paris last November, the psychological scars from that night have yet to heal.

Caroline Langlade sips on a coffee on the patio of a Paris cafe. She is smiling but visibly a little nervous, hands shaking as she raises the cup to her lips. She's startled by the low rumble of a passing motorbike and she spins round in her chair to make sure the source of the noise is nothing sinister.

Just a few minutes' walk away is the Bataclan concert hall where, on 13 November last year, gunmen shot dead 90 people in the deadliest of a string of attacks across the French capital that claimed a total of 130 lives.

Caroline could have been among them had she not been on the first floor balcony at the time the gunmen entered the music venue and opened fire.

She managed to take refuge with others in a locked side room.

"Someone, one of the terrorists, tried to get in but couldn't," says the 29-year-old media worker. "I was trembling the whole time. I'm trembling now just talking about it. We were there for three-and-a-half hours before the police let us out."

She escaped physically uninjured but, two-and-a-half months later, the psychological scars from that night have yet to heal. She hasn't been able to return to work since and says she finds it difficult to read a book, watch films or do anything that involves "letting herself go" mentally.


Caroline Langlade. Photo: Sam Ball

Crowds in the street, along with sudden noises like the aforementioned motorbike, make her nervous. Wherever she is, the first thing she does is look around for possible hiding places.

"We have invisible wounds, we were injured in the attacks but they're mental injuries," she says of survivors like herself.

Sometimes, those wounds can remain hidden even for those who bear them.

On the morning of 14 November, Laure Dumont (not her real name) woke up, went to buy groceries at her local market in northern Paris where she lives and then went to a bookshop – a fairly typical Saturday morning.

The evening before, she had been lying motionless on the patio of a bar targeted that night, Le Carillon, trying to play dead in the hope of avoiding the attention of the gunmen spraying the bar with bullets.

"I hadn't been hurt. I didn't really even cry," she says of the day after the attack. "I had things planned so I just continued life as normal."

Some of what Laure saw at Le Carillon, where she had been drinking with friends on the night of 13 November, was horrific.

She recounts how she was shocked at the strong smell of blood from the dead and injured that filled the bar; how she, along with another woman, tried to administer first aid to a girl who had been shot in the chest.

"I tried to help her but there was nothing I could do. She died," she says.

But it wasn't until some time later that she began to realise that what had happened to her had left a bigger mark than she had first suspected.

"As time passed, it started to affect me," says the 29-year-old administrative assistant for a concert production company. "Now it makes me nervous when I drink on the terrace at a bar or a cafe. I have moments of paranoia, like on the metro, for example. I ask myself where would I hide or run if something happened."

Sometimes the psychological wounds manifest themselves in unexpected ways. Laure says she can't stand the smell of alcohol spilled onto the floor, because it is strangely reminiscent of the smell of blood.

Both Laure and Caroline both make regular visits to the psychologist, part of the free services provided to victims of terror attacks by the state.

But for Caroline, it was the discovery of an online victim support group named "Life for Paris", founded by a 28-year-old childcare worker and Bataclan survivor named Maureen Roussel, which has proved to be the biggest aid to her rehabilitation.

The Facebook group, which now also has an accompanying website, was created on 1 December. Caroline joined the next day and soon became close friends with Maureen. Now, she is the group's vice president and effectively runs it alongside her.

"The idea was to create a group by and for the victims," says Caroline. It provides a platform for survivors to come together to provide each other with emotional support, find people they may have met on the night of the attacks or simply share their experiences.

They also help one another with practical tasks, such as accessing the free healthcare and other services on offer for every survivor of the attack – something that can prove particularly challenging for those from outside France who may not be aware that such help exists at all.

There has been an overwhelming response: the Facebook group has more than 500 members at last count, including some from as far away as the UK, Brazil, the US and Venezuela.

Members' experiences and the impact they have had on their lives are wide-ranging. While some have been able to return to normal life relatively quickly, others, says Caroline, have been unable to leave their homes since the attacks.

But one recurring theme is the phenomenon of survivors' guilt, something Caroline personally struggled with in the weeks following the attacks. She found solace in talking to other people in the group who lost loved ones on 13 November.

"They told me 'it's not your fault, no one deserves to die', and that really helped me a lot."

Above all though, the group has allowed her simply just to "make sense of things". For example, just swapping stories with other Bataclan survivors, she says, allows her to fill in holes in her memory about what happened that night.

"It helps to piece together the puzzle: there might be a person who will remember something you don't and that helps you to understand better, to put together the story so that you can digest it and put it aside."

Laure is also searching for missing pieces of the puzzle. Shortly after the attacks she returned to Le Carillon. "I just wanted to see the layout of the bar, the physical distances," she says. "After the attacks, I remember running for what to me seemed a long time. When I went back, I realised it had only been for three metres."

Like Caroline, she has found that connecting with other survivors has helped her come to terms with what happened.

She managed to get in touch with the woman who had helped her administer first aid to the injured girl, something that eased the guilt she was feeling about not being able to do more to save her.

"We exchanged some messages. She helped me remember what had happened. It was good to talk," she says.

For Caroline, the most important thing now is focussing on what can be done for those who escaped with their lives, but who will forever be touched by what happened.

"People died, but others are alive today and suffering – the families of those who lost their lives, victims with visible injuries, victims with invisible ones," she says. "All these people need to heal and it's important that we do it together, united."