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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Lost in translation: what we lose when we leave the EU

From learning Irish to studying in Switzerland, my richest memories are all in Europe. What will happen to our creative culture after Brexit?

I’m rubbish at languages. Worse than rubbish, actually; hopeless. (You can ask my old German teacher, if you like. Sorry Frau Sarcher.) I don’t have the ear for inflection or the memory for grammar. I don’t have the patience for diligent vocab lists. I can barely spell in English, let alone in French.

So it was with some trepidation that I headed to West Donegal a few weeks ago to do an immersion course in Irish. I know: Irish, of all things, a language which is famed for sounding entirely unlike how it looks on the page and is spoken only by a small number of people, almost all of them in places I don’t live.

Well, I had to do it: I’m working on a novelist for my PhD who wrote in the language. But alright, fine, I also wanted to – wanted to at least grasp at the bones of the thing, even if I’d never be fluent.

I moved around a lot as a child, although always within the UK, and like a lot of people I know I never really had a proper and precise sense of origin. (Irish classes, replete with diaspora, handled this one fast: I am from here; now I live here.) I’m happy in most places, yet no geography has the ring of home. Yes, I’m undeniably English, but I always felt like I was looking at my own Englishness through glass.

I’m aware this might be the most English thing of all.

After my BA, I was awarded a grant to do research in Switzerland, and after that given a grant to do an MA, and everything changed. Suddenly, I was travelling across the continent, able to afford solo trips on the Eurostar to Paris and long months in a sticky Swiss summer, sending photos of the suspiciously clear rivers and cuckoo clocks back to England. In my early 20s, this became my home: always feeling slightly out of place, as ever, but willingly and joyfully so, stumbling through language after language. A whole world of pleasant unfamiliarity opened up on the continent.

A Swiss professor I met said that the very impossibility of translation is its greatest gift, because it reveals native quirks. I’m not sure I fully became a person until I started translating myself in those European summers – until I had to give an account of myself, as an English woman and as a person, out there in the world. Which is why, this morning, I found myself close to tears on the Tube.

I’m no more informed than you are as to why exactly Leave had such a good result. It might have been the headlines, or the promises of NHS funding, or simply long, dulled anger finding an outlet, however counter-intuitive.

But it was undoubtedly something else, too: an opportunity to wield power.

Feeling part of a movement is a seductive thing. This was a campaign entirely run in the negative, by both sides. I mean that in the most literal sense: not that there was no “positive” option, but that there was no option that offered a yes in relation to Europe – only a no more, thanks or a continuation of the same. Remain had no chance of promising us more. Leave, at least, could try, and even if it didn’t quite all ring true, it still offered action over inaction.

Getting ready for work this morning, I couldn’t get the words of sociologist and broadcaster Laurie Taylor out of my head. A few years ago, I went to a lecture he gave on popular culture, and saw him tell an audience of academics what he knew from growing up in Liverpool, and from watching the Dockers’ Strike: that turkeys will vote for Christmas if there’s a chance to stick two fingers up at the middle class while they do it.

That’s trite, perhaps, but less trite than pretending voters necessarily bought every promise from Leave. True, not everyone knew the ins and outs of trade negotiations, but most people were able to twig that Boris Johnson isn’t exactly a working class hero. As tends to be the case, there’s very little to be gained from calling the electorate stupid.

If the same communities that voted Leave are also those likely to be hit the hardest by a Brexit-induced economic downturn, they are also those who might reasonably have wondered: what have we got to lose?

Well, who knows. I’ll speak responsibly and say that I’m worried about EU funding to Cornwall (whose council is already scrabbling to secure a promise for alternative funds, after the population there voted Leave); about the medium-term prospects for the UK markets; about how we will handle cross-border security initiatives both in these isles and across the continent. I’m worried because I know where the money came from to regenerate Northern cities, and it wasn’t a Conservative government.

But I’ll also speak with feeling and say that something less tangible has been eroded. British culture is watchful and insecure, sarcastic and subtle; it has a class system awkwardly incomprehensible to outsiders and a sense of humour loved for being the same.

And the thing that makes it all beautiful, the Midas touch that takes the British bundle of neuroses and double-edged banter and endless, endless griping about the weather and turns it to gold, is openness – however grudgingly given. I won’t pretend we ever enjoyed a Halcyon age where we welcomed immigrants whole-heartedly. It would be an insult to history and those who fought to come here. But we are a mongrel country, in spite of our intentions, and most people, most of the time, cope. It is at the moments where we shrug and decide we’re not too fussed about difference, actually, that we shine most strongly.

Over and above the economy, even over the personal fear I have for European friends and lovers of friends and parents of friends, I worry about the loss of culture we may have triggered by choosing this course; what a Keynesian might call the “negative output gap” of creativity. We won’t ever be able to know precisely how much talent and creative joy we’ve effectively just told to fuck off, because you can’t measure pop songs or novels or new dishes like you can expenditure.

But that doesn’t mean that right now, across the country, hundreds of small stories forged from difference aren’t being foreclosed. A hundred little acts of friendship, or love; a hundred chances to look at Britishness through someone else’s eyes. The essential richness of being forced to translate ourselves, and receive others’ translations in turn, is being lost from our future. And our culture will undoubtedly be a little the worse for it.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland