“The government has declared war on us”: an appeal from people suffering inside Eritrea

A rare insight into what goes on inside the “North Korea of Africa”.

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Martin Plaut writes: A message has been smuggled out of Eritrea calling for UN sanctions against the regime to be maintained. It provides a rare insight into the conditions in a country that is so isolated and repressive that it is often referred to as the North Korea of Africa.

This appeal, which comes from the underground resistance in the capital, Asmara, helps explain why Eritreans make up one of the largest group of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe and finally making their way to Calais. It comes via the “Freedom Friday” network, which has used posters and phone calls to reach their people inside the country.

Last month a UN Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea concluded that human rights abuses in the country are so severe that they may constitute crimes against humanity.  Among these abuses is the system of national service. Young men and women are conscripted into the military at the age of 17 and have to serve indefinitely, with next to no pay. Some people have served for more than 20 years, acting as forced labour on the country’s gold and copper mine.

 When the findings were debated in Geneva there were large demonstrations organized by the Eritrean government and the opposition, with the respective sides attacking or supporting the Commission’s findings. The President of the Commission complained that his members had received threats and attempts had been made to intimidate them. The Swiss police provided guards for the UN investigators.

Eritrean state television only broadcast news about the pro-government demonstrations, and it was in reaction to these broadcasts that a group of Eritreans sent this message abroad. They support sanctions against the regime. This is reminiscent of the calls by the African National Congress for sanctions against apartheid from the 1960s onwards, even if it was going to hurt the people of South Africa.

Eritrea’s history is one of the saddest in Africa. Eritreans fought for their independence from Ethiopia for 30 years. During that time vast quantities of American arms and financial support were provided to Emperor Haile Selassie. After he was overthrown in 1974 by the Marxist regime led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, the aid continued, but this time from the Soviet Union.  Despite this, the Eritreans fought their way into their capital, Asmara, in 1991 and the country gained international recognition as an independent state in 1993. 

A further border war with Ethiopia from 1998 until 2000 left the country badly weakened. The army remains entrenched along the Ethiopian border and a state of no-war, no-peace has allowed permanent conscription to be enforced.

In May 2001 President Isaias Afwerki was criticised by his party colleagues, who described his despotic rule as “illegal and unconstitutional”. They were promptly arrested and have been held without trial ever since. There have been no elections since independence. The constitution has not been implemented, there is no freedom of speech or independent media of any kind.


A message from Asmara: is it naivety or callousness?

Some Eritreans think the demonstration that took place on the 22 June has something to do with the existing UN sanctions against our country, or any economic sanction that might be imposed in the future. But although sanctions can hurt the people the current appalling situation of Eritreans is a reality that should be understood by every Eritrean living in the diaspora.

We are unable to make a living; we are forced to go to endless military training in the national service and the people’s army forces our children to go on “development” projects. This is the reality of our arduous lives. 

All enterprises are shut. Even the meager provisions for every day goods including food items are limited. Those businessmen who used to be able to import small amounts have been forbidden from doing so. This has resulted in scarcity of every item. People are suffering.

It is as if the government has declared war on us; the government is busy shutting every door on us and making our lives a misery whilst we continually have to fight to overcome these difficulties    

For example, domestic fuel is now very scarce and very expensive. The prices of essential food rises by the day. Even government owned ‘fair shops’ are working against the people and exposing the people to even more hardship. Shoppers are forced to queue for hours on end just to buy basics. Restrictions are placed on how much can be bought at one time.

Electricity is so seldom available that our children joke about it. They say it is rather like bread. This used to be rationed; now it has totally vanished from many shops. The absence of electricity is one indicator of how far our standard of living has fallen. We are convinced that this is a deliberate ploy of the government to keep us so bogged down in the grind of daily life we cannot begin to think about the future.

We are convinced that those who support the government abroad, by protesting against any report exposing the harsh reality under which we live, effectively believe that we only deserve the worst here in Eritrea.

Since those who are protesting don’t live here with us we consider their actions callous selfishness and greed, rather than naivety. They want to gain government favours at our expense.  

We often hear and see reports about the “contribution” of young people (YPFDJ – the youth wing of the ruling party) in the diaspora. Our response is please don’t be duped by people like Yemane “Monkey”. [Yemane Gebreab, Presidential adviser and senior party leader. Most prominent Eritreans are known by their nickname.] Please listen to us, the victims.

Ask those who are mobilising you why the PFDJ [the ruling party] doesn’t abide by its own rules? Why are there no elections? Why do so many young people leave the country at great risk to themselves?

Instead of opposing the human rights report you could even suggest a committee made up of Eritreans to investigate everything that is taking place in our country. Make your own assessment!

We have our own country, yet we are the gypsies of the world. We are discriminated against and looked down upon. This is the tragedy that has befallen the heroic people of Eritrea, who stood up to the super-powers to secure Eritrea’s independence.

In conclusion, we understand what defending your country and standing with your people really means. But we consider your activities are working against us in the guise of defending the country and its interests.

What are you protecting the country from? What worse is going to happen to us?

There is no electricity, we have severe housing problems, there is a real scarcity of food and getting health care is difficult. Trust us: nothing worse can happen to Eritrea. So don’t deceive yourselves into thinking you are doing this for us or acting on our behalf.

Martin Plaut is a senior fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and author books including Understanding Eritrea and a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.

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