Reflecting on Eritrea’s Human Rights Crisis - Yet Again

The story of Eritrea is a mixture of joy and sorrow. This is not an account of oppression, resistance and the valour of Eritrea’s liberation fighters. Nor is this about the magnitude of sacrifice that was made and the amount of blood that was shed to liberate Eritrea. It goes without saying that those who went through an armed liberation struggle would know the dynamics of warfare.  It suffices to mention that the anguish Eritrea went through was immense, the clamour of the victims is still heard, and the sounds of the silenced guns still reverberate in the minds of those who lived through the conflict in general; the ex-fighters in particular. The scars of the conflict are seen not only on the bodies and souls of the fighters, but also the whole of that generation. In short, the fields, mountains and valleys of Eritrea bear testimony to the severity of the conflict that consumed tens of thousands of Eritrean nationals.

One can argue that scores of Eritreans are a product of that era. Eritrea watched the heroism of its martyrs secure Eritrean sovereignty.  As a result of that gruesome effort it is a free country now; at last it has become a member of the world community. But the story of Eritrea does not end there.

The majority of Eritreans never thought that after independence Human Rights Watch would label their country one where ‘arbitrary arrests and detention are common’, ‘conscientious objection is not recognised’, and ‘no media or civil society organisations exist outside those controlled by the government[2]’. And this is not all. In an earlier publication, HRW had already accused the leadership of autocratic tendencies :   

The Eritrean government’s tyranny became more ruthless over the years. Rule by force and caprice remains the norm, as the government aggressively moves to intimidate the population and to isolate it from the outside world.[3]

Again, who would have thought that the world renowned Amnesty International would denounce Eritrea as follows:

There is no recognizable rule of law or justice system, civilian or military. Detainees have no means of legal redress and judges are unable to challenge or question arbitrary detentions or government or military actions violating human rights. Constitutional and legal protections of human rights are not respected or enforced[4].

To put the Eritrean situation in a nutshell, after securing our independence we Eritreans have been making up the largest number of asylum applicants in the UK in recent years.  According to statistics generated by the Home Office, this year Eritrea is one of the top three refugee-producing countries in the UK[5]. The refugee crisis is disconcerting; many did not envision a free Eritrea would produce more refugees than, when the country was under Ethiopian occupation.  I thought the trend was going to be the opposite – former refugees returning home after a long and arduous struggle in exile. Our liberation fighters did not wage a bloody struggle of more than three decades to disaffect the people, stave off progress and eventually churn out refugees. I find it incomprehensible that the same fighters who liberated Eritrea at a great personal sacrifice would at the end of their struggle be forced to leave the country they themselves had liberated and start a new life abroad as refugees. I believe that speaks volumes for itself, and epitomises the human rights crisis in Eritrea – a crisis of domestic origin.

According to various internationally-renowned sources[6] the list of human rights abuses in our nation is long and wide-ranging.. It includes the inability of Eritreans to change their government, unlawful killings by security forces, government interference in the judiciary, torture and physical beatings of prisoners, arbitrary arrests and detentions, severe restrictions on freedom of speech and press, freedom of assembly and association, interference with freedom of religion, freedom of movement and more. I believe the abusive trend is going to intensify in the coming years as the government gradually grows more and more desperate. The number of refugees will increase, experienced members of the diaspora will be forced to fortify their sanctuaries abroad, veteran fighters will continue to be side-lined, the youth will remain under siege, the international community will be vilified, and People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) members will strengthen their position as hard taskmasters of their countrymen. 

It is heartbreaking to witness Eritrea’s social, political, economic and even religious institutions – those not controlled by the PFDJ  – being weakened, subordinated, and replaced by regimented bodies/organisations implanted by PFDJ.  Sadly, the government has managed to ravage our society by sowing seeds of discord and distrust among regions and religions, incapacitating social groups, debilitating the youth, breaking up family units and muzzling individuals. The government has made Eritreans unable to work together to achieve freedom, confide in each other or even  do much of anything at their own initiative.  The ultimate plan is predictable: to emasculate Eritreans, make them lose their confidence and render them incapable of resistance.

I have participated personally in various campaigns in Europe, and it is in those campaigns that I came to learn more about myself, the suffering of our people and the premeditated actions of the Eritrean government. I came across appalling stories, chilling experiences and discomforting situations.  Now I know, more than ever, that Eritrea has turned into a country of victimised citizens.

In order to describe the pain and despair of the victims whose rights have unjustly been trampled by the Eritrean government, here is a letter written by an indirect victim.[7] I chose this letter because I am familiar with the story as well as the storyteller. To me the letter encapsulates the human rights crisis in Eritrea:

 It is difficult to describe injustice once you are in the thick of it. Not only does it drive me mad, irate and irrational, but it also numbs my mind even though my heart, ridden with impatience, races uncontrollably. I hear people say that incarceration of loved ones is like cancer. It eats you, day in and day out, from inside.  When a family member is unjustly incarcerated in a place where the court system is non-existent, that cancerous characteristic becomes even more acute. Groping to explain my experiences, the cancer metaphor is what best describes my sentiments at the moment.

 The frustration is simply too much to bear when I think of the things that happened to my beloved sister. Her suffering and the unjust system that has taken her is way beyond my comprehension and  saps my strength.  It is not fair to suffer silently as if the whole world, which is bustling with movement and activities, simply looks on.  Yes, I feel the world I live in has suddenly gone quiet on me.  I never thought I would witness life in slow motion and in deafening silence as if I were dead already. I often ask myself why there are no means to address this blatant injustice in a more effective way. I guess I am partly to blame.

It is a dilemma that talking about my problems within the Eritrean setting creates more problems for others. I realise that we, family members of the victims, are systematically silenced.  We cannot cry foul because of the fear that worse things might happen to those who are within reach of the government. And so victims are further victimised by the bullying demeanour of the government and our own inhibitions.

 Please bear in mind that I am looking at my sister’s imprisonment from a safe distance. But even if I am not in the proximity of the danger zone, her ordeal has affected me gravely.  My absent mindedness, lack of motivation, permanent weariness and loss of trust in my fellow countrymen are a few effects of this ordeal. With that in mind, it should not be difficult to imagine how her suffering has devastated my immediate family circles in Eritrea. I find it difficult to describe what my poor old mother and Aster’s only son are going through at the moment. I know my brothers and sisters in Eritrea are also suffering from this ordeal.  I can tell that my mother’s feelings have gone numb as she mutely awaits God’s intervention.  When I hear comments that disturb me - that the action the government has taken against my sister is fair and just -, I break down as the vicious words tear me apart.  I hate to admit it but I have lost a great deal of hope in people’s goodwill.

 Some friends advise me not to be impatient. Why? Someone’s life is rotting away in prison. And that someone is my sister. We grew up together, we confided in each other when we were young. She was my best friend. I always think about the day she left me behind in order to join the liberation front.  She was only 17. At the time, I could not accept the fact that she had left for good. I thought I was never going to see her again. Her departure affected the whole family.  We were not equipped to deal with the trauma that comes with the loss of a loved one who was also the most vibrant member of the family. We were simple people trying to deal with a complex issue. Looking back, I could see the sense of emptiness that hit mother.  She would remain quiet for a long time; and at times she used to talk to God as if she was having a live conversation with Him.  She usually ended her one-way dialogue by saying ‘Lord, I won’t dare ask you to bring my little girl back to me but please protect her’.  What was more painful was to see father, God bless his soul, grieving quietly; Aster was his best friend and she entertained him more than all of us put together.  She used to sing for him; she dared to dance in front of him, something we were never allowed to do. Poor old father, he felt Aster’s absence the most. 

It is not hard to imagine how my parents felt when my older brother followed Aster to become a liberation fighter. He gave up a lucrative job, through which he was supporting the family, in order to become a freedom fighter.  I knew his departure devastated them. I was next to leave our household; but I did not join the liberation front, instead I left for Germany. I had to leave in order to fill the financial vacuum that was created in our household. Later, my little brother also chose to become a freedom fighter after I had left.  A sick father, a fast-aging mother, a disabled brother and a few young ones were left on their own. 

May 24, 1991 was the happiest day of my life.  Our fighters freed Eritrea.  My two brothers and my sister, who gave a total of 60 years between them to the cause, achieved the unimaginable. Two returned and one fell in the battlefield. I was told that my baby brother was martyred in 1985.

 The thirty-year struggle that was bitter and bloody, which consumed over 60,000 young fighters’ lives, brought independence to Eritrea. But somehow it failed to bring liberty with it.  As far as I know, that is what my sister prompted the government to consider – to bring liberty to Eritrea. That cost her dearly – her freedom. Now, I do not know her whereabouts. I do not know whether she is dead or alive. No one has seen her since 20 Sep 2001.

 The government media is oblivious to the suffering of the prisoners and their families. As much as possible the media ignore their very existence, and sometimes misinform the public by portraying my sister and others like her, as traitors and defeatists.  Her ‘crime’ was to sign an open letter to the President to bring about reforms.

 I believe the PFDJ, the current and only ruling political organisation, is comprised of people who had very little to do with the promises made by our martyrs; it is comprised of people who have forgotten the way we were during the liberation struggle. The struggle belonged to all Eritreans, not the few people who ended up owning it as if it was their private property.  The current ‘owners’ have certainly betrayed the Eritrean revolution. Sadly, Aster became the victim of her own struggle.

 Aster, a veteran and highly respected fighter, one of the first women to join the armed struggle, who trained thousands of young fighters, who later held a ministerial position in post-independence Eritrea, willingly gave up her youth by committing herself to the Eritrean cause. But once she asked for reforms she was given an identity which is not hers. Her twenty-five-year history as a fighter turned to dust. It is unimaginable for a revolutionary, in the true sense of the meaning, to become a ‘defeatist’ and a ‘traitor’ after successfully accomplishing the liberation mission. 

Leaving politics aside, what I find fascinating is the level of fear instilled in Eritrean society, including that of the ex-fighter community. What is to be done in a country where there is no freedom of expression, abuses go unreported, and prisoners have no hope of trial and justice? I wish there were more institutions like Amnesty International to keep the fire burning in our hearts until justice is served.

 I believe in justice and the promotion of human rights. I believe in my sister.  I believe in her innocence.  And I also believe that sooner or later truth will prevail!

B. M.

The letter highlights a lived reality of human suffering.  I feel the anguish because the letter writer happens to be a soul-mate.  To me the letter encapsulates the trail of devastation left by of our betrayed revolution. And particularly it highlights the liberation fighter’s sacrifice, the disappointment after independence, and the affliction imposed on the general public. Moreover, the letter narrates the misfortunes, frustration, helplessness, uncertainty and fear Eritreans are experiencing in post-independence Eritrea.  But most of all, it is both a call for help and an expression of the victim’s belief in eventual justice.   

There are some segments of our societies that are in a position to promote human rights. I call such groups of people the moral voices of Eritrea. I believe the letter writer’s suffering is making a direct appeal for help to our moral agents.  Our rational, and moral, fellow citizens who are authorities in the matter of right and wrong, have the obligation to consider her appeal as a matter of human decency. Knowing the prisoner mentioned in the letter is being sacrificed for an unjust purpose, it is a matter of conscience that our moral representatives should not ignore her suffering.

Although some of them have done their part to address the current dilemma, the majority has either remained quiet or turned its back to the calls of anguish coming from the victims of the Government of Eritrea. Why? Could our moral voices be attached, either mentally or through family ties, to the Eritrean leadership (meaning, they are susceptible to government intimidation)? Could they have been seduced by the demands and lifestyles of their host countries?  Could they be finding it problematic to use campaign resources at their disposal to combat injustice effectively? Or could they be in disagreement with the management of the on-going struggle? I do not know the answer. This is a matter that requires an honest examination of consciences.  Perhaps the point of departure for this analysis should be from the self – the various positions I have taken in my journey as a campaigner.  

In today’s Eritrea, many of us continue to examine the source and nature of the grave situations that define life in the country.  Unfortunately, most of our discourses have not managed to find their way out of our debate circles yet. And certainly, we have not managed to galvanise the support of our moral voices.  In this critical period, as our people continue to suffer, these voices have to ensure that their search for fairness remains grounded in the realities of victimised citizens.

Like the letter writer, I want to remain an optimist that I will see our moral voices rally behind the truth and give our people hope, urging them to stand up for their rights and challenge a government that does not represent them. In other words, our representatives need to raise their voices now and speak up in defence of those whose rights have been squashed. 



[1] This article is based on a presentation I submitted in Nairobi, Kenya.  The presentation, under the title of ‘Africa’s Forgotten Human Rights Crisis: the Eritrean Experience’,  was published in  - In Quest for a Culture of Peace in the IGAD Region - The Role of Intellectuals and Scholars.  Published by Heinrich Boell Foundation, 2006.

[2] Human Rights Watch: World Report, 2008.

[3] Human Rights Watch: Eritrea 2006

[4] Amnesty International Annual Report - 2008

[5] Asylum applications increased in first quarter of 2008 for nationals of Iraq (122%), Zimbabwe (97%), Eritrea (38%), Somalia (10%), Sri Lanka (28%), Pakistan (22%) and Nigeria (12%). Source: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs08/asylumq108.pdf

[6] HRW, AI, RSF, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, & Labor (US Dept. of State) ...etc.

[7] The letter was sent by the writer to Amnesty International – the Netherlands on 2005 Human Rights Day.