21 September 2021
It is more than a quarter of a century since the day when I first arrived in Eritrea to begin a new career and a whole new life. Most of my friends and family had to check their atlas to be quite sure where I was going because then, as now, Eritrea is a strangely silent and unknown country.
But I had done my homework! New Internationalist reported then that ‘multi-party elections are scheduled for 1997’ and that ‘the Government remains popular and freedom of speech and the rule of law prevail’. That was published in 1994 when Eritrea was bursting with optimism. In 1991, the 30-year armed struggle, which had cost 100,000 lives, had finished in victory for a tiny Eritrean guerrilla army, which had defeated the forces of Mengistu Hailemariam, the murderous dictator of Ethiopia. Two years later, a UN-supervised referendum was held and on a 98.5 per cent turnout, 99.83 per cent of the electorate voted for the region to declare independence from Ethiopia.
The brand-new nation was made up of seven different ethnic groups, each with their own language, equally split between Islam and Christianity. But the people appeared united in their celebrations.
My fighter friend who had enthused about democracy joined the vast majority in deciding that silence about one’s views was safest
I was regularly told that Britons and the rest of Europe and North America might be richer than Eritreans but this was only because Eritrea had been held back by its colonial masters. (Occupied first by Italy in 1882, and then by Ethiopia in 1962, from which it saw itself as distinct). Now that its people were liberated and the young were receiving a good education, a contented and prosperous future was a sure thing. I was hugely optimistic and excited about being part of it.
An oft-repeated slogan was Hade hizbi; hade libi, which means ‘One people; one heart’. There are so many examples in history of societies being destroyed by division and sectarianism but Eritrea, we believed, was not going down that road.
One of my friends who fought in the anticolonial struggle enthusiastically told me about how free speech and democracy flourished during the Struggle: any issue could be debated and discussed but once the group voted for a particular action or policy, it was the duty of everyone to support the popular decision. In that way there would be Awet N’Hafash, or Victory to the Masses – a phrase still used to sign off all official letters.
There was also much discussion about neo-colonialism. The Eritrean argument was – and remains – that, in very many countries, nominal independence may have been achieved but neo-colonialism remains the norm with economic and political power being held elsewhere.
One aspect of Eritrean politics that bears great significance is the influential role of the President, Isaias Afwerki. When I arrived in Eritrea in the mid-1990s, I noted that, while his photograph was not uncommon, I saw no evidence that he behaved or was thought of as some super-human deified dictator. It was not unusual to see Isaias walking along the streets of the capital Asmara almost unaccompanied or casually sitting having a coffee.
Of course, everything is not always as it seems.
To ensure that stability between multiple sects was preserved, religious groups were not allowed to express political views – or their beliefs – freely. The first group to suffer were Jehovah Witnesses, some of whom were arrested and ‘disappeared’ at the time of the independence referendum for refusing to participate in that vote. As they were a small minority, there was no effective protest in response.
In 1995, the Government issued a proclamation effectively forbidding religious groups from being involved in political affairs. In addition, religious groups were required to register with the Government but only four were permitted: the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. This meant that if any people from other faiths were to congregate, they became liable for arrest. It is believed that about 1,500 Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians are in prison for practising their faith. Jehovah Witnesses have been imprisoned for decades but, in 2020, 28 were released. Some of them had infamously disappeared in 1994, along with uncounted numbers of political prisoners.
The Orthodox church lost any semblance of independence from the government when, in 2006, their leader, Abune Antonios, now aged 92, was deposed; he has been under house arrest ever since. All faiths are punished for encroaching on non-religious matters. For example, in 2017, the Government decreed that all schools run by religious groups would be taken over by the State. Unusually, that led to open protests by some Muslims which prompted a heavily armed response by the Government and the arrest and disappearance of hundreds. In 2019, 22 health clinics run by the Catholic Church for all citizens in rural areas were also taken over by the Government and closed down.
Reporters Without Borders ranks Eritrea as the worst country in the world for press freedom. It is ranked 180th out of 180 below North Korea and Turkmenistan
The year 1997 came and went without any of the promised multi-party elections; there was, after all, only one political party; the ‘hade hizbi hade libi’ philosophy ensured that. My fighter friend who had enthused about democracy joined the vast majority in deciding that silence about one’s views was safest.
No-one presented themselves as an alternative candidate for president and so there was no need for a presidential election; or so it was presumed. In a similar vein, there is no legislature and no independent civil society organizations such as trade unions. Now, in 2021, there are no non-government newspapers or any other media and there is no independent judiciary. Elections have never been held since the country gained independence in 1993 and the government has never implemented the 1997 constitution, which guaranteed civil rights and limited executive power.
The events of 1998 ensured that the position of Isaias would not be challenged. In June of that year, war broke out once again between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Before an internationally brokered ceasefire was imposed in 2000, it is believed that about 100,000 people were killed with many more injured. No peace treaty was signed and some Eritrean territory remained in the hands of Ethiopia.
However, with a ceasefire in place, many began thinking of how the promised future would be best realized. Some politicians spoke about the need for more democracy in the country and the debate was enthusiastically reported and supported by the non-government newspapers.
However, while the rest of the world was preoccupied with the events of 9/11, on 18 September 2001, all dissident politicians were arrested. All private media was closed down and in the following week, mainstream journalists were arrested. None were ever charged with any offence or faced any judicial process but, in the 20 years which have passed, the Eritrean Government has never given any information to their family or friends about the fate of the ‘disappeared’. Of course, the permanent closure of the newspapers was a very public affair, but open criticism was silenced.
The government decided that Eritrea must always be ready to defend itself from another attack and so indefinite National Service was introduced to which all adults – male and female – between 18 and 50 were eligible. There are now many people who have been conscripted for over 20 years. The conscripts, who receive no salary other than a little pocket money, are separated from their families and sent to wherever the government decides and they do whatever work the government wants: teaching in remote schools, building roads, digging mines or anything else. The UN has estimated that at least 10 per cent of the Eritrean population are held in slavery in this way.
Eritrea is hailed as a land of gender equality and so women and men are equally liable to conscription. However, there is a loophole for women: mothers are free from conscription, thereby putting huge pressures on girls under 18 to ensure that they become wives and mothers.
The fears and reality of conscription have caused Eritrea to become one of the world’s biggest creator of refugees per head of population. According to the UNHCR, over 600,000 Eritrean refugees are registered worldwide; that is more than 10 per cent of the total Eritrean population. Compared to refugees from other countries, an unusually high percentage of Eritrean refugees are young women.
A high proportion are unaccompanied minors. Many parents arrange for their children to be sent abroad well before they reach their 18th birthday; and it has to be well before they are 18 because of a unique Eritrean institution: Sawa. This huge military base in the hot western lowlands is where all school students from throughout the country are required to do their twelfth grade, the final year of school. The Government argues that Sawa contributes to national unity between all Eritreans, regardless of ethnicity, religion or family background. Of course, as soon as Grade 12 is finished, the students move directly into military training.
The sole political party in Eritrea is still the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, in name. But September 2001 marked the end of any such pretence. Eritrea is a dictatorship. Reporters Without Borders ranks it the worst country in the world for press freedom, at 180, below North Korea and Turkmenistan. And now, in alliance with the Ethiopian Federal Government, which is at war with breakaway province Tigray that borders Eritrea, its soldiers have massacred Ethiopian civilians in Tigray.
During the Struggle several individuals were executed for political reasons but most people were unaware because few spoke of such events. In July 1991, a mere seven weeks after Liberation Day, Mohammed Maranet, who had been a Fighter – the term for someone who took part in the Struggle for the Liberation of Eritrea – since 1969, was arrested by state security forces. No explanation or information has ever been given to his family or associates. Mohammed had been a teacher in the Islamic Institute, the school attached to the local mosque in Keren, Eritrea’s second biggest city.
It was about five years after Mohammed Maranet’s ‘disappearance’ that I came to live and work in Keren. I loved that town and its sociable and welcoming people. Friends and colleagues told me many things about the fine history and impressive, intricate culture of the area. For several years, I was a regular and a warmly welcomed visitor at the Islamic Institute. I spent many hours discussing every imaginable topic with its director, Abdulaziz Mohammed-Ali; but the name of Mohammed Maranet was never mentioned. Similarly, I never heard the name of Abdulaziz’s brother, Abdulalim, who had been disappeared in 1992. Looking back on the situation, it now seems almost predictable that in 2009 the security forces came for Abdulaziz, who has disappeared into the gulag.
One of the very pleasant aspects of living in Eritrea was that it felt so secure. I never worried about theft or assault. However, there was no municipal police force; I was frequently told that police officers were not needed because no one would ever steal anything or assault anyone and indeed, in all my years in the country, I never heard of such happenings. The other reason for this was that indeed the policing of society is deferred to its citizens. Parents, siblings, or best friends – if everyone possible could report you to the authorities, it of course becomes wise not to say anything negative about the country or its government.
In more recent years, a new kind of police force is in clear operation. Many citizens who are over 50 and who are therefore above the age for conscription can be asked to patrol a village or town. They are armed with Kalashnikovs. One of my friends, who had fled the country, told me that his father who is still in Eritrea was one of these policemen. In answer to my questions, he went on to say that, although he was a much-loved son, he would never dare to suggest that his father might use his gun against the authorities in case he pointed the gun at the son. Silent obedience becomes the norm.
Of course, most dictators are suspicious of the silently obedient and so the despotism increases. It is not only politicians, journalists and religious people who have disappeared. Many tens of thousands have been arrested and held without charge or trial because an unknown person made a complaint or shared a suspicion. And so, Eritreans remain silent and unheard
Alex Jackson is the country coordinator for Eritrea at Amnesty International UK.
Help us produce more like this
Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer,
as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.