Eritrea: Anecdotes of indefinite anarchy A pastiche of daily encounters illuminating the disfigured Dadaist reality of present-day Eritrea.
Jul06

Eritrea: Anecdotes of indefinite anarchy A pastiche of daily encounters illuminating the disfigured Dadaist reality of present-day Eritrea.

A pastiche of daily encounters illuminating the disfigured Dadaist reality of present-day Eritrea.

If available at all, facts about many crucial issues in Eritrea fail to capture the reality in the country. Reading the news about Eritrea, an outsider would not understand the extent and complexity of its transformation: from a country with a promising future into the personal fiefdom of President Isaias Afwerki and his clique at the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).

A country preparing for dawn. We grow less intelligent.

Mahmoud Darwish, Under Siege 

A pastiche of daily encounters does a better job of illuminating the disfigured Dadaist reality of present-day Eritrea.

Pasta and oil instead of lectures

The Eritrean government closed the only university in Eritrea, the University of Asmara, in 2006, after the last class finished their studies and no new students were admitted. I had been working in the university as teaching assistant at the Department of Eritrean Languages and Literature since October 2004. After the closure, the staff and faculty continued to report to work for a year. We were still receiving our salaries, but we didn't have any classes to teach. We had no obligation to show up to "work". However, we continued to do so because our food rations were being distributed at the university campus. With the ruling party rationing the most basic food items, such as pasta, cooking oil and grain, and with no students to attend to, faculty found food rations the only worthwhile topic of conversation at the university. As shares were distributed, bits of pasta and leaks of cooking oil became common in faculty offices, along with professors hauling bags full of food items away from the campus.

When the military conquered education

After a year in limbo, the regime reassigned faculty and staff of the University of Asmara to under-equipped semi-military colleges that had been established about three years earlier. Students of these colleges were assigned into military divisions and they were forced to attend military training regularly, alongside their classes. Since then, the quality of education has been astutely deteriorating with the colleges in effect becoming refuges of indefinite limbo. My first responsibility as a faculty member in the new college was to supervise exams. While working as a proctor at the exams, I couldn't help noticing fresh faces wearing uniforms in the college lecture halls. When I asked a colleague about these people, he told me they were "military police, assigned to supervise".

Four pieces of bread

In 2010, when I was taking the public bus home in Asmara, I noticed Sara sitting at a bus stop heading in the other direction, obviously waiting for the bus. A few days later when we met, I asked her what had brought her to our neighbourhood that day. "You know, I lived in your neighbourhood before I moved to my current location, but our bread ration is still there," she explained. "The shopkeeper is kind enough to reserve my ration," she said. "So, I go to her shop and collect my ration every other day". 

OPINION: Remembering the Eritrean dream on Independence Day 

Normally bread rations are supposed to be collected daily from officially designated shops in the early hours of the morning. Sara had three children and she was entitled to receive a ration of four pieces of bread - three for her children and one for her - for each day. Knowing the hassles and delays of public transport in Eritrea, not to mention how overcrowded the buses are, I marvelled at her taking two buses to reach her destination.

How much time was she spending every other day to fetch these eight pieces of bread for a two-day ration? I asked her. She responded, "Sometimes, if I get fuel [contrabanded], I use my car, other times a bicycle, but the buses take me about an hour to go and another hour to return". Sara was in her later forties and had been the country representative of a United Nations office at one time.

The making of truth

 

WATCH: UN: Eritrea government commits crimes against humanity (2:05)

Sometime around 2010-11, the Ministry of Information came up with an unconventional but creative way of delivering "news". They would write a strongly worded editorial - the usual screeds denouncing the international community or highlighting the achievements of the nation in the face of continued hostilities. Two or three days later, they would publish a news article on the editorial and credit the aforementioned editorial as the source. When they did this for the first time, I had a good laugh about it with my friend Yonatan, who also studied journalism. "You know what?" said Yonatan, "They will continue to do this and soon we will normalise it". As he predicted, the practice of manufacturing news from editorials became an established and accepted tradition over the years, normalised by both journalists and the public.

Updating the list of the dead

Sometime in 2011, I stumbled onto Kibreab in Asmara, an amateur poet who also had written a film script. I knew him through a mutual friend, also a poet. Since 2001, we had met frequently at the offices of Zemen, one of the now-banned private newspapers to which I had contributed. "Are our friends still in prison, or are they released?" he asked me immediately after we greeted each other. Some of our mutual friends, including the poet who introduced us, had been taken into custody in 2009 when Radio Bana, the only educational radio station sponsored by Eritrea's Ministry of Education, was raided and later banned by the military. "Of course, they are still in prison; how would you miss it if they had been released?" I answered. "It is sad," he said, "So Amanuel Asrat and his group are also still in custody, I assume?" He was referring to journalists including Asrat who have been languishing incommunicado in detention since September 2001. I did not know how to respond and walked away thinking about the journalists who have never been heard of apart from sporadic news delivered by former prison guards who had fled the country. The news is scant, usually enough to update the list of the deceased detained journalists and other political prisoners.

The bus ride to Asmara

After University of Asmara was closed, my college, the College of Arts and Social Sciences was re-located to Adi-Kieh, about 110km south of the capital. As the town has barely any facilities, it became natural for all of the staff members and most students to come to Asmara for a weekend to relax. With extremely dilapidated roads, the handful of public buses operating (private cars are unimaginable), overcrowded with students and faculty, would take about half a day to reach Asmara (Google maps estimated the distance as 1:30 hours). The weekly scenes of chaos at the bus terminals started with long and disorderly queues at 4am. The bus conductors, in their teens, suddenly assumed the roles of the infamous military commanders in the country, insulting, pushing, and ruthlessly belittling the desperate passengers. Senior professors in their 60s were forced to stoop and beg for the compassion of the erratic teenage dictators.

IN PICTURES: The Eritreans fleeing to Ethiopia 

Two years after leaving the college and coming to the US, unsoundly expecting some dramatic changes might have had happened after my departure, I asked my colleague Yonatan if anything had improved. "Of course, there is major change," told me Yonatan as if he were waiting all the time to share his achievement, "I mastered how to bribe the bus conductors. I pay them 250-300 Nakfa and secure my seat without a hassle." The normal fare was 60 Nakfa.

Ministry employee by day, civilian guard by night

 

WATCH: New York protest held against human rights abuses in Eritrea (0:25)

When my friend Tesfai, who worked at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, travelled out of Eritrea for the first time on a work visit to China in 2014, I had a long phone conversation with him to catch up on what had been happening in the two years since I had left the country. One thing that had happened was that the government introduced a new law, requiring all citizens between the ages of 18 and 70 to carry arms and guard government buildings in the evenings. As it was nearly impossible to talk on the phone at ease with Tesfai while he was in Asmara, now free of the presumed tapping of every phone conversation adopted by the whole Eritrean populace, I asked Tesfai how he is coping with the new requirement. "I have a gun at home, but I am not regularly doing the evening duties of guarding," he said. "What would be the consequences?" I asked him. "They might imprison me for two or three months or even more, but I am ready for that," he replied.

Quitting can get you jailed

During a phone conversation, last week with a friend who works as a teacher in Asmara, he casually remarked that the currency note redemption of early 2016 had severely affected many people. According to the new policy, nationals cannot withdraw more than 5,000 nakfa at any given month from their own savings; the amount barely covers one month's rent for a two-bedroom house in the capital. My friend told me that he and other colleagues had stopped being paid for their second job. He explained that the government introduced a new policy, prohibiting anyone from being on more than one payroll at a time.

"I have not been paid in my second job since early 2016," he tells me. As there is no such private sector, the only employer in the country is also either the government or the ruling party.

READ MORE: Exiled Eritreans campaign for freedom of journalists 

"If you have not been paid for more than a year and now six months, why do you continue working there? Why not quit?" I ask bewildered.

"We continue working with the hope that they reconsider and collectively pay us all. But more than that many of us are afraid it will be considered public disobedience and seen as open confrontation to the government," he replied.

The general's new girlfriend

As a certain general became empowered by the president with indisputable authority, his girlfriend (he is married and has a family) also became very influential. "The current girlfriend is humble and is mature in comparison to her age (she is in her early 20s). In fact, she has helped many prisoners of conscience be released," tells me Teclai who had a small business in Asmara and had a rough time with the previous girlfriend of the general. "The other one was notorious. If you have any dispute or even slightly irritated her, she just calls the infamous military prison chiefs and they will come right away to round you up from the streets."

Such anecdotes have been the new normal in Eritrea for over a decade now. That is also one of the reasons why some of the international media outlets - if allowed access to the country after the routine rejections - cannot fully grasp the absurdity and steep descent into the abyss.

Abraham T Zere is a US-based Eritrean writer and journalist who is serving as the executive director of PEN Eritrea in exile. Among others, his articles - that mainly deal with Eritrea's gross human rights abuses and lack of freedom of expression - have appeared in The Guardian, The Independent and the Index on Censorship Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @abraham_zere

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Eritrea  Human Rights  Africa

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AU calls for calm amid Djibouti-Eritrea border tensions
Jun18

AU calls for calm amid Djibouti-Eritrea border tensions

African Union says it will send a 'fact-finding mission' to the countries as tensions between the neighbors mount.

 

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Remembering the Eritrean dream on Independence Day
May24

Remembering the Eritrean dream on Independence Day

Abraham_T_Zere.jpgTwenty-six years ago today, Eritrea's 30-year war of independence against Ethiopia ended with Eritrean freedom fighters marching to the capital, Asmara. Unfortunately, it took less than a decade for the grand hopes and ideals that Eritreans initially had for the future of their country to evaporate into thin air.

The international media has limited access to the country and, as a result, their coverage of Eritrea is limited to a shallow narrative focusing on "indefinite military conscription" and "refugees".

But the Eritrean story is far more complicated than these one-dimentional labels. 

After independence the country gradually descended into a fiefdom, serving as a grand laboratory for the negligent and oppressive government experiments of President Isaias Afwerki and his clique. Over the past two and a half decades Eritrean authorities have been accused of a variety of abuses. These accusations culminated in a report by the the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea in 2016, which declared the Eritrean state guilty of "crimes against humanity".

As a result of short-sighted economic policies, the country has been mired in abject poverty. Citizens are left with two options - flee at any cost or stay and slowly rot in their homeland. In a country that is not even close to supporting itself on local commodities, importation of goods has been outlawed since 2003. The ruling party (PFDJ) and its organs are allowed to import and ration basic food items - they ration chewing gum at the party's stores and alcoholic drinks at bars.

There is no rule of law or constitutional underpinning in the country. The president long ago shelved the national constitution that was ratified in 1997 after a four-year drafting process. Yet, in his Independence Day address in 2014, he announced that another constitution would be drafted. This ended up being just another excuse to buy time and divert attention from the country's problems.

A prison state

Eritrea has devolved into a prison state where military commanders maintain underground prison centres to extort money from innocent citizens. More than 360 prison facilities operate in this small country with a population of fewer than five million people.

Apart from the extortionary prison centres, the other means of generating money is human trafficking, with some Eritreans paying as much as $6,000 to be smuggled out of the country.

IN PICTURES: The Eritreans fleeing to Ethiopia

This is a nation ranked last (No 180) eight years (2009-2016) in a row on the Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index, and named the most censored country on earth by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

As they have done for many years, Eritrean authorities continue to ruthlessly restrict and punish both independent and state journalists. Denial of freedom also extends to religious practices, where all Protestant denominations of Christianity have been banned since 2002. State interference also extends to the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is supposed to be permitted to operate in the country. The church's 3rd Patriarch, Abune Antonios, was ousted and placed under house arrest in defiance of Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria in 2007.

Apart from the trivial exercise of democracy in schools (electing class monitors), free elections have never been permitted in Eritrea. From the smallest unit to the highest ministerial level, all officials are appointed, not elected.

 

Education in tatters

Although Eritrea boasts about expanding basic education and building schools, various factors effectively have turned the schools into ghost houses. Some schools operate with a single teacher who is expected to do all the teaching as well as covering administrative chores. Eritrea has been applauded for achieving some of the UN's Millennium Development Goals, yet most Eritreans who can afford it seek basic medications in neighbouring countries. All private clinics have been banned since 2010. Most government clinics and hospitals are regularly short of basic supplies, and patients are often asked to get intravenous drips and other medical supplies from private pharmacies.

Construction of new houses has been outlawed since 2005 despite acute shortages, and so is fishing in coastal areas where locals depend on it for their food and livelihood.

In a society that places a high value on education, the state wages a systematic war against education.

This started in 2001 when the regime ordered most teachers to work on national service salary, and the decline was exacerbated two years later when the government moved the final year of secondary school to a military training centre, Sawa, where students combine military training with regular studies. As another impediment to education, the only university in the country, the University of Asmara, was closed in 2006, replaced by underequipped, semi-military colleges.

With the systematic discouragement and prohibition of business, construction, private clinics and the university, much of the country's productive human resources and capital have fled. As a result, many of the remaining citizens, those with a small amount of capital, have started investing in farms that aren't reliant on imported goods. Yet, the state makes this difficult, too, by frequently fixing prices and confiscating privately owned tractors during the high season.

Apart from the trivial exercise of democracy in schools (electing class monitors), free elections have never been permitted in Eritrea. From the smallest unit to the highest ministerial level, all officials are appointed, not elected.

Recycling state propoganda

The national media ceaselessly recycle state propaganda. Print and online media have deteriorated into private photo albums of the president, while the national TV station, ERI-TV, is essentially a giant selfie-stick for the president.

Recently, hype has been generated about the booming mining sector in Eritrea, yet every day the country is being pushed closer to abject poverty. Eritrea's share of mining income and the way it is spent is closely controlled by the president and his close associates.

While every Eritrean state action since independence has disregarded the rule of law and worsened living conditions, the negative effect of these policies has intensified since 2012. In addition to the regular military conscription, the regime decreed a "popular army" programme that requires all civilians between the ages of 18 and 70 to be armed and available to perform free manual labour at a moment's notice.

These draconian policies were coupled with local currency redemption at the beginning of 2016. According to the new policy, Eritrean nationals can withdraw no more than 5,000 Nakfa (about the cost of a month's rent for a two-bedroom house in the capital) in a single month from their savings. This rule is in effect despite the fact that the nation's economy absolutely relies on cashflow.

READ MORE: Exiled Eritreans campaign for freedom of journalists

With the resulting severe lack of currency flow and other extreme restrictions, prices for most items have been skyrocketing. Yet the government, in an attempt to balance the market, forces local farmers in Eritrea to sell their products at fixed prices. For example, during the most recent Easter holiday, police were deployed to the marketplace to make sure consumable products such as tomato and onions were being sold at fixed prices.

While the opposition to the Eritrean government from the international community and the Eritrean diaspora has gradually been increasing, geological developments in the region have been strenghtening the regime's hand. At a high cost to local residents who have been pushed away from fishing and other jobs in the port of Assab, Eritrean authorities have leased that port to the United Arab Emirates for coalition forces to conduct their joint military operation against Yemen. Another island has been leased to Egypt to destabilise Ethiopia. Apart from President Afwerki and his group, nobody in Eritrea benefits from such dealings.

For the past three to four years, the president has been isolating himself and growing increasingly paranoid, depending more and more on his military and security forces. Afwerki has launched poorly planned and researched capital projects that drain material resources and manpower from the small nation. A blatant example of this is the many dam projects for which the whole nation is required to provide free labour and the president serves as site manager. He moved his office to the construction site and handles daily presidential tasks from his new location.

This is the exceedingly gloomy situation in which Eritrea found itself while celebrating its hard-won independence. Happy Independence Day, Eritrea … anyways.

Abraham T. Zere is a US-based Eritrean writer and journalist who is serving as the executive director of PEN Eritrea in exile. Among others his articles - that mainly deal with Eritrea’s gross human rights abuses and lack of freedom of expression - have appeared on The Guardian, The Independent and the Index on Censorship Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @abraham_zere

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

 

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UN demands release of Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak jailed since 2001
May05
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How to solve impunity when journalists are targeted
May03

How to solve impunity when journalists are targeted

Those beyond the reach of attacking governments or groups must stand up for persecuted journalists and exert pressure.

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Vanessa Berhe, centre, calls on the government to reveal the fate of dissidents who were detained 15 years ago and have been held incommunicado without trial [AFP]

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Eritrea: British firms bankrolling a brutal regime
May03

Eritrea: British firms bankrolling a brutal regime

n the pursuit of profit British firms are turning a blind eye to human rights abuses and reinforcing a ruthless dictatorship.

The Eritrean people live in fear. Eritrea is one of the most repressive states in the world: no elections since 1993; a crackdown on press freedom; forced labour; arbitrary arrest and detention without trial; indefinite compulsory military conscription; and sexual violence against women and girls.

The list goes on.

Yet these shocking human rights violations mean nothing to big business, whose only purpose is to exploit Eritrea’s wealth of natural resources. Right now in Eritrea, mining companies from around the world are bankrolling a brutal regime and are complicit in its forced labour system, whether through mining taxes paid the state or investments made in mining construction projects.

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Confessions of an Eritrean Army Deserter
Apr26

Confessions of an Eritrean Army Deserter

Teklit_Michael.pngEritrean 'army deserters' have not deserted their people, but the dictatorial regime who persecuted them, and must be granted asylum Eritrean army deserters are denied refugee status by the Israeli government. The question whether desertion from national service in Eritrea is in itself a valid reason for refugee status is pending the appeals tribunal ruling, and that is after the Population and Immigration authority already rejected thousands of Eritreans asylum requests.

These rejections show a fundamental lack of understanding of army service in Eritrea, and how it operates to oppress the people rather than to serve and protect.

Teklit Michael is an Eritrean asylum seeker in Israel and community outreach coordinator at the Eritrean Women’s Community Center.

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The famine the Eritrean government doesn't want you to know about
Apr21

The famine the Eritrean government doesn't want you to know about

Nurses have been banned from using cellphones, but have smuggled out images.

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Dutch court upholds mayor’s Eritrean conference ban
Apr15

Dutch court upholds mayor’s Eritrean conference ban

The decision by Veldhoven’s mayor to ban a conference by the only political party permitted in Eritrea was upheld by a court in Den Bosch on Friday afternoon. The organisers of the conference went to court to have the ban against their meeting at a conference centre in Veldhoven lifted.

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The decision by Veldhoven’s mayor to ban a conference by the only political party permitted in Eritrea was upheld by a court in Den Bosch on Friday afternoon. The organisers of the conference went to court to have the ban against their meeting at a conference centre in Veldhoven lifted. Mayor Jack Mikkers said on Thursday evening he would not allow the meeting to go ahead, after police arrested over 100 demonstrators who had gathered outside the conference centre where the gathering was due to be held.

Read more at DutchNews.nl: Dutch court upholds mayor’s Eritrean conference ban http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/archives/2017/04/eritrean-conference-organisers-appeal-ban-in-dutch-court/
The decision by Veldhoven’s mayor to ban a conference by the only political party permitted in Eritrea was upheld by a court in Den Bosch on Friday afternoon. The organisers of the conference went to court to have the ban against their meeting at a conference centre in Veldhoven lifted. Mayor Jack Mikkers said on Thursday evening he would not allow the meeting to go ahead, after police arrested over 100 demonstrators who had gathered outside the conference centre where the gathering was due to be held.

Read more at DutchNews.nl: Dutch court upholds mayor’s Eritrean conference ban http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/archives/2017/04/eritrean-conference-organisers-appeal-ban-in-dutch-court/

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Kibrom Dafla Donation to STOP YPFDJ Conference
Apr12

Kibrom Dafla Donation to STOP YPFDJ Conference

 

GAME OVER DIA ACTION NETWORK IN ACTION VIVA HOLLAND...

 

 

 

 

A number of politicians in The Hague are concerned about a conference for supporters of the Eritrean dictatorial regime that is planned for the Netherlands, NOS reports based on information from OneWorld.

The gathering will be the annual European conference for youth wing of the only party allowed in Eritrea. It is not yet clear when and where the conference will be held. But according to the broadcaster, it will be in the Netherlands and in the next couple of days. Around 650 people are expected to attend. 

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