EPDP 2019 - A Short Profile

Thursday, 22 August 2019 22:44 Written by

The 3rd and Unity Congress of Eritrean People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) and the Eritrean National Salvation/Hidri, convened between 29 July and 1 August 2019 in Wiesbaden, Germany, adopted political documents which, inter alia, agreed to continue calling the unified party as EPDP.

August 21, 2019 News

Source: Somali Affairs

Eritrea reportedly training secret Somali force


The Federal Government of Somalia transported 200 young men from the Aden Ade International Airport in Mogadishu to Eritrea yesterday morning.

The information received by Somaliaffairs says that the youth were part of 600 young men the government had been gathering in Shirbow in the past few days.

The plan is to have these young men, when they return from Eritrea, to secretly operate in Mogadishu and replace the (Shield and Spear) Force.

Their training in Eritrea is being kept secret but they will replace the existing force for heavy operations.

Security experts we asked about this issue say the development carries great risk for the country’s security, especially in Mogadishu, and that an already existing force is being destroyed.


 ዙር ፈንቅል + ይ ኣክል +  ሳዋ ኣይንወርድን + ቀዳሞት ተቃለስቲ ንደሞክራስያዊ ለውጢ= ኤርትራ

 The Eritrean conflict is intra-state conflict originating from early statehood and now after liberation in organizing state and governance. The Eritrean post- liberation state organization process was an exclusive not accommodating the Eritrean diversity. Eritrea today is ruled by a coterie political elites of the same interest preventing others from joining.

 The internal conflict is identity- based on differences of ethnics and combined by unjust policies political, economic, social and cultural rights. Most conflicts of the world today are intra-state conflicts much less amenable and emotionally charged by Eritrean political elites.

 This article will try to illustrate some tools for conflict management inside the opposition forces for democratic change.    

ኤርትራዊ ሓይልታት ንደሞክራስያዊ ለውጢ ኣብ ኤርትራ                                                                                                                                                  

The Eritrean democratization process is still in its initial phase or is only at its rhetorical stage. After more than ten years’ the outcome of these waves of accusations and blames led to more disintegration in the camp of the Eritrean opposition forces for democratic change.

Conflicts are escalating between different personalities and clientelist politics both inside the political and civic organizations. The Eritrean forces for democratic change are in uncertain and conflict-prone unable to work within the current situation and prepare for the future.

How can we descalate these conflict –prone attitudes? How can the Eritrean forces for democratic change build trust by joining their efforts? This article will argue on some approaches that can help us come together and reunite our efforts in the following fields:

- political approaches

- diplomatic relations

- popular mobilisation

- media

- economy

How can the opposition manage joint political affairs

The historical circumstances behind the renaissance of most of the Eritrean opposition organizations makes them closely related to their  respective old programs, and even a large number of the opposition leaders are historical leaders, to the extent that the spirit that influenced the political discourse and the leaders in the era of struggle against colonization still more or less reflected in the political performance of the Eritrea Government and the opposition alike, and this discourse undoubtedly instilled in the Eritrean people, particularly the  younger generation that has emerged in the beginnings of the 21st of the century, not to mention the  generation born after the independence of Eritrea at home who haven’t been acquainted with the opposition and its political discourse, consequently lacks the needed stimulus to participate and support the opposition, therefore the political  discourse of the opposition must undergo a radical change of mode or paradigm shift  through broader modernization in concepts and  terminologies, and that should be reflected in the practical performance of the political forces and civil rights’ organizations.

 The opposition today requires a political discourse that would combine the history with the present, highlighting that the values of democracy are fundamental rights that doesn’t allow compromise, founding its political discourse on the concepts of human rights, the political  discourse must attract the wishes of the  new generations to  encourage them participate in the bid to highlighting the benefits of the moral and material meaning of home, the opposition’s discourse must make use of the modern media communications which would surely attract our young generation, This discourse is based on: -

1- To stress the legitimate right of the Eritrean people to own their political decision and share the wealth of the country and to take their deserved part in ruling over their country, by the well-defined means of democracy methods and the right to enjoy justice by the virtues of the law that they established through their representatives in the parliament.

2- To focus on the concepts and values of democracy and human rights.

3- To pay much attention to the civil society, especially the associations of youth and women, and to involve them in the formulation of the political discourse so that they would be empowered enough, because they know how to conduct a successful dialogue to win over their peers.

How can the opposition gain the popular confidence?

- civil -disobedience------------- ይኣክል

 -Joint Popular mobilization.......ሓባራዊ  ሕዝባዊ  ምልዕዓል

Since the Eritrean  masses as stakeholders would directly benefit of the democratic change , then the opposition must mobilize the entire sectors of the Eritrean Public at home, as well as abroad in the process of change through the mobilization and raising public awareness, the political and civic organizations which are leading the endeavours  towards change  should recognize the differences in the political programs and coordinate a mechanisms and consolidate a unified political discourse to accelerate the project of democratic change in Eritrea

Today the Eritrean public needs a glimmer of hope that could encourage them to work for democratic change, they need a leadership that could convince them about the credibility of the struggle for change, alas the opposition leadership seemed to be dominated by the differences over secondary issues that dominate and hinder its unity on the key issues and consequently keeps the public away from any mass action, public mobilization must be based on the following:-

1- Build-up of credibility through positive attitudes and behaviour on the part of the political leadership interacting with the public.

2- Paying much attention to the suffering of the public and provide alternative solutions, especially the issues relating to the legal status of refugees and migrants, particularly with countries that have good relations with the opposition

3-Recruiting the public in the branch-offices of the opposition and mandating of leaders that can serve as role models to help the public come close up to the opposition, and not the kind of leaders that scare people away from the ranks of the opposition.

4- The establishment of service sectors, that could serve the public such as education and health services, wherever Eritrean communities exist, and to refrain from providing such public services according to one’s political or organizational affiliation.

5- Establishment of grass-roots associations such as youth, women, workers and other sectors and to give those institutions a real attention through professional understanding and practice.

6-Establishment of branches combined of members of collective umbrella of the Eritrean national council for Democratic change/ENCDC and EPDP to furnish information and programs for the public to ensure improving it beyond the organizational differences.

Joint diplomacy/international relations

Countries are no longer an islands isolated from each other in our era of intertwined interests, as the foreign policies of countries are driven by interests, therefore, it must be well-understood  that foreign counties would  have to take their respective positions towards Eritrea according to their political and economic interests, perhaps it is an ironic that the foreign policies of the Eritrean Regime had to play a  catalyst helpful role on the part of the opposition  to pursue a constructive productive and effective diplomacy in their struggle for change, but the Eritrean opposition ,despite the just and legitimate cause in the struggle to bring about democracy, but it has shown incapability to  win the sympathy and support of  foreign states, the opposition have to make use of the diplomacy based on the know-how of the modus operandi of international relations which had been administering the world today, the interests of countries with national sovereignty, and international organizations attends to the interests of international security, regional organizations that sponsor the security and interests of the countries in the region, as well as non-governmental organizations that has become of great influence in international politics and overseas companies with a significant impact on the process of political decision-making.

Therefore any formulation of diplomatic action plan must be based the above mentioned backgrounds, it would be helpful to point out some important guideline here bellow:

  1. A diplomatic action built on positive interaction, that is to say, there are parties in the world who have their respective stakes in Eritrea, who need to be convinced that the opposition can be faithful to their interests as long as not inconsistent with the national interests of Eritrea, therefore countries which their interests have been damaged by the Eritrean Regime will cooperate with the opposition, but first, the opposition must confirm its credibility and seriousness

2- A diplomatic action built on negative interaction, and we mean that there are parties in the world that Eritrean Regime constitutes a source of concern for their respective national security, whether serious or minimal concern, such forces would be more than happy to watch the Eritrean Regime disappearing, they have genuine interests in the disappearance of this Regime due to the keenness to their respective national security,  but these countries cannot risk to establish relations with the opposition unless ascertained in the seriousness of the opposition, for fear that the establishment of such a relationship might deteriorate the internal affairs of their respective countries, the Eritrean Regime is notorious in exploiting the internal contradictions of foreign countries, which constitute a threat to the security of those countries, the seriousness of the opposition would be associated with its political discourse and its mechanisms.

3- A diplomatic action built on bilateral policy and attitudes, where some countries are in harmony with opposition on their stance towards many issues, attitudes towards public issues is inconsistent with the positions of the Eritrean Regime, therefore compatibility with opposition or contradiction with the regime, is stimulus for diplomatic cooperation between the opposition and the foreign nations.

4- Diplomatic functioning based on lobbying through local communities, civic organizations and individual relationships, where every vote counts on the part of the Western countries in times of elections, the grouping of communities and activating civic organizations or take advantage of individual relationships can influence and stimulate the policies of Western states towards Eritrea.

5- Benefit from Non-governmental Organizations of certain areas of concern, such as human rights organizations, and organizations concerned with freedoms of religion or press, or transparency and those NGOs fighting corruption, and even the relief and health humanitarian organizations that the Eritrean Regime refused to give access to providing aid to the Eritrean people, all these factors could be valuable for the diplomatic advancement of the opposition if used properly.

The Eritrean opposition need to muster the factors that manipulate world politics through a specialized and skilful apparatus the make use of its political and administrative authority, and perhaps the most important aspect in this regard is appoint united-external-political unit composed of united delegation

The following points might be useful in this respect.

  • Formation of diplomatic apparatus for the Eritrean forces for democratic change to run the international relations with political and administrative competency and capabilities.
  • Consensus on the features of the external political discourse by all components of the opposition/ ENCDC and EPDP
  • Coordination of the foreign policies of the political organizations through a united committee consisted of the external relations officials of the ENCDC and EPDP organizations. With the task of making ENCDC- EPDP joint foreign policy a non-partisan policy through the evaluation of external policy functioning, exchange of information and proposal of plans, and benefiting from the relationships of organizations and individuals in this area.
  • Coordination with the civic organizations that support the overall objectives of the opposition, especially in Europe, America and Australia, and take advantage of their relations, and to mandate the civic organizations to implement and illuminate the foreign policy of the Eritrean opposition.
  • To draw a maximum benefit from the partnership’s presence in the capital of the African Diplomacy Addis Ababa, where the African Union Head Quarters is located, beside a high-ranking diplomatic missions of the most important powers, the ENCDC- EPDP joint diplomacy should approach these countries by taking advantage of the public events that these missions held as well as the occasional events held in the host country , Ethiopia, and to constantly send messages in the occasion of public National Holidays of diplomatic missions.
  • Establishing a joint website so that it could be a reference to all the questions that may arise in the mind of any policy-maker or a diplomatic mission, as well as writing leaflets carefully prepared and in different languages.

Joint  Media development strategy

In today's world, which is dubbed as the “age of information evolution”, though the media of the Eritrean opposition is not commensurate with the magnitude of the cause it is raising and the challenge it is facing, despite the progress that opposition media has registered in general, but that is not enough to deliver the message of opposition, especially when the regime it is opposing has an information outlets that are considered the most prominent strengths of the regime.

even the improvements that opposition’s media outlets have shown are due to efforts without any coordination which is not enough to deliver the message of the opposition , most of the oppositions media outlets lack professionalism, most of the member opposition organizations have their own media outlets which lessen the effectiveness of the spirit needed for change, even the oppositions media outlets are often used to highlight the secondary political contradictions between the various organizations , we could point out the following points in this respect:  

  • Formulation an information policy with clear goals and instructions to convey a convincing message through all available information means.
  • Tolerate secondary contradictions of political and civil forces, and focus on the overarching challenge of removing the dictatorial regime in Eritrea.
  • Coordination of work between media organizations and the signing of the Code of Conduct for the media outlets, so that the media war between the organizations, degradation or questioning of the principles, personal attack would be perceived as a red-line.
  • Development of the radio through the creation of an independent radio with working-hours for as long as possible pursuing a dynamic approaches in conveying the opposition’s message to resist the Regime and to deliver opposition’s message in an intelligent way.
  • Diligences in founding a TV-channel to convey the goals of the opposition and reflect the suffering of the Eritrean people, and work to highlight the abuse of the regime against our people.
  • Establishing opposition Satellite TV challenging the PFDJ’s ERITV.
  • Develop opposition websites on the web and make it more professional and more easily viewed, and more substantive and meaningful.
  • Pay much attention to the Internet to benefit from groups on facebook, Twitter and other tools that gains the attention of a large number of sympathizers.
  • The importance of training and the adoption of assigning media work according to individual competency and not organizational affiliation.
  • Opening up communication with TV channels, news agencies, global and regional newspapers and magazines and all that can contribute to delivering the message of the opposition.
  • Use the universal language in the media, in terms of focus on the concepts of human rights, democracy, transparency and good governance.
  • Documentation of the regime’s Violations, and reporting the evidences in figures and images because it makes the message of the opposition more credible and acceptable to the recipient.
  • adoption of mechanisms and means to evaluate the feedback such as surveys, questionnaires and others to determine the effect of the message on the recipient

Joint Economic Development strategy

The biggest dilemma of the opposition is how to finance its activities, as it is known , that,  those who lack financial sources cannot  fully own their decisions, The people of Eritrea have had an honourable history in financing and supporting the Eritrean revolution, therefore the opposition need to explore extraordinary alternative plans to attract support and to discover funding sources, its economic plans must not depend only on funding sources, but in drying-up the support of the Regime, especially as  the Regime draws-in support from neutral places where the opposition exists.

We can refer to the following points in this respect:

  • Authentication of the relationship between the opposition and the public, encouraging the people to bear the responsibility of regime change as the sole beneficiary of the change, this can be achieved only through a high degree of transparency and openness, and building bridges of trust between the opposition and the public.
  • Establishing a constructive relationship with countries that can accumulate with the political positions of the Eritrean opposition, then to make use of these relations in opening economic cooperation to finance the activities of the opposition
  • Presenting partnership projects with organizations that have relations with the Regime such as the European Union in order push them towards parallel treatment between the Regime and opposition, through pressure by voters in the European countries, and to benefit from these projects in financing the opposition in particular with regard to the entrenchment of the values that form the agenda fixed in the concerns of the European Union and organizations alike.
  • Cooperation with NGOs on human rights, freedoms, gender, transparency etc., and enter into partnerships with them to serve the common goals of the organizations and the opposition alike.
  • Search for investment projects, and not necessarily to be at the centre level, but can be done at the branch level, so that the opposition activities can be financed by its own projects.

The above points are relevant to improving the financial capabilities of the opposition; the following steps are to cut off the sources of financing of the Regime.

  • On the official level, by persuading countries and organizations that sponsor projects in cooperation with the Regime until it stops financing of such projects, or at least could proceed funding the Regime’s projects but after imposing its own terms and conditions,  to prevent the Regime from using such funds in the oppression of our people.
  • At the grassroots level to stop the tax imposed by the Regime on Eritrean nationals living in Diaspora, and projects that the Regime claims to support the families of martyrs and the disabled, especially since the Regime is using the means of blackmail and intimidation in the collection of such tax which contradicts the laws of the countries in which the Eritrean communities live.


Please sign this petition at change.org here is the link http://chng.it/K4WqDKNw

Below attached is the flyer and the tigrinya version of the petition. 

Adiam Haile-Rufael

Solidarity with Eritrean Bishops, Nuns, Clergy & People of Eritrea

In the month of June, 2019 the Eritrean PFDJ regime, led by Isaias Afwerki, confiscated all Hospitals, medical centers and clinics run by the Catholic Church. According to the Eritrean Catholic Secretariat communique, this year alone 21 healthcare centers were confiscated and in previous years 8 were nationalized; resulting in 29 healthcare centers forcibly seized by the Eritrean government. These healthcare centers were almost exclusively in rural areas and small towns, where government healthcare is virtually nonexistent. It is important to note that “approximately 200,000 patients a year seek medical treatments at Catholic medical centers in Eritrea (Fr. Mussie Zerai, Global Sisters Report)." The Catholic Church in Eritrea provided healthcare services to all citizens regardless of their religious background and it ran 20% of the country’s healthcare system. In the last two years, the government closed the Holy Savior Secondary School, a seminary preparatory high school jointly administered by the four Eparchies, and religious congregations in the capital city of Asmara. The Catholic Bishops, nuns, and clergy serve the most vulnerable members of the society: the sick, poor, the elderly, women and children, and run orphanages, also maternity wards all over Eritrea. The recent forcible seizure and closure of Catholic Church run hospitals and medical facilities has left patients stranded without medical treatments, many of them in need of dire medical attention. Simultaneously, the medical staff and administrators, which include the religious (nuns) and clergy were evicted and forcibly evacuated from the healthcare premises, where they resided. The steps taken by the Eritrean regime is counter institutive and insensitive to the needs of the citizens, especially the vulnerable. 

Through its social services arm, the Eritrean Catholic Secretariat (ERCS), the Catholic Church, in Eritrea has a long tradition of commitment to the human development; serving the people’s economic, social and health needs without discrimination or religious preference. However, the Eritrean regime has been running a low intensity persecution of the Catholic Church for more than 25 years; and the recent actions committed by the regime is not new to the Eritrean Catholic Church. Though the Eritrean regime claims to be secular; respecting religious freedom, and its stance towards religious liberty has been antagonistic. For example, the first targets of religious persecution were, the Jehovah’s Witness, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, 7th Day Adventists, etc. These denominations have had established Churches in Eritrea for decades. The Eritrean regime has also deposed the duly elected Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Abune Antonios (90 years old) and placed him under house arrest. Another notable figure, the honorable Sheikh Haji Musa Mohammednur, who was 93 years old, was also arrested, jailed by the Eritrean regime, and subsequently died in a prison, in Asmara, on March 1, 2018, for his resistance and strong stand against the regime´s oppressive policies. Yet the regime still denies interfering in religious affairs or committing religious persecution. When the regime has persecuted individual believers, Church institutions or other religious establishments; local resistance and international reaction has been very limited emboldening the PFDJ regime, led by Isaias Afwerki to make the next brazen move.   

We, Eritrean Americans residing in your district strongly condemn the shameless actions, committed by the Eritrean regime, against the Catholic Church; confiscating healthcare centers, which are used to provide vital services to the most vulnerable members of the Eritrean society.  We ask for strong measures to be taken against religious persecution of any and all religious faiths committed by the PFDJ regime, led by Isaias Afwerki. A year ago, Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace accord; however, the people of Eritrea have not seen any fruit following the agreement. In fact, the situation worsens and the youth continue to flee the country, due to the regime’s oppressive policies. This direction is dangerous and against centuries old religious freedom and tolerance in Eritrea. Unless there is international pressure to change its behavior, the regime, will continue its oppressive policies even more aggressively than ever; with unimaginable long-term consequences, paling the tragedy of Somalia, Yemen and Libya. We must not allow such illegal and immoral actions by the regime against the Catholic Church and any or all religious faiths practiced in Eritrea. Therefore, we urge you to take strong and unequivocal action against the PFDJ regime, led by Isaias Afwerki in Eritrea; and stand with those who are suffering and being terrorized. Religious freedoms, liberty and human rights of any accord should not be violated no matter where it takes place. Let us stand on the right side of history. We ask your respective offices to work on the following plan of actions:

  1. Request the Eritrean regime to reverse its unlawful, inhumane, immoral action of closing and confiscating, Healthcare centers, clinics and hospitals run by the Catholic Church in Eritrea;

    2. Free all individuals or groups incarcerated or placed under house-arrest due to their religious faith in Eritrea;

    3. Respect and follow international human rights laws, religious freedoms & liberty, and implement the democratic rule of law in Eritrea.  

Sincerely, Eritrean American Ge'ez Rite Catholics

Published in The Star

Africa’s most authoritarian school

Saturday, 17 August 2019 06:19 Written by

August 16, 2019 News

“It’s just slavery. You toil day and night and you get nothing,”

Source: Mail & Guardian

Systemic abuse: The Sawa graduation ceremony. Every Eritrean student attends the school in their final year. ‘You don’t understand if it’s a school, or a military camp,’ says one former student. (Yemeni G Meskel)
Systemic abuse: The Sawa graduation ceremony. Every Eritrean student attends the school in their final year. ‘You don’t understand if it’s a school, or a military camp,’ says one former student. (Yemeni G Meskel)

By law, every single student in Eritrea must spend their final year of high school at the Warsai Yikealo Secondary School and Vocational Training Centre — no matter where they are from or where they attended classes before. The school is inside a military camp, however, and students have no guarantee that they will ever be allowed to return to civilian life.

According to the Eritrean government — led by President Isaias Afwerki since independence from Ethiopia in 1991 — the policy is a kind of radical egalitarianism designed to level the educational playing field, ultimately ensuring that all students have equal access to university, and consolidating the “harmony and social cohesion” of each new generation.

But students themselves tell a very different story, describing a system of systematic abuse, torture and repression that has forced hundreds of thousands of young Eritreans to flee their country.

“You don’t understand if it’s a school, or a military camp,” said one former student. “Sawa is hell: they do everything to make you want to leave,” said another.

Sawa is the name of the military camp, and is how most students refer to the school that is based there.

Satellite Imagery of the Sawa military camp, including the Warsai Yikealo Secondary School, recorded in January 2015.
Imagery © DigitalGlobe – Maxar Technologies 2019; Source: Google Earth

Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released an 84-page report detailing the experiences of students at Sawa. The report is an unprecedented glimpse into what daily life is like at the school, and an insight into what the harsh environment is designed to achieve. “Eritrea’s secondary schools are at the heart of its repressive system of control over its population,” said Laetitia Baeder, who, as the lead researcher on the report, conducted interviews with dozens of former students.

‘Punishments were so hard’

Sawa is located in inhospitable, isolated terrain near Eritrea’s western border with Sudan, where temperatures in summer can reach up to 40°C. It is divided into educational and military areas and, in total, can accommodate up to 30 000 people, according to the ministry of information (Eritrea’s current minister of information did not respond to a request for comment for this piece; nor did Eritrean authorities respond to repeated attempts by HRW to obtain comment).

At the beginning of each school year, grade 12 students are bused in from all over the country. Most, but not all, are over the age of 18; according to HRW, some are as young as 16. On arrival they are divided into groups that mirror army formations, and each given a plastic plate, cup and utensils. The food — mostly lentils and bread — is notoriously poor.

Military training begins immediately. “From the first month, the alarm rings at 5am. They make you run to the toilet, you had five minutes to wash — if we had water, which wasn’t always the case — five minutes to put your uniform on. You get punished if you don’t manage,” one former student said. “We would have military training until 8am … The military trainer is always with you; he stays in the dorm. The [physical] punishments were so hard; I was desperate to escape them and so I would try to stick to the rules.”

According to HRW, the year at Sawa is divided into one or two months of physical fitness training and military discipline; four months of military training, which includes weapons handling and a three-week “war-like simulation exercise”; and six months of academic teaching.

In addition to these responsibilities, however, students are expected to perform manual labour such as cleaning and carrying supplies, and also to assist with farming at the state-owned Molober farm, 7km from Sawa. This leaves very little time for actual studying.

Students are punished for even minor infractions, such as oversleeping, or for complaining about their conditions. Punishments include — but are not limited to — being beaten with sticks, being left in the sun for long periods of time, and being made to roll around on the ground while being beaten.


For female students, the dangers are even greater. Referring to Sawa and other military training camps, the United Nations commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea found in its 2015 report that “Women and girls are at a high risk of rape and other forms of sexual violence … They are often forced into concubinage by superiors in the camp.”

‘It’s just slavery’

The end of the school year brings no respite. Students with high marks may be allowed to go to one of the country’s seven tertiary colleges, while the rest are forced into Eritrea’s involuntary and indefinite conscription program, which has been described by both former conscripts and rights groups as a form of modern-day slavery. A university degree merely delays the inevitable, with graduates still required to participate in national service once they have obtained their degree.

Although conscription is officially capped at 18 months — six months of military training and six months of national service — in practice it can last for several years or even decades. Conscripts are given no say in the work they are required to do, which can include everything from accounting to farming to construction. College students are often assigned to be secondary school teachers, even if they have no teaching experience or subject expertise. The pay is paltry, the food is still bad and there is no legal entitlement to any leave.

“It’s just slavery. You toil day and night and you get nothing,” said Dawit, a former school teacher, speaking to the Guardian in 2018.

Young Eritreans have come up with creative solutions to avoid national service, such as deliberately flunking Grade 11 to avoid being sent to Sawa; or, for women, by marrying young and becoming pregnant. But these are far from foolproof: periodic police and military raids — known as giffas in Tigrinya — round up people who are perceived as trying to avoid conscription.

There is no provision for conscientious objection in Eritrean law, so “draft dodgers” are often jailed. One student, who tried to escape national service in 2014, described his experience to HRW. He was 14 at the time.

“I spent six months in Gergera [prison]. The cell was about 4mand there were 180 people in it. We would put up our sheets and sleep on them. No windows, no light. Never allowed out. Only to go to the toilet and to eat.

“I was held with detainees of all ages. Some detainees were there for escaping, some for trying to evade national service. [Because] I was young and injured, they just held me for six months and then released me. But most are held for six months and then sent to military service,” he said.

Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that thousands of young Eritreans are fleeing the country every month. Half a million Eritreans now live in exile, mostly in neighbouring Ethiopia and Sudan, from a population of just five million — that is, 10% of the country’s citizens.

Many make the perilous journey to Europe, braving the civil war and human traffickers in Libya and the treacherous crossing of the Mediterranean: they have calculated that the risks are worth it for the chance of a better life somewhere else.

So much for the “harmony and social cohesion” that the Warsai Yikealo Secondary School and Vocational Training Centre was supposed to deliver.

“Ending abusive and open-ended national service, reining in military officials responsible for abuse, and allowing students to determine their futures will be key to Eritrea’s prospects,” said Bader. “People who see that they have a bright future in Eritrea are less likely to need to flee.”


Looked at one way, President Isaias’ rule is more fragile than ever. Looked at another, his grip on power is only getting firmer.

eritrea opposition meeting

For many years now, the rituals that surround Eritrea’s Independence and Martyrs’ Days have revealed a government trapped in its own history and unable to articulate a vision for the future. This year, however, the hypocrisy of President Isaias Afwerki’s statements was even greater than usual, magnified by the impacts (or lack thereof) of last year’s peace deal with Ethiopia.

For almost two decades, the regime in Eritrea used the threat of war with Ethiopia to justify its repressive policies. When peace was struck in 2018 therefore, there was much optimism that change may be coming. The economy also received a welcome boost from the opening of the border. Yet a year on, those hopes have been dashed and the border has re-closed. While the president may say Eritrea’s future relies on the “quality, expertise and experience” of its population, thousands of energetic young people continue to leave each month.

According to some commentators, however, not everything is the same. Some argue that the stark reality of life in Eritrea has become even harder to bear for many following this past year’s disappointment and that desire for change is growing among Eritreans both inside the country and in the diaspora.

These observers and activists suggest that the opposition to the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) government is gaining momentum. But is it?

Eritrea’s rising tide of opposition?

Those who claim that Eritrea is seeing a rising tide of opposition look to various trends.

Outside the country, for example, the anti-regime #yiakl (“enough”) campaign of has grown, amplified by the youth. Anti-government protests outside embassies and UN offices continue to swell. Furthermore, in anticipation of imminent regime change, diaspora groups are preparing transition plans, while journalists and academics have collectively implored the regime to make political reforms in the belief this is a rare moment of opportunity and openness.

Inside Eritrea meanwhile, reports similarly suggest that dissatisfaction is becoming more public. New graffiti has emerged calling for the end of indefinite national service and pamphlets that echo the sentiments of the #yiakl movement are being distributed. Some government officials have been disassociating themselves from the PFDJ in response to popular frustrations, and ordinary citizens are said to be becoming more vocal about their patience reaching breaking point. This has led The Economist, among others, to conclude that “Eritrea’s gulag state is crumbling”.

It is perhaps in the PFDJ’s own behaviour, however, that we see the strongest evidence that it is under threat. In recent months, the government has severely limited internet access and, by extension, news of neighbouring Sudan’s popular uprising. It has maintained its closure of Catholic health clinics, arguably to contain the influence and reach of one of Eritrea’s only semi-autonomous and outspoken institutions. Meanwhile, President Isaias is said to be further consolidating his inner circle of loyal cadres, with the attempted assassination of General Sebhat Ephrem read as a sign of an ever more fractured political elite.

All these developments, the argument goes, are clear signs of a spooked regime.

More of the same?

The above suggests that the writing is on the wall for Eritrea’s regime, but this expectation might be misguided for several reasons.

To begin with, it should be noted that commentators have heralded the impending end of Isaias’ regime several times over the years. When scores of soldiers in Asmara seized the headquarters of the state broadcaster in January 2013, for instance, many – though by no means all – claimed it was an attempted coup attempt, though it ultimately catalysed no broader insurrection.

Similarly, many have read into previous protests or criticism of the regime a tidal shift that never materialised. Anti-government sentiment spiked after its relative silence following the deaths of hundreds of Eritreans off the coast of Lampedusa in 2013. Eritrea’s Catholic Church has called for political reform intermittently since 2014 and escalated in recent weeks following the government’s closure of its medical clinics. In late-2017, unprecedented numbers took to Asmara’s streets to protest against government interference in an Islamic school. In many of these instances, observers have seen the beginning of the end of the regime that is still yet to come.

This also highlights the fact that condemnation of the government is not new in Eritrea. We have not seen a repeat of the open criticism the group of 15 high-ranking officials (who became known as the G-15) expressed in 2001, but Isaias and the PFDJ have been the butt of jokes and graffiti throughout the 2010s. In Asmara, the ineptitude of the regime is a regular theme of conversation, to the point of boredom for many, while genuine government supporters are hard to come by.

Eritreans’ long-standing levels of frustration are perhaps best captured by the numbers fleeing the country. People have sought asylum from the PFDJ for decades, but numbers peaked in 2014 when an estimated 5,000 people left each month. These flows are one reason that opposition numbers in the diaspora continue to grow.

Isaias consolidating control?

This context makes it harder to conclude that today’s dissent against the regime is uniquely large, even though it might be uniquely loud, amplified by new technologies. However, the argument could go even further. Some new developments suggest that Isaias may even be consolidating his position.

For example, the government has recently struck some business deals in the mining sector and accepted development finance, including from the African Development Bank. Though unlikely to change ordinary Eritreans’ lives, this could alleviate some pressures on the government’s budget.

At the same time, shifting international dynamics could also strengthen Isaias’ hand. The peace deal with Ethiopia changed little for most Eritreans, but it did validate the PFDJ’s insistence that Eritrea has been illegally occupied all along. Moreover, it led to the cancellation of the UN Security Council’s sanctions against Eritrea and opened new opportunities for investment and engagement.

Off the back of this, Isaias is looking outwards and continuing to court allies. Eritrea’s membership of the Human Rights Council and Chairmanship of the Khartoum Initiative this year signals its re-insertion into international diplomacy. Asmara continues to project itself as a regional mediator, most recently through its engagement with the Transitional Military Council in Sudan. And senior Eritrean diplomats still shuttle back and forth from Gulf States in search of allies and investment, though shifts in Red Sea regional interests over the past year may have made these partners somewhat less desirable.

The straw that breaks the camel’s back

So is the PFDJ under threat? The simple answer to this question appears to be: Yes, in different ways, but not necessarily more so than in the past.

The regime may have lost the excuse of Ethiopian hostility and UN sanctions to defend its actions, but it has seamlessly inserted new reasons to justify its repression and the population’s ongoing hardship. Chief among these is that it will take Eritrea time to recover from a period of great adversity and re-establish itself on a sustainable path of its own determination.

As we have seen, many citizens in the country are unconvinced, though exit rather than domestic opposition remains the preference for now, as before. By contrast, foreign governments seem somewhat more persuaded by Isaias and have, amid the Horn of Africa’s changing geopolitics, appeared sufficiently reassured to gently re-engage.

In this context, in which the government is haemorrhaging support domestically but gaining some strength internationally, it is hard to see what will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It is difficult to work out which actors could gain enough leverage to either transform the PFDJ or to oust it altogether. Change may well be afoot in Eritrea, but it is by no means clear that it is going in the direction the regime’s critics would hope


August 2, 2019 News

With more than 25 million people forcibly displaced from their countries by the end of 2018, the world currently faces an unprecedented refugee crisis. Among the countries with the highest rates of displacement are Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Afghanistan – all of which are riven by war and instability.

Also on this list, however, is Eritrea. In contrast, the small East African nation has been mostly at peace since it won its independence struggle against neighboring Ethiopia in the early 1990s.

To Martin Plaut, a senior researcher at London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies, these figures are illustrative of the despair and hopelessness faced by those who live under what he calls the “most secretive, repressive state in Africa.”

Unlike other, more famous authoritarian and totalitarian states around the world, Plaut notes that the Eritrean regime makes no pretense of even having a constitution, a representative legislature, elections, or a semblance of a free press.

The fate of its citizens are dictated by the whims of the regime – headed by independence leader turned dictator Isais Afwerki. All Eritreans are subject to conscription into the military and can be compelled into forced labor that the U.N. says “effectively abuses, exploits and enslaves them for years.”

Those who step out of line can be detained indefinitely under shocking conditions. Others are killed. There are no courts to hear their appeals.

Plaut, the former Africa Editor of the BBC’s World Service, set out to tell the “untold story of how this tiny nation became a world pariah,” publishing “Understanding Eritrea: Inside Africa’s Most Repressive State,” in 2016. With the release of an updated version of the book this year, The Globe Post spoke to Plaut to shed light on the widespread abuses in Eritrea that have gone largely unnoticed by the outside world.

The Globe Post: After a thirty-year struggle, Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1993. If you can take us back, what went wrong in the immediate wake of independence and how did the government that’s ruled since come to power? 

Plaut: Actually, in effect, it started before that in 1991 when they actually took the capital. What they rightly did was to say, “we won’t formally declare independence until there’s been a U.N. supervised referendum.” And the reason for that was that nobody would ever be able to turn round and say, well, “you just took it by force. It can be taken back by force. The people never really supported you.” So, although they actually declared it formally in ‘93, they really held it from ‘91.

In the beginning, things were fine. But gradually it became clear to President Isaias [Afwerki], who led the independence struggle for 30 years, that things were not going the way he expected them to. A lot of the troops that he had under his command, all of whom were volunteers, all of whom were guerrilla fighters, had been fighting, some of them, for 10, 15 years without pay.

They were only used to getting effectively pocket money and food. lodging and, of course, ammunition and weapons. And they began to turn round and say, “well, hang on, we now have to look after our families. They’re in deep need. We need a bit of money.” There were also concerns about the way the veterans who had been injured – some of whom had lost legs, arms, some of them very badly crippled – how they were being treated.

Eritrean President Isais Isais Afwerki. Photo: AFP

Both these groups began to express concerns, and Isaias was just outraged that anybody would turn around and question his authority. He had ruled for 30 years with an absolute iron rod. And it was needed because they were up against an enemy that was 10 times its size in terms of population.

Ethiopia was also receiving arms – first from the United States and then from the Soviet Union – in vast quantities. So in order to win against them, you had to be completely and utterly ruthlessly disciplined. Some things happened during the liberation struggle that were pretty, shall we say, unattractive, even against their own people. Some people were shot for indiscipline, that kind of thing, and for questioning his authority.

But when he discovers that his authority is being questioned after independence, he begins reacting in the same way. There was a famous incident where some of the disabled tried to walk into town to complain to him, and they were met by the police and the army who opened fire on them. To open fire on your own disabled is pretty appalling.

TGP: You say that Eritrea is the “The most secretive, repressive state in Africa.” What sets the Eritrean government apart in your mind from other repressive, authoritarian ones on the continent and what are some specific practices or policies that you find to be particularly egregious?  

Plaut: Most other governments at least make a pretense of having a constitution and having a parliament, even if it’s manipulated, and allowing a semblance of a free press. You take a pretty authoritarian regime which doesn’t hesitate to repress and kill its opponents and its journalists, like Rwanda. But they do have a constitution. They have a parliament which meets and the parties function. They might be all be controlled by [President Paul] Kagame, but there is a semblance of some political space.

None of these apply in somewhere like Eritrea. There is no constitution that’s been ratified. The parliament has been prorogued. It hasn’t met for years now. Even the ruling party hasn’t had a Congress for many, many years. There are no other parties that are allowed to operate in Eritrea. There is no independent media. Even organizations like Al Jazeera, BBC, Reuters are not allowed to have journalists permanently stationed there.

So, that’s really what singles it out from other repressive regimes in Africa, some of which are extremely bad and very repressive. But they do have some semblance of legitimacy and that is something President Isias has no time for.

TGP: The 2018 UN refugee assessment report notes that Eritrea is among several countries with the highest rate of displacement in the world. Others mentioned in the same category include Syria and the DRC, both of which are the sites of wars and major instability. What does it say about Eritrea that so many people are fleeing the country despite the fact that there is no conflict there? 

Plaut: I think you’re absolutely right to single that out as a clear indication of what is wrong and why it is so peculiar. The reason is simple. The system of compulsory conscription, which effectively operated during the war of liberation, was extended after under the guise of a national service and today is indefinite. Some people have been in national conscription for over 20 years. They’re hardly paid at all. They can be deployed to the most remote corners of the country and they have no ability to lead an independent life and live under military discipline.

Some of them think, “well, this is it. My whole life could be spent, stuck in a trench in the most remote corner of the country,” supposedly guarding it against the Ethiopians who might or might not attack or against Djibouti, with whom they also have a quarrel. This just fills people with such dread and despair that although there’s an extremely high penalty for desertion, you will be shot, they decide to cross. When the border was opened briefly with Ethiopia after the peace agreement last year, up to 500 people were leaving each day. And this is a small population. There are various estimates, but the government figure is 3.6 million people. To have 500 leaving a day, you’re in a shrinking situation.

TGP: I wanted to ask you a bit more about the practice of conscription into permanent military service. As the United Nations reported: “Thousands of conscripts are subjected to forced labor that effectively abuses, exploits and enslaves them for years.” Just how widespread is the practice and what kinds of specific labor are people forced into? 

Plaut: Well, you have to spend your last year of schooling at the military academy at Sawa, which is in the west of Eritrea and a pretty remote area. If you’re lucky and have the right connections, after your basic training of about 18 months, you might then get a job perhaps in the civil service or be sent to work for a general.

But you are entirely at the whim of your senior commander. Women complain of being abused sexually, of being forced to perform domestic chores for officers. Men are sometimes being sent to the mines in some of the toughest conditions you can possibly imagine. The Eritrean coast gets up to 50 degrees centigrade (122 degrees Fahrenheit), some of the hottest conditions in the world. To be mining or building roads under those conditions is extraordinarily tough.

You are at the whim of the regime who, if you step out of line, can lock you up indefinitely. There are no courts to whom you can appeal. Somebody was released recently who had been kept for five years in a shipping container and let out about once every week or two weeks. They were almost blind. There was no light. Those are the kinds of circumstances in which people can be detained. People are just in despair.

TGP: Interestingly, you note that the government has played a role in supporting the Saudi-coalition waging a brutal war against the Houthis in Yemen. Why has Eritrea become involved in that war and how can we understand the regime’s foreign policy towards the region more broadly? 

Plaut: Some years ago, the government was in alliance Iran, which of course is on the other side of the war in Yemen. But quite frankly, I think they were wooed by the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates, who, as you say, are fighting Houthis and fighting the Iranians. Frankly, I think it was a question of money. They were given really substantial sums of money. None of this is ever revealed. No budget is ever published in Eritrea. So there’s no way of knowing. But that is the most likely explanation.

They simply swapped sides as a result. The Saudis and the UAE can use Eritrea’s ports and airfields and they use them to attack the Houthis. There are also reports of some Eritrean troops manning some of the islands between Yemen and Eritrea in the Red Sea. And they are also part of that defense operations to prevent the Iranians from bringing assistance to the Houthis. This has all been shown by satellite imagery and there’s no doubt about this.

Eritreans migrants walk through a road on the Ethiopian side of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border. Photo: AFP

More broadly, the Eritreans have managed to fall out and then mend fences with every single one of their neighbors at various times. They’ve had a border war with Ethiopia. They’ve had a clash along the border with Djibouti. The border with Sudan was closed until earlier this year because relations were so bad.

They’ve literally fallen out with almost everybody because everything is run at the whim of President Isais. And he actually thrives on stirring up trouble and difficulties for his neighbors. He’s a past master at mobilizing and manipulating events in neighboring countries. And that’s the way that he operates.

TGP: The human rights abuses and repressive policies of governments like those in Saudi Arabia, for example, or North Korea are quite infamous and well known to Western audiences. But it seems to me that many in the West have probably never even hear of Eritrea. Why do you think that is? 

Plaut: Well, you mustn’t forget that it doesn’t have any strategic reserves of oil or another mineral that is absolutely vital. They are on an important sea route on the Red Sea, but that’s about their only claim to fame. They’re quite a large country, I suppose, in European terms. But they’re not a large country in terms of Africa. And they, therefore, haven’t really caught the attention of the world.

Anything that has increased their importance, certainly in the American sense, is that there have been suggestions that the Russians might get a naval base in Eritrea, but those have not been confirmed. There is something of a sort of naval arms race in the Red Sea because you have both the United States and the Chinese operating out of Djibouti. And they sort of have an uneasy relationship with each other because of the close proximity of their bases.

So it is possible that there might be more strategic interest in Eritrea because of this and because of their involvement in the war in Yemen. Apart from that, they have one other mineral which has been recently discovered, a vast potash deposit, which straddles the border with Ethiopia. That is one mineral that really does look interesting to the outside world. It is an extraordinarily rich deposit. But apart from that, there’s no particular reason for anybody to have taken notice of the country.


Home World News News Wire

Eritrea's Military Service Still "Repressive" Despite Peace Deal -HRW

NAIROBI, Aug 9 (Reuters) - Eritrea is forcing thousands of students and teachers into indefinite national service, driving many into exile and frustrating hopes that a peace deal with Ethiopia might end conscription, Human Rights Watch said on Friday.

Teenage students are systematically subject to hard labour at an isolated military camp near the Sudanese border, with many also enduring physical abuse, the rights group said in a report.

"Eritrea's secondary schools are at the heart of its repressive system of control," Laetitia Bader, the report's author, said. "Now that peace with Ethiopia is restored, reforms on human rights, starting with the rights and freedom of the country's youth, need to follow."

A government spokesman did not respond to two requests for comment from Reuters.

The Horn of Africa country has run a system of universal conscription for more than two decades, with the government justifying mandatory national service by invoking a "no peace, no war" stalemate with neighbouring Ethiopia after a border conflict from 1998 to 2000.

The two countries signed a peace deal in July 2018.

But since then, despite expectations among new recruits that conscription would be significantly scaled back, Eritrea has "not made any meaningful changes to national service or to its system of repression," the HRW said.

Conscription drives thousands, including many unaccompanied children, to leave the country each year. Its population is around five million, and the United Nations estimated in late 2018 that a further 500,000 Eritreans were refugees.

The HRW report said students, some under 18, are sent to the Sawa military camp for their final year of secondary school. Officers sexually abuse some female students, food is limited, and the year ends with four months of military training, it said.

Graduates are either posted permanently to the military or given vocational training and assigned civilian professions, including teaching, for their whole working lives life on low wages.

One Eritrean refugee said he had attended the military camp at 17 and was jailed after trying to leave the country and his assigned job. "There is no escape ... unless you flee," he told Reuters on condition of anonymity. 

(Reporting By Maggie Fick; Editing by Katharine Houreld and John Stonestreet)


August 5, 2019 News

Source: Haaretz

“To break into the expected circle of silence, I’d been in contact earlier with representatives of the Eritrean underground – a network of clandestine movements and organizations. As I make my way along the streets of the capital to meet my liaison person, Tesfai (the names of all interviewees here have been changed for their protection), I notice I’m being followed. Tesfai explains: “That person has been following us in order to make sure that other people were not following us. He stayed around to observe, so that if someone should decide to ‘disappear’ me, they’ll at least know where it happened.”

The two men both belong to the Eritrean Liberation Democratic Movement, which aims to create “democracy, justice and a flourishing future in our country,” according to the group’s Facebook page. Abroad, its members openly work to advance their cause; here in Asmara, where even the slightest suspicion of criticism of the regime can land you in jail indefinitely, all their activity takes place underground.”

A photo taken on July 22, 2018 shows a general view of Old Massawa with the port and the train tracks that leads to the Eritrean capital Asmara. Maheder Haileselassie Tadese / AFP

People are jailed in cellars of houses, a network of informers has destroyed trust between people and hundreds of thousands have fled. A rare visit to the ‘North Korea of Africa’


ASMARA, Eritrea – The streets in the city center are spotless. There’s very little traffic, people walk in the center of the road, no one honks. Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, appears to be one of the loveliest and most pleasant cities in Africa. Orderly and quiet, the place seems like a sort of souvenir from the 20th century. As in Cuba, the cars are mostly old, from the 1960s and ‘70s. The many VW Beetles stand out. Italian architectural gems evoke the pre-World War II colonial period.

A stranger visiting the city won’t sense that anything is amiss. Outwardly, nothing suggests that this is one of the most insular dictatorships in the world, the North Korea of Africa. President Isaias Afwerki has ruled the country with an iron hand for 25 years. In Afwerki’s Eritrea, men serve in the army from age 17 until as late as age 50. Until recently, soldiers deployed along the borders were under orders to shoot anyone trying to flee to one of the neighboring countries. And throughout Eritrea, citizens are entangled in an extensive government-run network of informers: Students betray friends who have deserted the army; housewives inform on neighbors who criticize the regime and so on.

But there’s no hint of any of this in the streets. The only indication that life here is, after all, not as good as it may seem, is the lack of material goods. In the stores and markets I encounter the same products time and again. Bananas, toilet paper, mineral water. There are few clothing stores. Some fruits and vegetables are available in the main market, and old spare parts from cars and other items are on display on sidewalks, but there’s no doubt that in comparison to other cities in Africa, the range of products for sale is limited. With insularity comes dearth.


Next to the market, in the very heart of the city, is the notorious Karsheli Prison, which has both political and former military inmates. Actually, Eritreans often refer to their country as “one big prison.” No one knows how many people are imprisoned in Eritrea, but according to reports from the United Nations and other international organizations, 14,000 people are incarcerated in military prisons alone. Inside Karsheli, which is surrounded by cafés and private residences, inmates undergo torture, according to refugees in exile. Eritrea has a particularly brutal way of eliminating opponents of the regime: They’re thrown into shipping containers under the broiling sun and left to die from heat and thirst.

Tamara Baraaz

ISIS and civil war

After half a year of trying, I was informed that I would receive a visa to visit Eritrea. I wanted to see close up the circumstances that have sparked the waves of departure – what has prompted what seems like an entire generation of young people to turn their back on their homeland and scatter far and wide.


There’s something almost biblical in the scale of this exodus and in the dangers that lurk for the escapees afterward. Wherever they turn, Eritrean refugees are in existential danger. Many set their sights on Libya. Some have been caught by ISIS, some made it onto boats to attempt the perilous journey to Europe. Others escaped to Sudan and South Sudan, just as civil war erupted there. Those who headed for Egypt discovered that criminal organizations in Sinai have made a habit of kidnapping refugees, torturing them and demanding a ransom from their families for their release. Tens of thousands of Eritreans entered Israel from Sinai until the high barbed-wire border fence between it and Israel was erected some six years ago.


The visa came and I’m here at last, in Asmara. As I expected, it’s not easy to engage random citizens in conversation; Eritreans are naturally reticent and admit that they don’t tend to confide in strangers. When you add the fear and terror fomented by the state authorities, it’s easy to understand why no one is in a hurry to get into a candid conversation.

To break into the expected circle of silence, I’d been in contact earlier with representatives of the Eritrean underground – a network of clandestine movements and organizations. As I make my way along the streets of the capital to meet my liaison person, Tesfai (the names of all interviewees here have been changed for their protection), I notice I’m being followed. Tesfai explains: “That person has been following us in order to make sure that other people were not following us. He stayed around to observe, so that if someone should decide to ‘disappear’ me, they’ll at least know where it happened.”

The two men both belong to the Eritrean Liberation Democratic Movement, which aims to create “democracy, justice and a flourishing future in our country,” according to the group’s Facebook page. Abroad, its members openly work to advance their cause; here in Asmara, where even the slightest suspicion of criticism of the regime can land you in jail indefinitely, all their activity takes place underground.

Tesfai, who’s in his 20s, points toward the street I came from: “Do you see that building? In the past there was a government office there, and below it was a cellar with prisoners. When the neighbors found out what was going on there, the prison was moved elsewhere and the cellar was rented out. Every house here could be a makeshift jail.” Many of the people who disappeared, he adds, ended up in those jails, some of them in the basements of apartment buildings.


Just a few days earlier, Tesfai relates, agents of the regime arrested a group of young people in a bar. The charge: unlawful assembly. According to him, any gathering of more than five people is forbidden in Eritrea, but the law is enforced arbitrarily. The regime doesn’t usually intervene in cases involving family celebrations.

“They’re afraid of groups that will conspire to topple the government,” Tesfai explains. “But young people won’t give up their social life. People take the risk. In this case, people in civilian clothes showed up and announced that everyone was under arrest for unlawful assembly. No one has seen them since, and no one knows the real reason [they were apprehended], either.”

Maheder Haileselassie Tadese / AFP

Disappointing peace

How did Eritrea become a dictatorship that’s being abandoned by its citizens? Until the early 1990s the country, which has a population of about five million today, was still part of Ethiopia. In 1993, after waging a prolonged guerrilla war, the Eritreans dissociated themselves from the Addis Ababa government and gained independence. But the disputes didn’t end there. The struggle for independence morphed into a protracted conflict over control of areas along the two countries’ borders. In 1998, when a particularly violent confrontation broke out between them, President Afwerki declared that citizens would be subject to lengthy, mandatory military service – even up until the age of 50.


As the confrontation continued, there were increasing signs that the country was shifting to a regime of one-man rule. Things took a turn for the worse in 2001, when a group of members of the opposition and journalists publicly called for democratic reforms. In response, the president’s loyalists arrested everyone in the group – they are still categorized as missing persons. Since then, the situation has only deteriorated: Independent media outlets were shut down, some religious streams were outlawed, among them Jehovah’s Witnesses. For example, in 2017 the government imposed a ban on Muslim girls wearing a veil to school, on teaching religious subjects and on gender-separated classes. Ultimately, public criticism of the government was prohibited. Eritrea grew ever more insular and eventually became one of the world’s major exporters of refugees.

Last summer, there was a surprising development: After nearly three decades of conflict, Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace agreement. Families that had been separated by the border for so long were reunited. Foreign investors and tourists discovered that Eritrea was starting to issue visas and to show initial signs of openness. Swept up by euphoria, Eritreans hoped that the protracted mandatory military service would also be cancelled.

That was eight months ago. Photographs of President Afwerki with his Ethiopian counterpart Sahle-Work Zewde during the reconciliation talks can still be seen in restaurants and shops in Asmara, but the hope for any real change has been largely dashed. Military service was not abbreviated. The human rights situation remains dire. Expectations have been disappointed with respect to any mass return of Eritreans from self-imposed exile. In fact, the opposite has occurred: The flow of people fleeing the country increased.

At present, a large number of Eritreans continue to perform what is in essence, at least for men, open-ended military service. Some are assigned to combat duty near the border with Ethiopia, some are posted to office jobs and many are forced to engage in Sisyphean manual labor in the service of the state in mines, construction, paving of roads and so on. They receive a monthly allowance equivalent to 200 shekels ($55), but are not allowed to take another job. For most of the year they are unable to see their families.

A soldier’s date of discharge is decided arbitrarily by a commanding officer. Service can indeed last until the age of 50, but many are released after one or two decades. Bribery can play a crucial role in securing an early release, too. But even when a soldier is discharged, he can be mobilized again by law at an officer’s whim.

Preference for death

Just over a year ago, I visited Bor, a small town in South Sudan. Not long before, it had been the site of some of the bloodiest fighting during the civil war that broke out in the fledgling state in 2013. The presence of Eritrean refugees was immediately noticeable at the time. Many parts of South Sudan were on the brink of starvation, but the Eritreans seemed to have found their place. I asked some of them why they had come to a place whose local residents had until recently been burying the victims of the war. “We would rather die here than go back to our country,” they told me.

Tekeste, whom I meet in Asmara, also fled to Sudan, but is now back in his native land. He asks me whether I like Eritrea. It’s nice here, I reply, the streets are quiet and pleasant. “That’s because all the young people have left,” he says. “This country has emptied out. The situation here is crap.” A friend immediately interrupts and advises him to be quiet, but Tekeste continues: “She should know what’s going on here, so that she can share it with the rest of the world. Someone has to know about the situation here – that it’s all one big lie.”

When Tekeste finished high school, the dictatorship had been entrenched for two decades. He knew very well what lay in store: that he had to choose between devoting his best years to the army, or leave Eritrea. He made it across the border to a neighboring country but was eventually caught there, along with other refugees, and deported back to Eritrea.

Veronique DURRUTY / Gamma-Rapho

Back home, Tekeste was immediately jailed as a deserter. “We were 400 prisoners in one cell,” he recalls. “It was so crowded you couldn’t lie down. There was also a shortage of water. Once every three weeks, each inmate received a liter of water so he could shower. Other than that, inmates didn’t shower.”

According to a UN report, the families of soldiers who flee Eritrea are also liable to be severely punished. In some cases, they will lose the right to receive food-ration coupons. The coupons are used to purchase the basic commodities that are available once a month at government-run centers, and thus constitute the basis of subsistence for many families. In the past, loss of coupons was sometimes accompanied by a steep fine; nonpayment led to arrest and incarceration.

But the price of lengthy military service is also paid by families of soldiers who obey the law; such families are doomed to a life of poverty and only get to see their loved one after long periods of time. Binti has lived for years without her husband, who was inducted early on in their marriage. Every month he sends her a pittance equivalent to 125 shekels – about 60 percent of the allowance he gets – an amount that condemns her to extreme poverty.

“He gets one month of leave a year,” Binti explains, “and the rest of the time I don’t see him. In the 20 years of our marriage, we have spent a total of two years together. We had a daughter early on, and now she has also reached draft age. She was sent to serve in another city and I was left alone, to live off the small amount my husband sends me.”

How has Eritrea’s regime succeeded in subjecting the populace to its whims? Actually, for one particular class in the country – for example, business owners with connections to the regime – life isn’t so bad. Impressive buildings, cafés and restaurants line the capital’s main boulevard. In the evening the street comes alive and well-dressed young people come to guzzle beer and sip espresso. During the day, groups of cyclists go by – bicycling is the country’s leading sport. Quiet, peaceful streets branch off the boulevard. Yonas, a local resident, says it’s safe to walk around. “If someone finds a wallet with cash, you can be sure he’ll turn it in to a police station,” he says.

But the ostensible normality of the main boulevard and surrounding streets is deceptive. The state preserves stability through a national network of informants that keeps everyone intimidated. “People in Asmara will always assume that they are being spied on,” says Abraham Zere, an Eritrean journalist who lives in the United States, in a phone interview. “There’s a great deal of below-the-surface monitoring going on, and people are aware of the danger. So, despite the dire situation, when you ask someone how he is, he’ll say ‘Fine’ and smile.”

Spying on friends

A 2015 report of the UN’s Human Rights Council describes Eritrea’s domestic espionage network as a large, ramified body that encroaches on all spheres of life. The authorities recruit informants ceaselessly and in large numbers, so everyone lives under constant fear of being under surveillance. “In Eritrea everyone is a spy, local housewives, farmers, etc.,” the report quotes a witness as saying. “So they know when you arrive and when you leave. Your own neighbors report you to the authorities.”

Another young man testified that someone had asked him to spy on his fellow students: “Whatever information I gave him, he already knew of it. I came to understand that I was not the only one ‘on the ground.’ Other people could also know what I was doing… In a room with 10 people, maybe three could be spies. These people that are mandated to do surveillance work do it for a number of reasons: easy money, little labor, exemption from national service.”

Tesfai, the underground member, says that years ago, intelligence personnel attempted to recruit him too to spy on friends. “They asked me whether I would be willing to do everything for my country,” he recalls. “I replied that of course I would. Then they asked if I would report on an offense that could harm my country, and I understood what they were after. I replied that I would be ready to report murder or theft or any offense that is harmful to society, but I made it clear that I had no intention of reporting on my friends’ opinions or on remarks of acquaintances about the regime.” He was lucky: They authorities left him alone. Others paid for refusal with incarceration.

YokoAziz 2 / Alamy Stock Photo

The UN report notes that the Eritrean espionage network operates overseas, too; staff at its embassies even try to recruit collaborators among the exiles. In return, they promise to provide jobs and assistance in various matters. One of the sanctions used against opposition activists who voice criticism abroad is loss of rights of their family members still in Eritrea, and in some cases their incarceration. Such measures explain the fear of Eritrean refugees to critique the regime or talk about the crimes they’ve witnessed.

According to Tesfai, “It’s impossible to truly hide from the regime’s network of informants. Everyone knows everyone. You’re better off being open about most things and hiding only what is explicitly forbidden. In Eritrea everyone is slightly in favor of the government and slightly against it. If you praise the regime during a family event, everyone will agree with you and praise the president. If you complain about the situation, they will accept that, too, but the conversation will end when someone says, ‘So go demonstrate on the streets, let’s see you.’ But still, family is family. No one will inform on you for things you say at home. The authorities have succeeded in destroying the basic trust between people, but not in destroying the family unit.”

And if someone in the family is a government informer? Tesfai says that no one sells out relatives. “In a case like that, the informant might say that he knows about my activity and will warn me that if I persist with it he will not be able to protect me. But still, in Eritrea the family is the strongest thing.”

A byproduct of the omnipresent network of surveillance is that people don’t allow themselves to feud with neighbors or acquaintances. Says Tesfai: “You need to avoid confrontations and make sure that everyone feels you are on their side. If there is bad blood between you and an acquaintance, he can exploit [the memory of] that wedding party where you were drunk and complained about the regime.” Tesfai says he can be truly open only with close friends whom he’s gotten to know over a long, gradual period: “I can count them on fewer than the fingers of one hand.”

His own master

It’s been four months since Afwerki last addressed the nation. The hope was that in that speech, he would announce abridgement of military service, but he didn’t even mention it. According to Tesfai, “The thinking is that the president is afraid to cancel the eternal military service, because then he will have to cope with frustrated young people who have never done anything in life other than being in the military.”

Tadesse recently left the army after two decades. “I wasn’t officially discharged,” he explains. “I just told the commander that I had made my contribution to the state and that I was going. He didn’t object.” Tadesse spent his first years of service along the border, in the period when the confrontation with Ethiopia flared up into outright hostilities. As a young soldier, he witnessed brutal battles. “We lost many comrades-in-arms,” he relates. “Things were hard in the years after the fighting, too. Conditions in the army were awful, no different from the prisons, except maybe that you have more room to walk around.”

Having spent almost his whole adult life in the army, Tadesse, like the rest of his comrades-in-arms, never went to university or held a job. Inexperienced and apprehensive, he found himself competing in a tough job market after his discharge. The other job-seekers he encountered were former soldiers, students who were exempted from military service thanks to their high grades and fortunate young people who weren’t drafted because their families are well connected. But Tadesse got lucky and landed a job. It’s low paying, but the wages are higher than what he got in the army. What’s most important, he says, is that now he is his own master.

“My friends are still in the army,” Tadesse explains. “They don’t know anything else and they simply aren’t capable of leaving. It makes no difference to them that since the peace accord, monitoring of deserters has decreased. In the past few months many checkpoints have been removed, and discharge or exemption documents aren’t checked as they were in the past. But that doesn’t really help people who think they have nothing to come back to and say they won’t find work.”

When I met Tadesse a few weeks ago, he believed that the authorities would ease up gradually and loosen the reins. But since then, pessimistic reports have been making the rounds among the Eritrean community abroad. “We are in regular contact with residents of Asmara,” says Dr. Daniel Mekonnen, director of the Eritrean Law Society, who has lived since 2001 in exile in Switzerland. “We are being told that the checkpoints have been put back in place and that all departures from Asmara are being monitored. We understand that military forces have been beefed up and are on standby, but it’s not really clear to us why.”

As a district court judge in Asmara 20 years ago, Mekonnen explains in a phone call, he already saw signs of a grim future in Eritrea. “You could see that the system was moving toward dictatorship,” he says. “Already then, the court’s independence began to be curtailed, and I came under heavy pressure to rule in favor of the government’s interests in certain cases, or to join the ruling party.”

Mekonnen is openly and frequently critical of the regime. Even though he left his homeland long ago, he still gets threats via telephone and the social networks. “The most frightening incident was three years ago, in Geneva,” he recalls, “at a demonstration against the conclusions of a UN report on Eritrea that caused a big storm. Two Eritreans at the demonstration started to attack me. I was beaten and battered, but I ran to the UN headquarters, and was protected by the guards. I filed a complaint with the police, but they didn’t take it seriously. In general, we find that countries that have become Eritrean diasporas don’t want to intervene and help.”

The atmosphere on Asmara’s main boulevard betrays no signs of the tensions and experiences described by Dr. Mekonnen. Eritreans are quite sociable. The people in cafés are affable, take an interest when they meet foreigners, and repeatedly offer to pay for a visitor’s coffee or meal, according to the norms of local hospitality.

One man I met, named Bruno, explains that “the cafés are indeed full of people, but it only looks as though they are there to enjoy themselves. Actually, it’s where they run their business from. Most of the day they’re stuck doing their public work, in the army or in the service of the state, but it’s impossible to subsist on what the regime pays. They’re not allowed to start a business of their own, so they take long lunch breaks and manage their secret projects from the cafés. That’s also why nothing gets done in government offices. It’s the only revolt people allow themselves [to wage].”

As the days go by during my visit, the discrepancy between the initial impression created by the city’s streets and the actual reality becomes more acute. In fact, it’s possible to sense echoes of the dictatorship resonating in every sphere of life. From my conversations I realize that the lengthy military service and the mass exodus of young men have fundamentally unhinged the social order here.

“One of the consequences of what’s happening is that there are fewer couple relationships here,” Tesfai notes. “People try to marry off their children and help one another, but in the end most of my friends are single. They are people in their 30s who are simply unable to establish a family on the money they get for their military service. They don’t have a life outside the army.”

Tekeste agrees: “Military service has destroyed all male-female ties. Women are conscripted, too, but are discharged if they become pregnant, even if that is not officially stated in the law. Some women decide to become pregnant at any price in order to be exempted from service. Asmara is full of single mothers. Men who earn so little are afraid that they will be required to pay child support, and in Eritrea paternity testing is banned by law. This whole situation creates problems.”

In addition to the impact on interpersonal relations, the despotic rule and the lengthy mobilization are also harmful to the country’s economy. Experts point to the limited scope of agriculture in Eritrea. Besides the droughts and an abundance of mine fields, the country is also affected by a labor shortage: With so many working-age men serving in the army and many others in exile, people able to work the land are in short supply.

Economically, an Eritrean family is beholden to the government in almost every realm, above and beyond the food-coupons system. Many professionals are still at the beck and call of the army. This affects physicians and teachers, and also influences the construction industry, road-building and other infrastructure projects – all carried out by forced laborers drafted as soldiers. This situation of absolute dependence is instrumental in allowing the regime to maintain an obedient society. “The government looks after the citizens to a certain degree,” Tekeste says. “People get help so they won’t go hungry, but the assistance is limited.”

Over the years, the government has adopted a series of tough measures to consolidate its tough, centralist economy. For example, no more than $300 a month may be withdrawn from a bank account, and anyone who wants to establish a private business faces numerous obstacles. In the absence of a vibrant private economy, many families depend on aid sent by refugees. In the past, the government made every effort to stop people from emigrating and looked askance at ties with the diaspora. Nowadays, semi-official agencies help arrange money transfers from Eritreans abroad for their families who stayed behind.

The population must also contend with a serious housing crisis. The large-scale flight did not bring about a reduction in home prices. On the contrary: The combination of the influx of people to the cities and lack of new construction has spiked real estate prices.

“Not one building has been erected in Asmara since 2006,” Abraham Zere, the journalist, says. “Rent has skyrocketed and is no longer consistent with salaries and with the money the bank allows you to withdraw – assuming you have money. So a large part of the economic activity takes place under the table, and people have become dependent on funds sent from abroad.”

Indeed, signs of a construction freeze are apparent on the streets of Asmara. Even though the city was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list two years ago, decay is obvious beneath the apparent order and cleanliness. The once-lauded, fine Italian-era buildings are peeling and cracked, and have not been renovated for years. This is also the case in the port city of Massawa, where most of the old buildings from the Ottoman period and more recent colonial times are falling apart and riddled with bullet holes from the fierce battles of the 1990s.

While construction is in crisis, other industries are likely receiving encouragement thanks to the involvement of foreign companies. But this is an illusory boom, because much of it is also based on forced labor. Foreign corporations frequently exploit the local workforce through the agency of the army. According to the UN report, Eritrean soldiers have been employed in mining, fishing and industrial enterprises by both foreign and local companies – under shameful conditions. Workers were denied breaks, received inferior food and suffered from poor hygienic conditions. In some cases, workers who wanted to rest were lashed to a pole for the night. A lawsuit is currently underway in Canada against a local company that is engaged in mining in Eritrea. The plaintiffs are exiles who say they were employed in the company’s mine as soldiers.

Listening post

Another method the regime has for subjugating the population is through Afwerki’s divide-and-rule policy. Incarcerations and house arrests are the lot not only of deserters and dissidents, but also of people who have ties to the government or even work for it. These arrests, on trumped-up charges, can take place with no warning or explanation. In some cases, the detentions are short-term, a means of deterrence and warning instituted by the president, but in other cases they are open-ended.

“The system of factionalism and arrests has created a conflicted hierarchy,” Tesfai says, “and today there is no publicly accepted leader who could replace the president. If Afwerki falls, we will probably see a civil war here. For that reason, our goal is not to topple the president but to put pressure on him to change his policy, in part through foreign entities that maintain ties with Eritrea.”

Israel is one of the foreign actors active in Eritrea – which is essentially isolated in the international community – although the nature of these bilateral ties and their impact is not clear. Indeed, the Jewish state has maintained diplomatic relations with the African nation since its founding in the 1990s. Unlike other states, Israel’s ties with Eritrea are not necessarily economic in nature, but rather security related. Over the years there have been reports that Israel has been allowed to anchor maritime vessels at an Eritrean port and to operate a surveillance station as well, as part of its effort to scuttle arms smuggling from Iran to Hamas and Hezbollah.

Though it is well aware of the political situation in Eritrea, Israel continues to maintain relations with its dictatorial regime. Last summer, the state was compelled to respond to a petition submitted to the High Court of Justice on behalf of human rights activists by attorney Itay Mack, who is dedicated to exposing information about Israel’s arms- and security-related deals with other countries. The petition demanded that an opinion drawn up by the Foreign Ministry about the situation in Eritrea be made public. The court noted that the documents paint a worrisome picture of the human rights situation in the African country, but rejected the petition on the grounds that “additional interests, among them the effort to avoid damage to Israel’s foreign relations, also deserve protection.”

In the meantime, Eritrea’s future remains cloudy. There are incipient signs of a new openness, such as the peace agreement with Ethiopia, a flow of tourists and the lifting of a UN-imposed arms embargo. But at the same time, there is little evidence of an improvement in the human rights situation, of a reduction in the mass arrests or of a revision of the policy of indefinite military service. Tesfai, the underground member, refuses to give up. “We intend,” he says, “to go on trying to change the situation from within.”

Maheder Haileselassie Tadese / AFP